Jhumpa Lahiri

Interpreter of Maladies

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Interpreter of Maladies Summary

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Interpreter of Maladies (1999) is a short story by American author Jhumpa Lahiri. It was published as part of a collection of stories of the same name. The nine stories revolve around Indians and Indian Americans, reflecting their attempts to bridge the gap between the two cultures.

The titular story takes place in India, during a trip by the Indian-American Das family. It is told from the perspective of Mr. Kapasi, a middle-aged Indian tour guide who has been hired by the family to take them to the Sun Temple. The family consists of Mr. and Mrs. Das, both quite young and well-off, and three young children, Tina, Ronny, and Bobby.

When the story starts, the family is sitting the car, the parents arguing about who should take Tina to the bathroom at a nearby rest stop. Mrs. Das ends up taking her, while Mr. Das fails – after barely trying – to keep the two boys under control. Ronny, the older of the boys, goes to look at a goat, and Bobby refuses his father’s command to get out of the car to look after him.

While Mrs. Das is out, Mr. Das tells Mr. Kapasi that he and his wife were both born in America to Indian families and that they often come to visit his family, who now lives in India. He says that he is a school teacher in New Jersey, while Mr. Kapasi shares that he has been a tour guide for five years. Meanwhile, Mrs. Das buys a bag of puffed rice from a vendor.

When Tina returns alone with a doll, Mr. Das asks her where her mother is by using her first name, Mina, which Mr. Kapasi notes as a strange way to speak to a child. Mr. Kapasi notices the parent’s behavior and finds them superficial and spoiled, uncaring of their children and of each other. He is used to seeing this with American tourists, but it is a relative novelty for him to observe people of Indian heritage acting in this way.

As they set off again, Mr. Kapasi continues to notice and judge Mr. and Mrs. Das’ interactions with their children. They do not reprimand Tina for playing with the locks of the car, and Mrs. Das does not offer to share any of her snack. The couple argues because Mr. Das hired a tour guide whose car does not have air conditioning. Their behavior towards the country is also that of an insensitive American tourist: Mr.Das at one point asks Mr. Kapasi to stop the car so he can take a photo of a poor peasant.

During the drive, Mr. Kapasi starts talking about his second job, where he is an interpreter in a doctor’s office. Mrs. Das seems intrigued by this, calling the job “romantic” and asking to hear more. Mr. Kapasi dislikes this job, and is surprised by her interest. He had taught himself foreign languages in hopes of becoming a well-paid interpreter, but had to take the job with the doctor to help cover his son’s medical bills. The boy died anyways at the age of seven, and the job reminds both him and his wife – with whom he has nothing in common – of the tragedy.

However, Mrs. Das’ enthusiasm about the job and use of the word “romantic” gets him fantasizing about her. She is an attractive young woman, highly and expensively groomed, and seems to open up to him as they talk. During a lunch stop, Mrs. Das asks Mr. Kapasi to sit with them, and the two take pictures together. She asks for his address so she can send him a copy, and Mr. Kapasi begins to imagine the witty, flirty correspondence they will begin, which will somehow allow him to achieve his dreams as an interpreter.

Once they arrive at the Sun Temple, the two continue to chat as they look at the erotic friezes on the walls and Mr. Kapasi continues to fantasize about her legs and their future letters. Not wanting to part with her just yet, he recommends a nearby monastery for them to visit and the family agrees.

When they arrive, the family is concerned that the place is full of monkeys, but Mr. Kapasi says they do not bother people unless they are given food. Mrs. Das says she will stay in the car since her legs are tired but requests that Mr. Kapasi stays with her.  Mr. Das and the kids head off to visit the monastery, leaving them alone in the front seat.

Suddenly, Mrs. Das confesses that Boddy is not Mr. Das’ son. She explains how she married her husband when they were young, that she didn’t have any other friends and was lonely at home, so she had an affair with a friend of his when he stayed over at their house. She says she no longer loves her husband and that she is unhappy with her life and family. Mrs. Das hopes that Mr. Kapasi can help her in the same way he helps his patients, by interpreting these emotions and making her feel better.

Mr. Kapasi is flustered at the revelation, and his feelings for her quickly disappear. When she appeals to his expertise as an interpreter of maladies to suggest a remedy, he gets angry and suggests she is simply feeling guilt for her actions. Furious, she storms out of the car with her bag of puffed rice, carelessly leaving behind a trail of food.

When Mrs. Das finds her husband and children, they notice that Bobby is not with them. They quickly spot him, surrounded by monkeys who had found Mrs. Das’ puffed rice. The monkeys are hitting Bobby with a stick he had handed them. Both parents panic, not knowing what to do: Mr. Das accidentally takes a photo of the scene and Mrs. Das screams at Mr. Kapasi to do something. He scares the monkeys away and brings the child back to his parents.

Mrs. Das puts a band-aid on Bobby’s knee and reaches into her handbag for a hairbrush to straighten him out. As she shuffles around, the piece of paper with Mr. Kapasi’s address flies away, unnoticed by anyone but himself.

Interpreter of Maladies received high critical acclaim upon release, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and being selected as The New Yorker’s Best Debut of the Year. It was also a commercial success, partly thanks to an endorsement by Oprah Winfrey. In particular, critics praised Lahiri’s ability to cover a broad spectrum of Indian and Indian American identities, showing the diverse experiences of the diaspora rather than focusing on a given perspective.