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Interpreter of Maladies | Themes

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Marriage

Marriage is one of the most important themes Jhumpa Lahiri explores in Interpreter of Maladies. The author portrays a diverse range of relationships among married couples. For example, in "A Temporary Matter," Shoba and Shukumar experience increasing alienation after the loss of a stillborn child, and the title of the story itself hints that their marriage may be approaching dissolution. In "This Blessed House," newlyweds Twinkle and Sanjeev do not know each other well: they are the products of a "semi-arranged" marriage in which their parents have played an important role. In "Sexy," extramarital affairs in two marriages are negatively portrayed, while in "Mrs. Sen's" the relationship between Mrs. Sen and her husband can best be described as distant.

Only in "The Third and Final Continent" is there a clear upward trajectory of love and affection between husband and wife. The narrator and Mala begin their married life with geographical separation. After their wedding in Calcutta, he travels abroad, but she must wait to join him until her passport and green card are ready. As he picks her up at the airport, the narrator is conscious that he must get to know his wife. Their visit to the 103-year-old Mrs. Croft, who had been the narrator's landlady, initiates this process. Years later, the narrator is able to reflect on a happy marriage in which both partners have successfully navigated the difficult challenge of assimilation into an unfamiliar culture.

The success of this marriage contrasts with the relationship of Mr. and Mrs. Das in "Interpreter of Maladies." Both Mina and Raj were born in America. On holiday in India with their family, they are outwardly prosperous and well-adjusted. Inwardly, however, all is not well. Mrs. Das broods over her secret affair with one of her husband's friends. This liaison, outwardly symbolized by the child Bobby, has left her with a need for confession and atonement. Sadly, Mr. Kapasi, the "interpreter of maladies" of the story's title, can do little to cure Mrs. Das of her "malady."

Assimilation

Many of Lahiri's characters in these stories face the challenge of adapting to an unfamiliar culture. Perhaps the most unsuccessful figure in this regard is the title character in "Mrs. Sen's." Probably the most successful character is the narrator in "The Third and Final Continent."

Mrs. Sen appears to be well-positioned in American society. She leads a comfortable life in the Boston suburbs as the wife of a university mathematics professor. Before she came to America, she seems to have led a privileged life in Calcutta—enjoying, for example, the services of a chauffeur. Referring to India, she says, "Everything is there." Yet Mrs. Sen has certain emotional blocks that function as obstacles to her smooth adaptation to American life. She is ill-prepared, for example, for the challenges of driving an automobile. Her emotional dependence on an almost constant envelopment by family and neighbors makes it difficult for her to understand how Americans can exist so independently from day to day. She remarks to Eliot, for example, that he must miss his mother terribly during the hours that Mrs. Sen babysits him.

The narrator in "The Third and Final Continent" and his wife, Mala, present a pointed contrast to Mrs. Sen on the theme of assimilation. Unlike Mr. and Mrs. Sen, they develop a close, supportive relationship. Assimilation is a process that may take years, and Lahiri extends the time frame of the story so that we can appreciate how successfully her characters have melded into their American context. The narrator's concluding reflections on the wonder he harbors for his life-journey movingly testify to his qualities of patience, hard work, openness, and appreciation.

Communication

Communication appears as a major theme in Lahiri's collection during the very first story, "A Temporary Matter." Following the loss of their stillborn child, communication between Shukumar and Shoba has withered, to the point that they seem to have become experts in avoiding each other. They have neither had dinner together nor made love for months. Curiously, the power outages in their apartment help them—for a while—resume communication, as they take turns confessing mistakes or indiscretions to each other.

The difficulties of communicating in "Interpreter of Maladies" are considerably more complicated. Mr. and Mrs. Das are portrayed as a bickering couple, arguing over such matters as the hiring of an air-conditioned car. Mr. Kapasi is characterized as ill at ease with his wife, who he does not think respects his role as a doctor's assistant. Communication is a major part of Mr. Kapasi's role as the "interpreter of maladies," translating from one Indian language to another. Finally, the central encounter between Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi suffers from flawed communication, as he builds unjustified fantasies about a romance with her, and she vainly hopes for a magical relief of her guilt.

Communication gaps are also evident in "Sexy," "Mrs. Sen's," and "This Blessed House." In contrast, "The Third and Final Continent" offers a case study of love and fulfillment based on effective communication between the narrator and his wife, Mala.

Maladies

Social and emotional maladjustment is an overarching theme in Interpreter of Maladies. Shukumar and Shoba's marriage is in trouble in "A Temporary Matter." Mrs. Das is plagued by guilt, and Mr. Kapasi is titillated by fantasy in "Interpreter of Maladies." Boori Ma lives in an imagined, grandiose past in "A Real Durwan." Miranda ventures naively into deep water in "Sexy" by starting an affair with an older married man; Mrs. Sen cannot adjust to a new world; Twinkle and Sanjeev have trouble understanding each other in "This Blessed House"; and the community must come to the rescue of Bibi Haldar. All these characters need understanding and compassion. Lahiri's gift is to present them to us with humor, vivid detail, and insight.

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