In the short story “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa
Lahiri, the plot unfolds through the perceptions of Mr. Kapasi perceptions, who
is one of the central characters. This story is an example of how people make
false assumptions and perceive situations wrongfully. The main theme of the
story is miscommunication developed not only by the cultural differences but
also from how little our characters communicate without realizing. This theme
is used throughout the story and leads to disappointment and shocking revelations.
The story’s setting also contributes greatly to this ever increasing,
atmosphere of misunderstanding.
The story begins with the introduction to the Das family
who are on vacation from the United States visiting their families in India. Mr.
Kapasi as their interpreter is responsible for taking them at the Sun Temple.
Even from the first paragraph of the story the reader gets a hint of the dysfunctionality
of the family which foreshadows the upcoming conducts. For instance, details
such as the argument about who will accompany Tina to the bathroom and the fact
that Mrs. Das doesn’t hold her daughter’s hand tell us that something might be off.
Mr, Kapasi being the observant of all of the little incidents seems rather
perplexed of the way Mr. and Mrs. Das treat their kids and each other.
Lahiri uses vivid characterization, mainly of Mrs. Das
and the importance of communicating effectively to lay a foundation for a
conflict between the characters of the story. The author makes sure that the
scene is set because it contributes greatly for the continuation of the story. By providing small, specific details in her
descriptions of each character, she develops more efficiently our understanding
of their personalities, giving them depth and richness. As a mother, Mrs. Das
seems to have no particular affection towards her little kids. She is portrayed
as a selfish and indifferent person and she couldn’t have been more uninterested
in her surroundings. The husband relies on the tourist guidebook like there is
no tomorrow. In fact, during the trip to the Sun Temple he doesn’t engage in
the conversation at all because he is so absorbed by the book. When he is not
occupied by the book, he takes pictures with the camera that’s basically
attached to himself. With that being said, he is missing out on the real experience
of travelling and spending time with his family.
However, when Mrs. Das finds out that Mr. Kapasi also
works part-time as an interpreter for Gujarati patients in a doctor’s office,
it stirs her interest. Her behavior towards Mr. Kapasi takes another turn. For
some reason she becomes fascinated by the responsibility Mr. Kapasi holds over
the patients. She even describes that job as “romantic” at some point. Nothing up
to that point in the trip had intrigued her that much. Mr. Kapasi is flattered
to say the least, and even he himself had never thought of his job being that important.
Hence, his wife was embarrassed to even talk about what kind of job her husband
One of the central themes in this story, are the
difficulties that Indians have finding a common ground with the Americans and
also the ways in which Indian Americans are caught in between those two very different
from each other cultures. Both Mr. and Mrs. Das were born and raised in America
by Indian immigrant parents, which are now retired living in India. The Dases
visit them every few years bringing the children with them. Even though, they
are only a first generation Indian Americans, they mostly identify as being
Americans and that becomes apparent in the descriptions of their behaviors through
Mr. Kapasi’s point of view. Mr. Kapasi after learning a little bit more about
the couple, he recognizes some common cultural heritage, however, they look
more like tourists visiting India to him than actual Indians. Most specifically,
the way they dress and their manners make them more American in the eyes of the
tour guide, “the family looked Indian but dressed as foreigners did.” (Lahiri,
15). Although India is their parents’ home, they really are foreigners. They
also don’t speak the language which is why they needed an interpreter in the
first place. That is one indication of the cultural divide they are faced with.
The second main theme of this story is known as
miscommunication. Lahiri uses this theme to demonstrate various ways of
interpreting the underlying details of the characters’ lives. When Mr. Kapasi
and Mrs. Das are starting to get to know each other during the drive to the
temple, it is revealed to us that Mr. Kapasi is in an unhappy marriage. Through
the narration of Lahiri, we learn that he has lost the ability to communicate
with his wife. He is depicted to be drinking tea alone and there is no
communication between him and his wife whatsoever. Mr. Kapasi has found himself
in a loveless marriage gasping for some affection.
The interpreter after observing the relationship that
Mrs. Das and her husband have, he thinks he can relate his unhappy marriage
with theirs. He then tries to find common ground to start building a friendship
with her, or more so a connection. At the Sun Temple he even identifies with
her, once he detects the signs of “the bickering, the indifference, and the
protracted silences.” Mr. Kapasi tries to stick close to Mrs. Das in the temple
and that way he is able to observe her behavior. While walking through the
carved naked sculptures, he is shocked to see how open and interested Mrs. Das
is around the carved lovers. That is when it occurs Mr. Kapasi that “he had
never seen his own wife fully naked” (Lahiri, 22). This goes to show another
one of the fundamental differences between the two cultures.
That is the point in the story that Mr. Kapasi is
realizing that he has feelings for Mrs. Das. Especially after Mrs. Das asks for
his address with the excuse that they would send him family pictures, his hopes
go up. Mr. Kapasi received all that interest Mrs. Das showed to him as a sign
of attraction. He was so sure about it that he started to imagine what would be
like exchanging letters with her when she returned to the United States. He fantasized
how he would explain things to her about India, and she about America. However,
later we’ll discover that this connection was nothing but a creation based on misinterpretations.
As the story progresses we are able to find out more
about the Dases life in the past and how they met. By contrast to Mr. Kapasi’s
story, Mrs. Das fell in love with Mr. Das when they were still in the
university, and although their relationship was supported by their Indian parents,
it was not arranged. In India, even today, most marriages are arranged by the
parents, so the people don’t have the option to pick their own partner
(Facts-India). I can’t even imagine how hard that must be. What if you can’t stand
the person your parent chooses for you to spend the rest of your life with? Of
course there are exceptions and you might be lucky to find the perfect match. I
have a friend that came from India and her parents got married through arrangement.
Thankfully, even though they didn’t know each other, it turned out to be a
pretty successful marriage. But it makes me wonder, if fifty percent of regular
marriages end in divorce, how many of the arranged marriages turn out to be
unsuccessful? But then again, for people in India divorce is a raw deal,
especially for women (Facts-India).
In my opinion, one of the biggest obstacles when forming
romantic relationships faced by people is if they come from different cultures.
That usually entails differences in what they value and that can be a
fundamental impediment. The reason behind this is that in some cultures there
is given more emphasis on customs and traditions while in others they value greatly
individuality. It can be very hard for people of distinct cultures to get along,
let alone have romantic relations when the mentality is different. The author
gets this point across when Mrs. Das reveals her secret to Mr. Kapasi. She
appears comfortable enough to confide in him her secret affair she had and how
she conceived Bobby. He seems offended by the fact she was infidel to her
husband, nevertheless, he believed it was still his duty to assist Mrs. Das (Lahiri,