Interpreter of Maladies

by

Jhumpa Lahiri

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Interpreter of Maladies Summary

The Das family is on their way to the Sun Temple. In the driver’s seat is the family’s hired tour guide, Mr. Kapasi, who has to stop shortly after setting off because the family’s youngest daughter, Tina, wants to go to the bathroom. Mr. Kapasi watches as Mr. Das and Mrs. Das bicker over who will accompany Tina to the restroom. Mrs. Das finally goes with her daughter, leaving Mr. Kapasi in the car with Mr. Das and his two sons. As they sit waiting for mother and daughter to return, Mr. Kapasi learns from Mr. Das that all members of the Das family were born in America, where they still live. However, the family is of Indian origin. Mr. and Mrs. Das’s parents have retired to India, and the family visits them every couple of years.

Tina and her mother return to the car. As he watches her walking over, Mr. Kapasi is struck by Mrs. Das’s appearance. Like her husband, she seems very young, and is very good-looking. Mr. Kapasi is intrigued by the entire Das family, which is completely Americanized in its speech and mannerisms despite its Indian roots.

The group continues on its way, and the children become excited when they notice Hanuman monkeys perching on branches along the road. One of the monkeys suddenly jumps in front of the car, forcing Mr. Kapasi to brake, and another lands on top of the hood. Mr. Das takes pictures of the monkeys with his camera. While he does so, Mrs. Das paints her nails in the backseat, and refuses to allow Tina, who sits beside her, to participate in the activity.

Once Mr. Das has finished taking pictures, Mr. Kapasi starts the car and continues driving towards the temple. He makes chit-chat with Mr. Das and his son Bobby, who sit beside him in the front seat, about differences between cars in India and America. Mr. Kapasi is struck by the Das parents’ relationship to their children, to whom they seem more like siblings. Again, Mrs. Das bickers with her husband. Finding it too hot, she complains about him hiring a car without air-conditioning simply to save a few pennies.

Mr. Das asks Mr. Kapasi whether he enjoys his job as a tour guide. Mr. Kapasi responds that he does, and then tells him that he has a second job working as an interpreter in a doctor’s office. There, he translates for patients who cannot speak directly to the doctor. Mrs. Das is intrigued by this and asks the guide to share typical situations he encounters in his work as a translator.

Although he himself does not think much of his job at the doctor’s office, Mr. Kapasi is flattered by Mrs. Das’s interest. For him, the job signifies his failed ambitions; he had hoped, as a young man, to work as an interpreter for people of importance, such as diplomats and dignitaries, but ended up working in the doctor’s office to support his sick son (who has since passed away) and the rest of his family, including a wife from whom he has grown estranged.

Mr. Kapasi wonders to himself whether Mrs. Das is as unhappy in her marriage as he is in his. He continues to glance at her surreptitiously in the rearview mirror as he drives, beginning to believe that his attraction to her is reciprocated.

When the group stops for lunch, Mr. Das takes a photograph of his wife sitting beside Mr. Kapasi. Mrs. Das asks Mr. Kapasi for his address, so that they can send him a copy of the photo. Mr. Kapasi carefully writes out his address on the scrap of paper that Mrs. Das gives him. He begins to fantasize that he and Mrs. Das will exchange letters, and that through these letters their romance will blossom.

Finally, the group reaches the Sun Temple at Konarak. They walk around the huge sandstone structure, as Mr. Kapasi informs the family about the temple and Mr. Das reads from his “India” guidebook about it. At one point, Mrs. Das approaches Mr. Kapasi to ask him to explain a statue to her. Mr. Kapasi does so, again taking their interaction to signify a latent attraction growing between them. He thinks about the letters they will write to each other and is suddenly crushed by the thought that Mrs. Das will soon be away in America.

On the way back from the temple, Mr. Kapasi suggests taking a detour to visit monastic dwellings located on hills at Udayagiri and Khadagir. The family agrees, and Mr. Kapasi is relieved that he will get more time with Mrs. Das.

When they arrive at the monastic dwellings, Mrs. Das says she is too tired to walk, and asks Mr. Kapasi to remain in the car with her. They watch Mr. Das and the children from the car. Bobby passes a stick back and forth with one of the Hanuman monkeys, who have again appeared. Mr. Kapasi comments that he is a brave boy. Mrs. Das tells Mr. Kapasi that Bobby is brave because he is not Mr. Das’s son, but the product of an affair that she had had with a friend of her husband’s years ago. Mr. Kapasi is the first person to whom she is confessing this secret—neither Mr. Das, Bobby, nor the boy’s actual father know the truth. For years, Mrs. Das has felt terrible around her family, and she hopes that Mr. Kapasi can say something, in his role as an interpreter of maladies, to help alleviate her pain.

Mr. Kapasi is shocked by all this but tries not to show it. He listens to Mrs. Das as she tells him about the unhappiness and loneliness she has suffered as a mother and wife. Mr. Kapasi realizes that Mrs. Das thinks of him differently than he had imagined; she is not interested in him romantically, and instead sees him as a father-figure who can help her deal with her predicament. Mr. Kapasi asks Mrs. Das whether it is really pain she feels, or simply guilt. This outrages Mrs. Das, who storms out of the car to find her family. Monkeys begin to follow her as she drops crumbs of a snack she is eating along the path. Mr. Kapasi leaves the car and follows her to scare away the monkeys.

The two reach Mr. Das and the children. Mr. Das is preparing to take a family photograph, but suddenly they realize that Bobby is missing. They look for him and eventually find him alone, crying, surrounded by monkeys that are beginning to attack him. Mr. Kapasi shoos away the monkeys and picks up the terrified boy. As he carries Bobby back to his family, Mr. Kapasi is tempted to whisper the secret of the boy’s paternity into his ear, but resists.

Mr. Kapasi delivers Bobby to Mr. and Mrs. Das, who fuss over him. Mrs. Das takes out a comb from her handbag to brush Bobby’s hair. As she does so, the piece of paper on which Mr. Kapasi had scribbled his address slips out of her bag. Mr. Kapasi watches as the paper is swept up and away by the wind.