Interpreter of Maladies

by

Jhumpa Lahiri

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Interpreter of Maladies Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
While stopped at a tea stall, Mr. Kapasi observes as Mr. Das and Mrs. Das bicker over who should accompany their young daughter, Tina, to the bathroom. Finally, Mrs. Das acquiesces and exits the car with her daughter, though Mr. Kapasi notices that she does not hold Tina’s hand as she does so.
Lahiri’s story begins on a note of conflict. That both Mr. and Mrs. Das are reluctant to accompany their daughter subtly alludes to their selfishness and negligence. That Mrs. Das doesn’t bother to hold her daughter’s hand also suggests the distance between mother and child.
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The Das family is on its way to visit the Sun Temple in Konarak, India. Mr. Kapasi reflects that he would not normally stop so early on a tour, but Tina had complained almost immediately after he picked the family up from their hotel. The first thing Mr. Kapasi had noticed about Mr. Das and Mrs. Das was how young they look. In addition to Tina, they have two sons, Ronny and Bobby, both of whom have braces. Though they “look Indian,” the Dases “dress as foreigners.”
Mr. and Mrs. Das’s apparent youth implicitly raises the question of whether they are mature enough to occupy the role of caretakers. That the family is in India going on a visit to a temple also positions them as tourists. The description of the family’s mixed appearance alludes to their bi-cultural identity: they clearly have Indian roots, but they are also deeply tied to America.
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While Mr. Kapasi waits with Mr. Das and his sons for Mrs. Das and Tina to return from the restroom, the older boy, Ronny, leaves the car to feed a goat. He ignores his father’s protestations not to do so. Mr. Das, who is reading a guide book about India, tells his younger boy, Bobby, to follow his brother, but the younger boy refuses.
The boys’ refusal to obey Mr. Das’s orders casts doubt over his authority as a father and highlights the issues of miscommunication central to the story; communication in the Das family is hampered not only between husband and wife but also between parents and children. That Mr. Das is reading a guidebook about India further reinforces his and his family’s position as outsiders or tourists in their own country of origin.
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Mr. Kapasi, who is 46 years old, makes small talk with Mr. Das as they wait. He learns that both Mr. and Mrs. Das were born in America, not India, and that their parents moved back to India after retiring. The Das family visits them every couple of years.
That Mr. and Mrs. Das were both born in America again highlights the family’s bicultural identity—they are Indian by origin but American by culture.
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Tina returns from the restroom, and Mr. Das asks where “Mina” is; Mr. Kapasi is struck that he refers to Mrs. Das by her first name to his daughter. As Mrs. Das returns to the car carrying a bag of puffed rice she purchased from a street vendor, Mr. Kapasi, notes the details of her figure, clothes, and hair.
That Mr. Kapasi is struck by the way Mr. Das refers to his wife points to the cultural gulf that exists between Mr. Kapasi, who has lived his entire life in India, and the Americanized family that he chaperones. Mr. Kapasi’s detailed observation of Mrs. Das’s appealing appearance is significant, because it suggests that he finds her attractive. 
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Mr. Kapasi continues talking with Mr. Das, who tells him the family lives in New Jersey, and that he is a science teacher who takes his students to the Museum of Natural History every year; he believes this means he has much in common with Mr. Kapasi.
The parallel that Mr. Das draws between himself and Mr. Kapasi—he himself is a kind of ‘tour guide’ in relation to his American students—is ironic. Coming from America, Mr. Das is clearly much more affluent that Mr. Kapasi: he can afford to take his family to India on vacation and to employ Mr. Kapasi as a tour guide. The parallel that he draws, therefore, actually works to highlight the Das family’s comfortable circumstances in contrast to Mr. Kapasi’s.
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Mrs. Das appears impatient when she returns to the car. She slouches in the back seat and begins eating her puffed rice without offering to share it with anyone, and the group commences their journey to the Sun Temple.
That Mrs. Das fails to share her snack, and appears impatient, again suggests that a distance exists between herself and her family. She does not seem to be enjoying their company, nor the trip, and does not behave in a way that a caring mother and wife would.
