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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Has This Been Foreshadowed?


First, by way of apology, sorry that I didn’t publish a post yesterday as has been my habit for more than two years. Everything is all right but I’ve been traveling around this week, a close family member was in the hospital yesterday. He’s good now.

Onward!

This week, let’s continue to explore Jhumpa Lahiri’s wonderful The Interpreter of Maladies. Last time, I laid out the plot and characters and began to look at how the story itself does what one of the protagonists does—interprets and shows the reader the characters’ maladies or problems. Let’s build on this brilliant idea and look at how the structure of the story conveys information.

Couldn’t we do something else?

No.

What can be said about Interpreter’s structure? It is a written story, distinct from a film or a play, and these distinctions are big, my friends. Let’s just say that a written story invites re-reading. It is not a performance—or rather, it includes the audience as an active participant in a performance, somewhat private. It is shaped by language; is this shape random?

‘Course not, silly rabbit.

Things begin with an entity telling the reader: “At the tea stall, Mr. and Mrs. Das bickered about who should take Tina to the toilet…In the rearview mirror, Mr. Kapasi watched as Mrs. Das emerged slowly from his bulky white Ambassador, dragging her shaved, largely bare legs across the back seat. She did not hold the little girl’s hand as they walked to the rest room.”

What’s going on here? The reader may have some clues, pre-reading, based on knowing that the author comes from a Bengali family and was raised in America, and so might quickly decide that the names and location are in India. Thus far, we have four characters, a husband and wife, a little girl, and Mr. Kapasi, who is identified as the owner of an American car. He is apparently sitting in the driver’s seat of the idled car, watching Mrs. Das in the rearview mirror.

Wait!

What about that first sentence? At the tea stall, “Mr. and Mrs. Das bickered…” Did Mr. Kapasi observe this incident from his car? Was he in the tea stall with the couple? I don’t think so, best B. That is the narrator telling us straight off that there is some tension between the husband and wife. The story does not clearly state that Mr. Kapasi witnessed them bickering; it clearly does not. The story begins in the middle of something, and we learn in short order what this something is in the story’s second and lengthy paragraph of exposition. The narrator tells us that Mr. Kapasi has been hired by Mr. and Mrs. Das to drive them and their three children to the “Sun Temple at Konorak.”—we can infer this is a significant tourist destination. The family—immigrants to America (which is a theme of Ms. Lahiri’s)—are described through Mr. Kapasi’s perspective.

And we have that Mr. Kapasi is curious about Mrs. Das, and she herself is grumpy.

Is this foreshadowing? you ask.

I do?

Definitely maybe. We know that as the story develops, indeed, Mr. Kapasi is very curious about Mrs. Das—especially as he begins to believe she is interested in him. And, yes, the lady is grumpy, and we learn why. What the story does is to present the reader with these characters and then show you why they are the way they are. The foreshadowing is perhaps strongest with Mrs. Das as we immediately wonder why is she grumpy and neglectful of her children. We, like Mr. Kapasi, are curious about her. And the story provides an answer.

There’s further foreshadowing in the early descriptions of Bobby, who it is revealed is not Mr. Das’ son. “…this boy (Bobby) was slightly paler than the other children.” An innocent comment in itself, but quite meaningful by the time you reach the end.

The title works hard for the story. On a concrete level, Mr. Das' job is to literally interpret patient's maladies to a doctor who doesn't speak their language. On a different level, as I've said, the story interprets the maladies of the two protagonists to the reader. The narrator "speaks" both the language of the story and the language of the reader. Another level is that this is a story about the characters' partners, Mr. Das and Mrs. Kapasi, not understanding what is wrong with their mates. They require someone who speaks both languages to explain. Alas, Mr. Kapasi cannot do this within the confines of the story. Finally, to an English speaker (and the story was published in English) the formal, somewhat archaic word "maladies" suggests something exotic.

Interpreter is a story about two people, Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das, whose collision exposes sadness for both. One can speculate about what could happen after the end—this is possible because the ending is left open. There’s no statement, after the day trip is over, that Mrs. Das tells her husband the truth about Bobby, or that she enters a deeper depression that leaves her even more neglectful of her family. There’s no statement about Mr. Kapasi returning home and confronting his wife about the unresolved grief over their son, and how he feels deeply unappreciated. We are left to speculate. Or not. Perhaps we simply feel the pleasure of reading a great story.

Till next time.

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