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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

The Interpreter of Maladies


This week, a new one, Jhumpa Lahiri’s 1999 short story, The Interpreter of Maladies. It was originally published in Agni magazine and then published in the 1999 story collection of the same name. The story itself won the O. Henry Prize, the story collection won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.

Here is a synopsis, with the requisite spoiler alert sign boldly lit:

Mr. Kapasi is a middle-aged, part-time tour guide in India and has been hired by the Das family, who are immigrants to America and are in India visiting family. Originally trained as an interpreter for international diplomats, Mr. Kapasi’s main job is working in a doctor’s office where he interprets for patients who do not share a language with the doctor. When he is prompted to tell the Das family about this, Mrs. Das is fascinated, and tells Mr. Kapasi what he does is valuable and “romantic.” This is a new perspective for him, as his wife tends to denigrate his work.

The two main characters are troubled for different reasons. Mrs. Das regrets and feels burdened by a secret that has left her irritable and dissatisfied. She denigrates her husband and seems to blame his shortcomings for her unhappiness. “…Mrs. Das gave an impatient sigh, as if she had been traveling her whole life without pause.” She gets a snack and eats it by herself, ignoring the children as the youngest plays with the locks on the car door. She does her nails, and when her daughter asks her to paint her nails too, Mrs. Das says, “Leave me alone.” She complains to her husband, “Isn’t this an air-conditioned car?…I told you to get a car with air-conditioning. Why do you do this, Raj, just to save a few stupid rupees.”

Mr. Kapasi’s story emerges, told by the narrator:

“The job (interpreter of maladies) was a sign of his failings. In his youth he’d been a devoted scholar of foreign languages, the owner of an impressive collection of dictionaries. He had dreamed of being an interpreter for diplomats and dignitaries, resolving conflicts between people and nations, settling disputes of which he alone could understand both sides…Now only a handful of European phrases remained in his memory, scattered words for things like saucers and chairs…He had taken the job as interpreter (with the doctor) after his first son…contracted typhoid…he bartered his skills as interpreter to pay the increasingly exorbitant medical bills.” The son dies, but there are other children and “the newer bigger house and the good schools and tutors…and the countless other ways he tried to console his wife and to keep her from crying in her sleep.” The doctor offered to pay him twice as much as he was making as a teacher, and Mr. Kapasi accepted. But…”his wife had little regard for his career as an interpreter…it reminded her of the son she’d lost…and she resented the other lives he helped.”

Mr. Kapasi is smitten with Mrs. Das, who asks for his address, so that she can send him copies of the photos being taken on the tour, and Mr. Kapasi imagines a whole secret correspondence with her in which he will be understood and appreciated.

“In time, she would reveal the disappointment of her marriage, and he his.”

The climax of the story is when Mrs. Das confesses to Mr. Kapasi that one of her sons is the product of an extra-marital liaison, and that no one knows this—not even the other father. She describes how she was lonely and isolated in America, feeling angry and misunderstood by her husband. “For eight years, I haven’t been able to express this to anybody, not to friends, certainly not to Raj. He doesn’t even suspect it. He thinks I’m still in love with him.”

“I feel terrible looking at my children, and at Raj, always terrible. I have terrible urges, Mr. Kapasi, to throw things away. One day I had the urge to throw everything I own out the window, the television, the children, everything. Don’t you think it’s unhealthy?”

Mr. Kapasi denies that he can help. “What need is there for an interpreter?”

“…I’m tired of feeling so terrible all the time. Eight years, Mr. Kapasi, I’ve been in pain eight years. I was hoping you could help me feel better, say the right thing. Suggest some kind of remedy.”

She hopes Mr. Kapasi will “interpret” this “malady” and thus free her from torment.

Mr. Kapasi reacts: “Her confession depressed him…Mr. Kapasi felt insulted that Mrs. Das should ask him to interpret her common, trivial little secret…Still Mr. Kapasi believed it was his duty to assist Mrs. Das. Perhaps he ought to tell her to confess the truth to Mr. Das. He could explain that honesty was the best policy. Honesty, surely, would help her feel better, as she’d put it…He decided to begin with the most obvious question…Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?”

Mrs. Das responds: “She opened her mouth to say something but as she glared at Mr. Kapasi, some certain knowledge seemed to pass before her eyes, and she stopped. It crushed him; he knew that at that moment he was not even important enough to be properly insulted.”

Mrs. Das leaves abruptly to join her family. But Bobby, the son believed to have a different father, has become separated from the group and is being attacked by monkeys. Mr. Das seems ineffectual, and Mr. Kapasi drives off the monkeys and carries Bobby to his mother. “As he carried him, he was tempted to whisper a secret into the boy’s ear. But Bobby was stunned and shivering with fright.”

Mrs. Das comforts her son. As she takes a comb from her purse to brush his hair, Mr. Kapasi observes his address fluttering away in the breeze.

“He watched as it rose, carried higher and higher by the breeze, into the trees where the monkeys now sat, solemnly observing the scene below…this was the picture of the Das family that he would preserve forever in his mind.”

So, in an ironic sense, Mr. Kapasi actually does interpret Mrs. Das’ malady accurately, although he is angry, and Mrs. Das rejects him. The narrator shows the reader these things even though the characters deny them. The narrator has distance from the characters and can provide these insights. However, this is not a personified, omniscient narrator who might say, “Well, yes, Mr. Kapasi is emotionally crushed at the end of the story.” Instead, the narrator merely shows things in an omniscient way, leaving the reader to draw conclusions.

Here's another way to think of this:

Is there a sense of the narrator interpreting the characters’ maladies, just as Mr. Kapasi interprets the maladies of the doctor’s patients?

Yes, best B.. The story does what its protagonist does, and vice versa. It’s quite likely that Mrs. Das feels guilt over having sex with another man and getting pregnant but never telling anyone. The story shows her acting as if she’s guilty, and then shows Mr. Kapasi offering this explanation. And the story shows Mr. Kapasi’s malady of being lonely and feeling unappreciated despite his sacrifices. The story offers an interpretation of both character’s unhappiness.

Could it be that on the surface, Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das both feel they’ve made major sacrifices in life? Mr. Kapasi gave up his dream of being a high-level interpreter in order to provide for his family, and his wife doesn’t seem to appreciate this. Mrs. Das has sacrificed being happy in her marriage and family out of a fear, I think, of losing both and perhaps of being confronted with her error in judgment. Both characters settle for less but for different reasons.

Till next time.

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