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The children all become excited when they encounter monkeys perched in trees along the road down which Mr. Kapasi drives. One of the monkeys jumps into the middle of the road, forcing Mr. Kapasi to brake suddenly. Another monkey then jumps onto the hood of the car. Mr. Das asks Mr. Kapasi to stop the car so that he can take photos of the monkeys with his camera.
The monkeys are a common sight in this part of India, yet the children’s excitement upon encountering them, as well as Mr. Das’s desire to take photos, highlights the fact that the landscape of India is quite alien to the family despite their roots. This reinforces their position as outsiders their country of origin. The monkeys’ leaping in front of and on top of the car is dangerous, forcing Mr. Kapasi to brake; monkeys will signify threat and danger throughout the story..
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Mrs. Das takes out nail polish and begins painting her nails. Tina asks her mother to paint her nails as well, but Mrs. Das wants to be left alone, and tells her daughter, “You’re making me mess up.” Excluded from her mother’s activity, Tina turns to playing with her doll instead.
Again, Mrs. Das fails to act as a caring mother by rejecting her daughter’s request. She even blames Tina for making her mess up. Her actions here reinforce the fact that Mrs. Das is preoccupied with herself and puts her own needs and desires above her children’s.
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After Mr. Das is finished taking pictures, Mr. Kapasi once again starts the car and the group continues on its way. The middle child, Bobby, sitting up front with Mr. Kapasi and Mr. Das, asks why Mr. Kapasi is driving on the “wrong side” of the car. Mr. Das explains to Mr. Kapasi that in America the driver’s seat is located on the righthand side, which is why Bobby is confused. Mr. Kapasi tells him that he knew this from watching the American soap opera Dallas.
Bobby’s confusion over the location of the driver’s seat is yet another moment that highlights the Das family’s cultural distance from India. Having never lived in India, Bobby is surprised to see that cars are different there. That Mr. Kapasi is familiar with American cars, on the other hand, points to the cultural dominance of America: even though Mr. Kapasi has never been to America, he has consumed its culture.
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As they make their way towards the temple, Mrs. Das complains about the heat and chides her husband for hiring a car which is not air-conditioned just to save a little money. Mr. Das tells her it’s not hot.
This is only the second time in the story when the Das parents communicate directly, and again they bicker as they did at in the moment that begins the story. The tense communication between Mr. and Mrs. Das suggests all is not well in their relationship.
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Giving in to his penchant for photo-taking, Mr. Das asks Mr. Kapasi to stop the car so he can take a picture with his camera of a barefoot man in a turban, sitting atop a cart pulled by bullocks. Both the man and the animals are emaciated.
Mr. Das’s desire to take a photo of what is presumably a common sight in India again positions him as a tourist in relation to his country of origin. It’s also striking that the man and the animals are emaciated. This alludes to the deprivation that many in India experience. Simultaneously, it calls attention to Mr. Das’s affluence—he is taking a picture of the emaciated man with an expensive device.
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Mr. Das, while taking photos of the man on the cart, makes small talk with Mr. Kapasi, asking whether he finds his work as a tour guide tiresome. Mr. Kapasi responds that, on the contrary, he enjoys it, and that the Sun Temple they are on their way to visit is one of his favorite spots. He mentions that he has a second job working as an interpreter in a doctor’s office, translating for patients who do not speak the doctor’s language. Mrs. Das is intrigued by Mr. Kapasi’s work as an interpreter, which she characterizes as “romantic.” She asks him to describe typical situations he encounters at the office, and Mr. Kapasi obliges by telling of a patient who had come in with a pain in his throat. Both Mrs. Das and Mr. Das compliment him on the work, and Mr. Kapasi is particularly flattered by Mrs. Das’s comments. He begins to see his work as an interpreter in a new light, taking pride in it.
That Mr. Kapasi must work two jobs highlights the material gulf that exists between him and the family he chaperones. Unlike Mr. Das, who, on his American teacher’s salary, can take his family on vacation to India, Mr. Kapasi must take on more than one job to meet his family’s needs. That Mr. Kapasi’s second job consists of working as an “interpreter of maladies” in a doctor’s office highlights the story’s theme of communication and interpretation. Indeed, Mr. Kapasi engages in an act of interpretation here by fixating on, and being flattered by, Mrs. Das’s description of his work as “romantic.” He seems to interpret her use of this word to indicate that Mrs. Das may have some romantic interest in him.  
