The Treatment of Bibi Haldar by Jhumpa Lahiri
In The Treatment of Bibi Haldar by Jhumpa Lahiri we have the theme of isolation, loneliness, independence, selfishness, gender and happiness. Taken from her Interpreter of Maladies collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realizes that Lahiri may be exploring the theme of isolation. Bibi lives with her cousin Haldar and his wife and all she does is work in Haldar’s cosmetic shop, in the storage room, without any real contact with the outside world. If anything Bibi is lonely, something that is clearer to the reader with Bibi’s desire to get married and have a child. What is interesting about Bibi’s wishes to get married is the fact that she must play a role for her husband. She must be the dutiful wife. Something that the narrator considers to be normal. She must learn how to cook and sew in order to please a husband. This is the opinion of both the narrator and Haldar himself and Haldar does not think Bibi is qualified to be married.
This may be significant as Lahiri could be using Bibi’s desire to get married to highlight the position or role women play in society. They are to be subservient to the male. It is also a role that Bibi already plays when it comes to her relationship with Haldar. She is submissive and reliant on him to provide for her. There is no sense of independence or at least none is shown till the end of the story when Bibi has her son and takes over Haldar’s cosmetic shop. It might also be important that Haldar is portrayed as being selfish, as too is his wife. It is possible that Bibi is being repressed by Haldar who refuses to pay for a photograph to be taken of Bibi when she decides she must promote herself and show her availability for marriage to others.
There may also be some symbolism in the story which might be important. The cot that Bibi sleeps on and her dresses are her only possessions. It is as though Bibi’s material wealth is as empty or her chances poor in her desire to get married. It seems ironic that Haldar owns a cosmetic shop as he does not allow for Bibi to use any of his products in order to beautify herself. After all the narrator does not physically describe Bibi in flattering terms. It is left to the narrator and her friends to help make Bibi more presentable to a suitor. The fits, possibly epileptic, that Bibi suffers from could be seen symbolically as matching her strong desire to get married and have a child. She is tortured by both the fits and her desires. The son that Bibi has, and whose father she does not know, could also be important. It may be case that the son represents happiness and prosperity for Bibi. Her life changes dramatically after she has her son.
The end of the story is interesting as there really is a reversal of fortunes for Bibi. Now that she has had her son and successfully began running Haldar’s old shop the narrator and others think that Bibi has been cured of her illness. For all the doctors who could not help her, and possibly Lahiri’s way of offending the medical profession, Bibi has found contentment. She has found a simple cure for an illness that for too long went undiagnosed. Having her son has changed Bibi’s fortunes. Where one would expect Bibi as a single mother to incur difficulties that would only beat her. Bibi has managed to make a success out of her life and provide a future for her son. Doing so on her own terms and ensuring her independence. Something that seemed impossible at the beginning of the story due to society’s view on women and the circumstances that Bibi found herself in.