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Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Point of View

Themes

The Difficulty of Communication

Communication breaks down repeatedly in “Interpreter of Maladies,” often with hurtful consequences. Mr. Kapasi, who is the interpreter of maladies, as Mrs. Das names him, has lost his ability to communicate with his wife, forcing him to drink his tea in silence at night and leading to a loveless marriage. He has also lost his ability to communicate in some of the languages he learned as a younger man, leaving him with only English, which he fears he does not speak as well as his children. Mr. and Mrs. Das do not communicate, not because of a language barrier but because Mrs. Das hides behind her sunglasses most of the time and Mr. Das has his nose buried in a guidebook. The children do not listen to their parents, nor do they listen to Mr. Kapasi about the monkeys. All these frustrated attempts at communicating with one another lead to hurt feelings. The Kapasis are trapped in a failing marriage. The Dases are openly hostile to each other. The Das children run rampant over their parents and everyone else. And Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das are unable to reach a level of friendship that they both may have sought, if only they could speak with one another openly. When Mrs. Das loses Mr. Kapasi’s address at the end of the story, it marks the termination of the possibility that they could reach out to each other and the definite end to all communication between them.

The Danger of Romanticism

Every time a character in “Interpreter of Maladies” fails to see the truth about another person, the results are in some way harmful. The main conflict of the story centers on two people who romanticize each other, although in different ways. Mr. Kapasi sees Mrs. Das as a lonely housewife who could be a perfect companion to him in his own loneliness. He misses or ignores cues that she may not be interested in him for his own sake because, at some level, he wants her to be this companion. He sees many details about her, such as her bare legs and Americanized shirt and bag, but he passes over others, such as the way she dismisses her children’s desires and her selfishness with her snack. Such unflattering details do not fit with his conception of her. Likewise, Mrs. Das wants Mr. Kapasi to become a confidante to her and solve her personal and marital difficulties. She views him as a father figure and helper and misses or ignores indications that he may not fit those roles. For example, she doesn’t notice that he is uncomfortable with her personal revelations and presses him for help even when he explicitly tells her that he cannot give it to her.

Besides romanticizing one another, the characters also romanticize their surroundings, resulting in insensitivity and danger. Mr. Das, for example, photographs the Indian peasant whose suffering he finds appropriate for a tourist’s shot. He sees only what he wants to see—an interesting picture from a foreign land—not the actual man who is starving by the roadside. Even when Bobby is surrounded by monkeys, in genuine distress, Mr. Das can do nothing but snap a picture, as though this scene is also somehow separate from reality. Throughout their trip, Mr. Das fails to engage with India in any substantial way, preferring to hide behind the efficient descriptions in his guidebook. His romanticized tourist’s view of India keeps him from connecting to the country that his parents call home.

Motifs

Seeing

Each character in the story has a distorted way of seeing the others, as each views others through some artificial means. Mr. Das views the world through his camera. His camera is always around his neck, and he sees even harsh realities through its lens. For example, he takes pictures of the starving peasant, even though doing so blatantly ignores the peasant’s essential reality. Mrs. Das hides behind her sunglasses, seeing the others through their tint and blocking others’ view of her eyes. Additionally, her window does not roll down, so she cannot directly see the world outside the taxi cab. Mr. Kapasi watches Mrs. Das through the rearview mirror, which distorts his view of her and prevents him from looking at her directly. Each child is wearing a visor, which suggests that their vision will one day be as distorted as their parents’ is. Finally, Mr. Das and Ronny closely resemble each other, whereas Mr. Das and Bobby have little in common. Mr. Kapasi simply observes this fact but draws no inference from it, even though this simple fact hints at the deeper truth: that Mr. Das is not Bobby’s father. Because Mr. Kapasi sees the Das family as a unit, he never suspects this truth. His idea of family distorts the reality of the situation.

Symbols

The Camera

Mr. Das’s camera represents his inability to see the world clearly or engage with it. Because he views the world through his camera, Mr. Das misses the reality of the world around him, both in his marriage and in the scenes outside the cab. Mr. Das chooses to have Mr. Kapasi stop the cab so that he can take a photograph of a starving peasant, wanting the picture only as a souvenir of India and ignoring the man’s obvious need for help. His view of the man’s reality is distorted because he sees the man only through the camera lens. Mr. Das snaps pictures of monkeys and scenery, taking the camera from his eye only when he turns back to his guidebook. Rather than engage actively with the India that surrounds him, he instead turns to the safety of frozen images and bland descriptions of ancient sites. He has come to visit India, but what he will take away with him—pictures and snatches of guidebook phrases—he could have gotten from any shop at home in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Mr. Das also uses the camera to construct a family life that does not actually exist. His children are insolent and his wife is distant, yet Mr. Das tries to pose them in pictures that suggest harmony and intimacy. When Mrs. Das refuses to leave the car when they visit the monastic dwellings, Mr. Das tries to change her mind because he wants to get a complete family portrait—something, he says, they can use for their Christmas card. This “happy family” that Mr. Das aspires to catch on film is pure fabrication, but Mr. Das does not seem to care. He would rather exist in an imaginary state of willful ignorance and arm’s-length engagement than face the disappointments and difficulties of his real life.

Mrs. Das’s Puffed Rice

Puffed rice, insubstantial and bland, represents Mrs. Das’s mistakes and careless actions. Physically, Mrs. Das is young and attractive, but she is spiritually empty. She does not love her children or husband and is caught in the boredom of her life as a housewife. Her depression and apathy distance her from her family, but she harbors a secret that could tear the entire family apart. She carelessly scatters the puffed rice along the trail at the monastic dwellings, never thinking about the danger her actions pose to others. Even when she realizes the danger to Bobby, as monkeys surround and terrify him, Mrs. Das does not take any responsibility for the situation, just as she refuses to acknowledge any guilt about her affair with Mr. Das’s friend. If Mrs. Das’s secret is ever revealed, Bobby will be the true victim of that carelessness as well. Conceived out of anger, boredom, and spite and then lied to about his real father, Bobby is surrounded by deceit. Mr. Kapasi feels the urge to tell Bobby the truth as he carries him away from the monkeys. He knows that the safety he is providing for the boy—scattering the monkeys and lifting Bobby away from danger—is insubstantial. He delivers Bobby back to Mrs. Das, whose distance and carelessness fail to provide true safety.

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