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Mr. Kapasi had only taken the job in the doctor’s office to pay for the medical bills of an ill son, who has since passed away. He says he continued with the work after the death of his son to support his family’s lifestyle and his wife’s demands for material goods, partly because of the guilt he feels over the death of their child. 
The emphasis on Mr. Kapasi’s financial struggles implicitly highlights the gulf between the Das family’s wealth and Mr. Kapasi’s own precarious circumstances. The knowledge that his son died, despite Mr. Kapasi’s efforts to pay for care, also reveals that Mr. Kapasi has experienced deep tragedy. It is tragedy tinged by guilt, given that Mr. Kapasi has kept his job at the doctor’s office to provide a lifestyle for his remaining family, as a way of “making up” for his son’s death. 
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The group stops for lunch at a roadside restaurant, and Mrs. Das invites Mr. Kapasi to join them at the table. The children leave to look at monkeys perched in the trees. Mr. Das instructions Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das into a pose for a photograph at the table, telling Mrs. Das to lean closer to Mr. Kapasi. Mr. Kapasi is excited by the closeness to Mrs. Das, noting her appealing scent. He worries that she can smell the perspiration on his skin.
As he poses for the picture with Mrs. Das, Mr. Kapasi’s self-consciousness as well as his sensitivity to her physical presence suggest that his attraction to her is growing.
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Mrs. Das then asks Mr. Kapasi for his address, so that she can send him copies of the picture. Mr. Kapasi writes his address carefully on the scrap of paper that she gives him. As soon as he hands it to her, however, he worries that he might have miswritten the information. Nonetheless, he fantasizes about the letters that he will exchange with Mrs. Das. He imagines that through these letters they will come to know one another more intimately, confessing their unhappiness in their marriages, and that their friendship with flourish into a romance.
Mr. Kapasi’s anxiety over whether he has written the address correctly underscores how invested he has become in the possibility of maintaining contact with Mrs. Das. His fantasies, meanwhile, point to a propensity for projection on his part. Mrs. Das has only asked for his address to send him photos, yet Mr. Kapasi immediately begins to imagine that a romantic relationship will develop through their correspondence. These fantasies are a projection of his desires, rather than a reflection of Mrs. Das’s actions and words.  
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The group reaches the Sun Temple at Konarak—a huge sandstone structure in the shape of a pyramid and surrounded by chariots, built in the thirteenth century in dedication to the sun, Mr. Kapasi explains. As the family walks around, Mr. Das takes photos with his camera and reads aloud from his guidebook about the site to everyone.
The Sun Temple is symbolic of the characters’ shared Indian heritage. Yet, by virtue of their life in America, the Das family is unfamiliar with the temple and approaches it strictly as tourists. Mr. Kapasi, by contrast, is intimately familiar with the site not only because he is a tour guide but also because it is one of his favorite places. The characters’ contrasting relationship to the temple alludes to their different positions in relation to India and its cultural heritage.
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They all look at friezes that decorate the façade of the temple, among which are depictions of naked lovers. As he looks up at the images of naked women, Mr. Kapasi realizes that he has never seen his wife naked, even while making love. He admires the bare backs of Mrs. Das’s legs as she walks ahead of him. Mr. Kapasi wants to be alone with her, but, noticing that that she seems to want to be left alone, he walks ahead to admire statues.
The friezes of naked lovers on the temple walls reflect Mr. Kapasi’s romantic desires. Indeed, the naked bodies are associated with Mrs. Das’s bare legs, making explicit Mr. Kapasi’s erotic desire for Mrs. Das. The fact that he cannot associate these naked depictions with his wife, whom he has not seen naked despite their intimate life together, suggests the extent of Mr. Kapasi’s disconnection from his wife.
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As Mr. Kapasi is admiring a statue, Mrs. Das walks up to him and asks him about it. He explains that the statue represents the setting sun. She answers, “Neat,” and although Mr. Kapasi isn’t quite sure what she means by the word, he takes her response to be positive. Again, Mr. Kapasi fantasizes about the letters that he will exchange with Mrs. Das, thinking that he will explain to her “things about India,” and she would tell him about America in turn. Mr. Kapasi reflects that this would be a fulfillment of his youthful ambition to become an “an interpreter between nations.” Mr. Kapasi is suddenly saddened by the thought of Mrs. Das’s return to the United States. He learns from her that the family will return to America in ten days’ time, and he calculates that he will receive his first letter from Mrs. Das in approximately six weeks.
