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Interpreter of Maladies | Study Guide

Jhumpa Lahiri

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Interpreter of Maladies | Interpreter of Maladies | Summary

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Summary

In the titular story of the collection, Mr. Kapasi, a middle-aged Indian tour guide, escorts Mr. and Mrs. Das and their three children, a young Indian American family from New Jersey who are on a sightseeing holiday in India, to the Sun Temple at Konarak. It is a bright, hot Saturday in mid-July. Mr. Kapasi and the family make conversation as they stop at a tea stall. When they resume their trip, monkeys dash across the road, and Mr. Das takes some photos. Mr. Das and his wife bicker about the hired car's lack of air conditioning.

Mr. Kapasi holds down another job during the week. He works as a translator in a doctor's office, helping the doctor understand the symptoms and complaints of Gujarati patients who do not speak the local language. (Gujaratis are originally from the state of Gujarat in northwestern India, hundreds of miles away from Puri and Konarak, which are located in the eastern state of Odisha.) He thus serves as an "interpreter of maladies." Mrs. Das comments that Mr. Kapasi's job sounds "romantic."

In a brief flashback, Mr. Kapasi reflects on his job as an interpreter. As a self-educated young man, he had hoped to build a more impressive career as a consequential intermediary between diplomats and dignitaries. Instead, his employment by the doctor sprang from an agonizing family experience: the death of his son from typhoid. Mr. Kapasi feels his wife has no respect for his job as a translator. It flatters him that Mrs. Das pays him attention, and he wonders if Mrs. Das, like himself, is caught in an unhappy marriage.

The group stops for lunch at a roadside restaurant, and Mr. Das takes more pictures. Mrs. Das asks Mr. Kapasi for his address so the family can send him some copies of the photos. He writes his address on a scrap of paper, which Mrs. Das drops into her handbag. The encounter, as well as the previous conversation, triggers a fantasy in which Mr. Kapasi anticipates a special relationship with Mrs. Das.

The tourists arrive at the 13th-century Sun Temple in Konarak shortly after lunch. The temple is a stunning sight: a pyramid-like structure in the form of a chariot, with 24 giant wheels. According to Mr. Kapasi, the wheels symbolize the wheel of life. The medallion friezes in the spokes of the wheels are elaborately carved with women in erotic poses. The interior of the temple is inaccessible, since it has been filled with rubble for many years. Mr. Kapasi proudly shows off the statues of Surya, the sun-god, to Mrs. Das. He fantasizes that she will send him a letter from back home in America within the next six weeks.

In the late afternoon, Mr. Kapasi drives the family back toward Puri, where their hotel is located. In order to extend his time with them, however, he recommends they make a detour to Udayagiri and Khandagiri in order to see the monastic dwellings there. Once they have arrived, Mr. Das explores the hills with the children. Mrs. Das, however, remains in the car, remarking that the numerous monkeys unnerve her and complaining that her legs are tired.

Mr. Kapasi says he will join the family, but Mrs. Das asks him to stay at the car. She then makes a wholly unexpected revelation. Mr. Das, she says, is not the real father of their boy Bobby. Instead, Bobby is the result of a secret extramarital affair—a liaison that Mrs. Das entered into with one of her husband's friends. For eight years now, Mrs. Das has suffered from guilt and painful depression. She asks Mr. Kapasi for help in his capacity as an "interpreter."

Mr. Kapasi is shocked and somewhat insulted at Mrs. Das's request. Still, he feels it is his duty to be honest. He asks her whether it is really pain or guilt that she feels. She takes his question amiss and suddenly leaves the car, walking up the pathway and leaving a trail of puffed rice grains in her wake. The food attracts the monkeys, who converge threateningly on Bobby. Mr. Kapasi chases the monkeys away in the nick of time, and the family returns to their car. When Mrs. Das retrieves a hairbrush from her straw bag to straighten Bobby's hair, the slip of paper with Mr. Kapasi's address flutters away in the wind.

Analysis

One of the most interesting psychological facets of this story is the dynamic role of fantasy in the minds of the two principal characters, Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das. Both of them have deep-seated needs: Mr. Kapasi for recognition and romance, and Mrs. Das for expiation and forgiveness. But the cultural gulf between them is immense. Mr. Kapasi is formal, reserved, and somewhat austere, while Mrs. Das is aggressive, selfish, and more than a bit narcissistic. These contrasts make Mr. Kapasi's extravagant fantasizing about a relationship between them ludicrously comic.

Yet it is difficult not to sympathize with Mr. Kapasi to some degree. Despite his own poor self-esteem, he fills an important role in his job as the doctor's assistant, and he is knowledgeable as well about one of India's most important tourist sights, the great Sun Temple at Konarak. The Das family, with their humdrum concerns about air-conditioned cars, fact-filled guidebooks, and cute photos, seem fairly uninteresting by comparison.

As in "A Temporary Matter," a plot reversal plays an important role in "Interpreter of Maladies." Mr. Kapasi's strategy to lengthen the excursion and maximize his time with Mrs. Das backfires when she confesses her secret extramarital affair to him. The motivation for this confession has been carefully set up: he is a self-acknowledged professional in "interpreting" the symptoms and complaints of medical patients. Yet Mrs. Das's interest in one of her husband's male friends is hardly the sort of romantic inclination that Mr. Kapasi has fantasized about. Her "common, trivial little secret," in fact, shocks him.

The Sun Temple at Konarak plays an ambiguous symbolic role in the story. On one level, it represents India's glorious past—a world from which the Das family, in their routine diasporic existence as Indian Americans in New Jersey, are far removed. On another level, the overriding features of the temple's architecture—the great wheels, the celestial chariot, and the statues of the god Surya (the sun)—emphasize the inevitable passage and cycle of time. Finally, the inaccessibility of the temple interior, blocked by piles of rubble, suggests a sad, yawning gulf between the glorious past and a diminished present.

The unpredictable, ultimately threatening behavior of the monkeys is also a notable story element, involving considerable suspense. Mr. Kapasi explains to the Das family, "We call them the hanuman ... They are quite common in the area." This allusion may need further clarification. Hanuman the monkey-god is one of the most important divinities in Hinduism, India's majority religion. In the ancient Indian epic the Ramayana, Hanuman is the loyal servant of the hero Rama and his wife, Sita. In India today, all monkeys are regarded as incarnations of Hanuman, and attacking or harming them is considered a serious legal and moral offense. In the end, the monkeys play an ambivalent role in the story. Hindus like Mr. Kapasi take them for granted, while Indian Americans like the Das family regard them as exotic and unpredictable. Perhaps the Das family's unfamiliarity with the monkeys show how culturally separated they have become from their Indian roots.

The title of this story serves as the title of the collection as a whole, suggesting a broader and more symbolic dimension of the phrase "interpreter of maladies." Like Mrs. Das, many of Jhumpa Lahiri's characters suffer from psychological or cultural maladjustment. The writer has indirectly cast herself as an interpreter, or intermediary, for this gallery of figures: for Shukumar and Shoba in "A Temporary Matter," for example, or Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das, or the apartment residents in "A Real Durwan," or Mrs. Sen in the story named for her. As the short story collection unfolds, the reader will be able to accumulate more and more evidence for this approach to Lahiri's characterization and themes.

One of the most poignant sections of the story is the extended flashback in which Mrs. Das recounts her early courtship and marriage with Raj, her husband, and tells of the extramarital afternoon "fling" that produced Bobby. Mrs. Das's narrative is self-serving in many respects, with her emphasis on her own youth, naiveté, and isolation. Ultimately, her story backfires. Mr. Kapasi cannot understand why she has avowed "this information" to him.

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