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Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri

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Interpreter of Maladies | Sexy | Summary



Twenty-two-year-old Miranda and her slightly older friend Laxmi work in adjoining cubicles in the fundraising department of a public radio station in Boston. As the story opens, Laxmi shares the news that her cousin's husband has begun an extramarital affair.

Miranda does not share with Laxmi the new developments in her own life. A week earlier at Filene's, a Boston department store, she met a handsome middle-aged man named Dev, shopping at the cosmetics counter for his wife. Miranda and Dev, whose wife is on a brief trip to India, have also started an affair.

At the beginning, Dev and Miranda spend nearly every night together. Dev leaves Miranda's apartment early in the morning to return to his house in the Boston suburbs; as he explains to her, he and his wife have a prearranged daily phone call. Dev's formal, debonair, sophisticated bearing and manners impress Miranda. She has never known anyone quite like him. The couple go to movies, restaurants, and bars. They go to the Museum of Fine Arts, to Symphony Hall, and to the Christian Science Mapparium, where Dev explains world geography to Miranda. It is at the Mapparium that Dev whispers to her, "You're sexy." It is the first time that a man has said this to her.

At work, Laxmi and Miranda continue to chat about the affair carried on by the husband of Laxmi's cousin. One day, Miranda recalls that Dev's wife is due to arrive at the airport on her journey home. While Dev is at the airport to pick up his wife, Miranda goes shopping to buy clothing and accessories she thinks are appropriate for a mistress. She purchases a pair of black high heels, a satin slip, a knee-length silk robe, sheer stockings, and a silvery cocktail dress.

The next time Dev comes to visit, however, he barely notices Miranda's new garments. She stows the purchases in a drawer and a closet, where the silvery cocktail dress often slips off a hanger into a heap on the floor. Now that his wife is back, Dev is free to visit only on Sundays, when he dresses in gym clothes and pretends to his wife that he jogs along the Charles River. Miranda looks forward to Sundays, enjoying snacking and storytelling with Dev, and even taking pleasure in his naps after their lovemaking.

In a brief flashback, Miranda recalls the only Indians she had ever encountered before Dev: a family named the Dixits in the Michigan neighborhood where she grew up. Miranda's memories are troubling: the neighbors subjected the family to considerable social discrimination, finding their habits and customs exotic. By contrast, Miranda now finds herself enthralled by Indian culture, and she explores Indian cuisine and books in nearby shops.

Meanwhile, Laxmi grows increasingly outraged about the behavior of her cousin's husband, telling Miranda that she would gladly travel to London and shoot the husband and his mistress. When Dev comes to visit, he tells Miranda that his wife resembles the Bombay actress Madhuri Dixit. Afterward, Miranda researches this film star's looks at an Indian grocery that also rents videos.

Laxmi reports that events with her cousin have reached a crisis, with the husband demanding a divorce. Laxmi has arranged for her cousin to visit Boston, together with the cousin's young son named Rohin, a seven-year-old. Miranda agrees to babysit the child for a day. At first they play a game about the capital cities of countries around the world. Then the talk turns more serious, however, with Rohin raising the subject of his mother's crying. The two then embark on a drawing stint with crayons. Finally, when Rohin investigates Miranda's closet, he finds the silvery cocktail dress and asks her to put it on. When Miranda does so, Rohin calls her sexy. The two discuss the meaning of this word. Rohin defines "sexy" as "loving someone you don't know" and gives the example of his father's desertion of his mother. Miranda suddenly feels numb.

The following Sunday, Dev telephones Miranda to say he is on his way to her apartment for his weekly visit. She puts him off, saying she has a cold. When she asks him if he remembers their visit to the Mapparium, he can't remember what he said to her. Sunday by Sunday, Miranda has less interest in the relationship, and she and Dev finally break off the affair.


The central psychological interest of "Sexy" is Miranda's growth as a dynamic character who matures emotionally from impressionable naiveté to a more adult and insightful mindset.

The opening pages of the story present without delay two parallel plots: the reported affair initiated by Laxmi's cousin's husband, whose family lives in Montreal, and Miranda's almost simultaneous affair with Dev, a married, middle-aged Indian American man who lives with his wife in the Boston suburbs.

Lahiri plainly implies that readers should juxtapose these extramarital affairs, and comparisons and contrasts between the liaisons continue until nearly the end of the tale. Significantly (and understandably), Miranda never discloses her own affair with the married Dev to Laxmi, who adopts an increasingly more judgmental stance on the wrong being perpetrated on her cousin by the errant husband.

Miranda's lack of sophistication is evident from the beginning of the story. She thinks at first, for example, that "Bengali" is a religious term. In the early phase of her relationship with Dev, she rationalizes the affair by telling herself that, with his wife away, "it didn't seem so wrong"–despite all the evidence she has from Laxmi that extramarital affairs can be devastating. She reflects that no one has ever called her "sexy" before. At the Mapparium, Miranda's ignorance of world geography is on display. After Dev's wife returns from India, Miranda is shown, almost comically, picking out stereotyped "sexy" garb to accord with her self-defined role as a mistress: black high heels, sheer stockings, a knee-length silk robe, and a silvery cocktail dress. Significantly, none of these garments makes any impression on Dev, and the disused cocktail dress sinks into a heap on the closet floor.

Midway through the affair, several warning signs fail to make any impression on Miranda. When she buys her sexy outfit at Filene's, for example, the older woman in the fitting room cautions her to "always check for snags." When she checks out the videos at the Indian grocery in Central Square, the shop clerk advises her, as his eyes roam across her body, that certain titles are "too spicy for you."

However, it is not until her afternoon with Rohin, the son of Laxmi's cousin, that Miranda's eyes are finally opened. Only seven years old, the boy is portrayed as intelligent, somewhat spoiled, and extremely perceptive. Rohin is one of the most important of Lahiri's child characters in the collection—a group that also includes Lilia in "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" and Eliot in "Mrs. Sen's."

The encounter is significant on several levels. First, as a victim of his father's infidelity, Rohin can offer powerful testimony to the injury an affair can create. Note especially his reference to his father meeting "a pretty woman on a plane" and his description of his mother's weeping. Second, when Rohin persuades Miranda to change into the silvery cocktail dress and then tells her that she's "sexy," the reader cannot avoid a creepy feeling that the child is somehow perverse. That feeling intensifies when Rohin shyly maintains that the meaning of the word "sexy" is a secret. Finally, in a whisper, he tells Miranda that "sexy" means "loving someone you don't know." Miranda's numb reaction anticipates Dev's upcoming obliviousness when she asks him, in vain, to recall what he once said to her at the Mapparium. Indeed, she does not know Dev. Only now, however, does she become aware that she has never really known him.

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