Mr. Kapasi’s uncertainty over Mrs. Das’s use of the word “Neat” points to the way that cultural distance affects the characters’ communication with one another. In launching into further fantasies about the letters that he will exchange with Mrs. Das, Mr. Kapasi imagines this correspondence will constitute a cultural bridging of the different worlds—India and America—that they inhabit. Mr. Kapasi’s thoughts suggest that he has an idealistic view of the power of words to serve as instruments to bridge cultural and national divides. His sadness over Mrs. Das’s imminent departure, finally, also points to just how infatuated he has become with Mrs. Das: he has only met her a few hours ago, and knows very little about her, and yet already feels deeply attached to her.
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Back in the car with the Das family, Mr. Kapasi drives them towards their hotel. He dreads not seeing Mrs. Das, or hearing from her, for six weeks. He does not look forward to going home to his wife. Hoping to extend the time with Mrs. Das, Mr. Kapasi suggests taking a detour to visit monastic dwellings located on hills at Udayagiri and Khadagir. Mr. Das and Mrs. Das agree to the detour, and Mr. Kapasi is relieved.
Mr. Kapasi’s growing infatuation with Mrs. Das is further reflected in the fact that he can hardly bear the thought of being separated from her, going so far as to come up with an excuse to extend the journey with the family. His fantasies about, and his desire for, some kind of intimate relationship with Mrs. Das have completely taken hold of him.
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When they arrive at the monastic dwellings, Mrs. Das stays in the car, saying she is tired. This annoys Mr. Das, who rebukes her for wearing uncomfortable shoes. He wants Mrs. Das to accompany them because he would like to pose the entire family for photos (to be taken by Mr. Kapasi) that he can send to friends for Christmas. Nonetheless, Mrs. Das refuses to leave the car, and so Mr. Das walks off with Ronny, Bobby, and Tina, carrying the latter on his shoulders. Along the path, monkeys are perched. They surround Mr. Das and the children, who stop to observe them.
Mr. and Mrs. Das’s communication is never free of tension, and here again they are presented as in conflict with each another over Mrs. Das’s refusal to leave the car and to pose for the family picture. Mrs. Das’s decision not to accompany her family is another instance where she seems to behave in a cold and disengaged way towards her family. That Mr. Das and the children stop to observe the monkeys again suggests how novel these animals are to the Americanized Das family, unused to the sights and sounds of India.
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Mr. Kapasi, still in the car with Mrs. Das, tells her that he will join Mr. Das and the children, but she tells him to stay with her. They observe as Bobby passes a stick back and forth with a monkey. Watching him, Mr. Kapasi innocently comments that Bobby is a brave boy. In response, Mrs. Das says this is not surprising, as Bobby is in fact not Mr. Das’s son. Trying not to show how stunned he is, Mr. Kapasi dabs a bit of the lotus-oil balm he carries with him on his forehead, as Mrs. Das gauges his reaction.
Mrs. Das’s request that Mr. Kapasi remain with her in the car implicitly sets up the expectation that she wants something from him. This is the moment of intimacy that Mr. Kapasi doubtless had been hoping for. Yet Mrs. Das’s confession that Bobby is not Mr. Das’s son is completely shocking to Mr. Kapasi. He is confronted with knowledge he did not imagine nor expect, and his nervous action of dabbing lotus-oil on his forehead is an expression of his uncertainty over how to proceed.  
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Mrs. Das tells Mr. Kapasi that she has never told the secret of Bobby’s paternity to anyone—he is the first person she has shared the secret with. She then goes on to recount the story of her relationship to Mr. Das, whom she knew since she was a child through her parents, who were good friends with his. She and Mr. Das had once been passionate about each other and had married very young. Soon after giving birth to her first child, Ronny, Mrs. Das found herself overwhelmed with the responsibilities of being a mother, feeling alone and isolated while her husband worked, returning home only to watch television and bounce Ronny on his knee.
