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Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri

Important Quotations Explained

Culture Clash

How to Cite This SparkNote

1. The family looked Indian but dressed as foreigners did, the children in stiff, brightly colored clothing and caps with translucent visors.

This quotation appears in the second paragraph of the story and highlights one of the story’s central themes: the difficulty of communication, particularly between Indians and Indian Americans. Here, the narrator describes the Das family, emphasizing the ways in which they are and aren’t Indian. The fact that the family seems both Indian and American forms part of what fools Mr. Kapasi into thinking he can communicate intimately with Mrs. Das. With his other tourists, who are foreign but non-Indian, Mr. Kapasi readily maintains an appropriate distance. He does not seek any sort of connection, nor does he expect to find one. However, the similarities between Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi lead him to mistakenly think they will find something significant in common. Their fraught interaction gestures to the idea that the cultural gap between Indian immigrants and those they leave behind in India can be enormous, a gap that widens further between the immigrants and second-generation Americans born in the United States. That gap leads to miscommunication and misunderstanding, which, in turn, leads to pain for everyone involved.

2. She would write to him, asking about his days interpreting at the doctor’s office, and he would respond eloquently, choosing only the most entertaining anecdotes, ones that would make her laugh out loud as she read them in her house in New Jersey.

After Mrs. Das calls Mr. Kapasi’s job “romantic,” Mr. Kapasi begins to daydream about how they will become great friends. The international nature of their friendship appeals to him because it makes him feel like a diplomat or cultural broker. The daydream, however, will never come to pass. Mr. Kapasi fails to see the true Mrs. Das, and vice versa, and there is no way to bridge the gap between them and reach any sort of genuine connection. These fantasies illustrate how lonely Mr. Kapasi’s life has become and how much he wants and needs a friend. They underscore his frustration with his daily existence, especially his feelings of failure about how he uses the languages that he spent his youth working hard to acquire. Mrs. Das makes Mr. Kapasi feel important, which makes him happy. This exaltation intensifies the disappointment Mr. Kapasi feels when Mrs. Das confesses her secret. Mr. Kapasi had misinterpreted Mrs. Das’s comment, mistakenly believing it gestured to a deeper understanding between them. The truth is that there is no hope for a correspondence, much less a friendship. When his address flutters out of her handbag, ending all possibility of their ever communicating, Mr. Kapasi has already realized the impossibility of his fantasies.

3. He decided to begin with the most obvious question, to get to the heart of the matter, and so he asked, “Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?”

This quotation appears near the end of the story, after Mrs. Das has confessed to her affair and to the fact that Bobby is another man’s son. Mr. Kapasi responds to Mrs. Das’s confession in the worst possible way, from her perspective. He believes that he is beginning a conversation, but for her, his comment is the end of all possible discussion. She believes that she has privileged him by confiding her secret in him, but he is insulted that she would tell him such sordid personal matters and disgusted by her behavior in general. Mr. Kapasi here performs the ultimate act of interpretation: he reveals to Mrs. Das the true nature of her problem. He tells her the precise word for what she feels. For Mrs. Das, however, the diagnosis is too accurate. She cannot forgive such a judgmental proclamation of her situation. The heart of the matter is that Mrs. Das wants absolution, not questioning; she wants relief, not reflection. And Mr. Kapasi wants a friend whose actions and motives he can understand, even relate to. This breakdown in communication is heart wrenching because they are both lonely and believed they were reaching out to the other. Their differences, however, keep them apart.

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