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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.
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.
Read about the related theme of the ugliness of tourism in Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place.
Central themes of all of Lahiri’s work, “Interpreter of Maladies” included, are the difficulties that Indians have in relating to Americans and the ways in which Indian Americans are caught in the middle of two very different cultures. We learn quite a few details about where the Das family fits into this cultural divide. Mr. and Mrs. Das were both born and raised in America, although their retired parents have now moved to India to live. The Dases visit every few years, bringing the children with them. They are Indian but not of India, and their dress and manner are wholly American. Although Mr. Kapasi recognizes some common cultural heritage, the Dases are no more familiar with India than any other tourist. Mr. Das relies on a tourist guidebook to tell him about the country through which they are traveling, and Mrs. Das could not be more uninterested in her surroundings if she tried. Although India is their parents’ home, Mr. and Mrs. Das are foreigners. Mr. Das even seems to take pride in his status as a stranger, telling Mr. Kapasi about his American roots with an “air of sudden confidence.”
Though Mr. Kapasi and the Dases do share an Indian heritage, their marriages reveal the extent of how different their cultures really are. Mr. Kapasi believes that he can relate to Mrs. Das’s unhappy marriage because he himself is in an unhappy marriage. He seeks this common ground as a way to find friendship and connection. However, the connection fails because the marriages are so vastly different. Mr. Kapasi’s parents arranged his marriage, and he and Mrs. Kapasi have nothing in common. By contrast, Mrs. Das fell in love with Mr. Das at a young age, and although their union was encouraged by their parents, her marriage was not arranged. Mrs. Das’s comments about her and Mr. Das’s sexual behaviors during their courtship shock Mr. Kapasi, who has never seen his wife naked. Furthermore, Mr. Kapasi is offended by the concept of infidelity in Mrs. Das’s marriage. This lack of understanding reflects a differing understanding of duty and family between the two cultures. The two marriages may both be unhappy, but the causes, remedies, mistakes, and results of that unhappiness have no overlap whatsoever. Mr. Kapasi’s fantasy of forging a friendship with Mrs. Das is shattered even before he sees his address slip away in the wind. The cultural divide between him and Mrs. Das is, from his view, simply too vast.
Read about the related theme of immigrant identity in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.