The story Mrs. Das tells is one of disillusionment, and it confirms Mr. Kapasi’s earlier suspicions that Mrs. Das is unhappy in her marriage; this story will also result in Mr. Kapasi’s disillusionment over the character of Mrs. Das. Although Mrs. Das had once been in love with her husband, the responsibilities of family life clearly burdened her more than they did Mr. Das. Her narrative of the marriage casts Mr. Das as an insensitive husband who failed to notice the toll motherhood was taking on his wife. The fact that Mrs. Das has never shared the secret of Bobby’s paternity with anyone also points to the extent of Mrs. Das’s negligence. Not only has she betrayed her husband, she continues to betray both her husband and her son by not sharing the truth of Bobby’s paternity with them.
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Continuing to recount the story of her marriage, Mrs. Das tells Mr. Kapasi that while still a first-time mother, a friend of her husband had come to New Jersey for job interviews and stayed with them. One day, while Mr. Das was at work, his friend received news that he had been offered a job. He made advances on Mrs. Das, who did not resist. She slept with him while Ronny cried in his playpen. Her second son, Bobby was conceived as a result of the affair. Mrs. Das also tells Mr. Kapasi that Mr. Das’s friend doesn’t know that Bobby is his son, although the families are still in touch.
Mrs. Das’s negligence is further compounded by her description of the affair. She put up no resistance to being seduced by Mr. Das’s friend. Furthermore, in indulging in sex with her husband’s friend, she neglected her son Ronny by ignoring him as he cried in his playpen. This description, therefore, reinforces the many ways in which Mrs. Das has neglected responsibilities towards her husband and children.
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Mr. Kapasi asks Mrs. Das why she is telling him all this, and she scolds him for calling her Mrs. Das, saying that she is only twenty-eight and that Mr. Kapasi probably has children her own age. Mr. Kapasi is taken aback, realizing that Mrs. Das thinks of him as a parent.
By calling attention to the age difference between them, Mrs. Das shatters Mr. Kapasi’s illusion that she views him as a potential romantic partner. In this scene, therefore, Mr. Kapasi’s fantasies about Mrs. Das, as well as his assumptions about her thoughts and feelings towards him, begin to fall apart.
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Mrs. Das addresses Mr. Kapasi’s confusion over why she is sharing this secret with him. She tells Mr. Kapasi that she was hoping that he would use his talents as an interpreter of maladies to relieve her of the terrible feelings that she has towards her family and herself as a result of her betrayal.
Here, it finally becomes clear that Mrs. Das’s intentions towards Mr. Kapasi are completely different from what he had imagined. She is not interested in him romantically at all. She is turning to him as a healer, a parent-like figure who might have the power to relieve her of the “malady” of her terrible feelings. It becomes clearer to Mr. Kapasi, and to the reader, that he had completely misinterpreted Mrs. Das’s interest in him.
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Mr. Kapasi considers what to do, thinking that he should advise Mrs. Das to be honest with Mr. Das, and that perhaps he could preside between them as a mediator. At this juncture, however, he decides it’s best to get to “the heart of the matter,” and as such he asks her whether it is really pain she feels, or whether it is guilt.
Realizing what Mrs. Das actually wants from him, Mr. Kapasi is forced to completely rethink his engagement with her and her family. Rather than a lover, he can only hope to play the part of mediator or healer to help patch up the broken relationship between Mrs. Das and her husband. His question to her suggests Mrs. Das’s need to take responsibility for her actions.
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Mrs. Das is outraged by Mr. Kapasi’s question. Her expression changes, and he can see that she deems him suddenly worthless. She storms out of the car to find her family. As she walks up the path away from the car, she eats a snack of puffed rice. Crumbs fall to the ground, attracting monkeys that leap down from the trees and begin to trail her. She is unaware of this, so Mr. Kapasi leaves the car and picks up a stick to scare away the animals.
Mrs. Das’s outrage points to her own guilt. Her storming out of the car suggests that she is in denial about her negligence towards her family. She is unwilling to confront her guilt and to take responsibility for her actions. Her negligence is even further reinforced by her carelessness in dropping food and the subsequent ominous appearance of the monkeys. Mr. Kapasi’s own goodness is reflected in the fact that, despite her insulting treatment of him, he feels compelled to protect Mrs. Das from the animals.  
