INTERPRETER OF MALADIES

By Jhumpa Lahiri

Mariner. 198 pp. Paperback, $12

In the wake of Arundhati Roy's success with "The God of Small Things," book scouts have rushed to find the next subcontinental sensation--and Jhumpa Lahiri looks like a prime candidate. The jacket photo shows the author with an exotic picture of elephant-riding warriors; there's a blurb from Bharati Mukherjee; and even the title of Lahiri's first book--"Interpreter of Maladies"--has a familiar rhythm. So it's a pleasant surprise to find that the short stories collected here aren't derivative or hasty but rather accomplished, insightful and deeply American.

Most of the stories are set in and around Boston, and are about relationships between men and women--a graduate student couple who have lost a baby; mismatched newly marrieds living in the suburbs. There are many unhappy women--wives, girlfriends, lovers--usually Americans of Indian origin. Like many Americans, they stand balanced between two sets of cultural norms, one the inherited ancestral traditions, the other contemporary American.

In "This Blessed House" a husband and wife disagree over how to handle the previous owner's collection of Christian paraphernalia. "We're not Christian," Sanjeev tells his trendy wife, Twinkle, who would like to display the kitschy collection on the mantelpiece. Characters learn about India from visiting it as tourists or from books. In "A Temporary Matter" the graduate student Shukumar feels he doesn't know enough about India; "he studied its history from course books as if it were any other subject."

But there's no nostalgia for Indian traditions in Lahiri's stories. Lahiri doesn't revel in the exotic: One couple meets because they're both bored by a Bengali poetry reading. The few stories set in India, like "A Real Durwan" and "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," are among the harshest in the collection. Lahiri's language is crisp and lucid--more Hemingway than Roy.

And relationships fail equally in both cultures. In the title story, Mr. Kapasi, a translator acting as a tour guide for the American Das family, notices that the Western-style marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Das has ended up as poorly as his own, arranged marriage. "He wondered if Mr. and Mrs. Das were a bad match, just as he and his wife were. Perhaps they, too, had little in common apart from three children and a decade of their lives. The signs he recognized from his own marriage were there--the bickering, the indifference, the protracted silence." In America as in India, bad decisions and small selfishnesses make for poor relationships.

Occasionally there are reminders that this is Lahiri's first book, like the overburdened image of the vegetable peeler in "Mrs. Sen's," which has come with the unhappy Mrs. Sen to America from India, "where apparently there was one in every household."

For the most part, however, the writing perceptively explores why relationships end--and why they don't. The best stories are about beginnings as much as endings. The possibility of a relationship growing between Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das drives the title story; the two unhappy spouses momentarily find relief in conversation. The best story, the deeply moving and perfectly formed "Third and Final Continent," tracks a man's travels from India to London then America, where he is joined by a wife he doesn't know. The relationship is empty until he introduces his wife to his ancient landlady, and in imagining her reaction to his new wife he is able to see his spouse through new eyes.

It seems that love--and, in this case, good fiction--grows from an ability to stretch the imagination outside of oneself, across time, and across continents.