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Mrs. Das finds the rest of her family and asks them to wait for her to be in a photograph. Mr. Das wants all of them to pose for a family photograph, which Mr. Kapasi is to take.
Mrs. Das’s insistence on joining a family photograph here is ironic. She has just revealed to Mr. Kapasi that her family life is built on betrayals and lies. As such, the photograph she wants to pose for would presumably reflect an image of a happy, smiling, cohesive family that is merely an illusion.
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The group realizes that Bobby, the middle boy, is missing. They begin calling for him, and find him under a tree, terrified, near the crumbs of puffed rice that Mrs. Das has inadvertently dropped on the ground. He is surrounded by monkeys, who are pulling at his T-shirt. One of them is hitting his leg with a stick.
Bobby’s attack is a direct result of Mrs. Das’s carelessness: the monkeys were led to him because they were attracted by the crumbs of food that his mother dropped on the path. By associating the monkeys’ attack with Mrs. Das’s actions, Lahiri suggests the animals as symbols of the danger unleashed on children as a result of the parents’ negligence. Bobby, the product of Mrs. Das’s secret affair, is notably the child most endangered by his mother’s failure to take responsibility for her actions (and Mr. Das’s failure to keep a proper eye on his children in her absence).
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Tina, panicking like everyone else as she watches her brother being attacked by the monkeys, appeals to her father, and yet Mr. Das seems paralyzed and fumbling in the face of the danger posed to his son. Mrs. Das turns instead to Mr. Kapasi for help, commanding him to do something. Mr. Kapasi shoos away the monkeys and carries Bobby to his parents.
Mr. Das’s paralysis in the face of the danger suggests that it is not only Mrs. Das who is unable to properly care for her children. Her husband, too, seems unable or unwilling to step up for his children, even when they are threatened. It is the stranger, Mr. Kapasi, who must finally come to the boy’s aid. This scene further confirms that Mr. and Mrs. Das are immature, and irresponsible, parents. 
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As Mr. Kapasi carries Bobby away from the monkeys, he has an impulse to tell the boy the secret about his paternity, but resists. The boy is terrified and bleeding, and so Mr. Kapasi silently hands him over to Mr. Das and Mrs. Das.
In rescuing Bobby, Mr. Kapasi acts more like a parent than either Mr. or Mrs. Das do. Yet the story is ambiguous over whether Mr. Kapasi feels the urge to share this secret out of vindictiveness (Mrs. Das, after all, has not behaved very kindly towards him), or out of a desire to rescue Bobby from his mother’s lies. In choosing not to share the secret, however, the scene suggests that Mr. Kapasi ultimately attempts to act in the boy’s interests—after all, Bobby is only a child, and likely too distraught to be confronted with such terrible knowledge in this moment. 
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When Mr. Kapasi delivers Bobby to the family, they comfort him. Mr. Das cleans the boy’s T-shirt and fixes his visor, and Mrs. Das places a bandage on his cut knee. She wants to get away to the hotel immediately, and Mr. Das agrees.
While Mr. and Mrs. Das fuss over Bobby, neither of them seems to recognize the fact that they have both let their son down: Mrs. Das by dropping crumbs of food that led the monkeys to him, and Mr. Das by failing to act to save his son when he saw that he was in danger. Their acts of caring, therefore, are not very meaningful, given that they come too late, and again point to the fact that the parents are unable or unwilling to acknowledge their responsibilities towards their children.
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Mrs. Das takes out a hairbrush from her bag to brush Bobby’s hair. As she does so, the piece of paper with Mr. Kapasi’s address scribbled on it slips out of the bag and is swept away by the wind. Mr. Kapasi is the only one who notices this. His gaze follows the paper as it flutters up to the trees, where the monkeys are now perched, looking down at the family. Mr. Kapasi turns his gaze back to the family and thinks that this is the image of them “he would preserve in his mind forever.”   
The fluttering away of the paper points to the loss of Mr. Kapasi’s illusions. His hopes for a romantic relationship with Mrs. Das, as well as his assumptions about her family, have been shattered. The presence of the monkeys is also significant, given that the animals represent danger. While Bobby has been saved from them for the moment, their presence in the trees suggests that the family will continue to be plagued with strife. The image that Mr. Kapasi “preserves” of the Dases also recalls the many photographs that Mr. Das has taken throughout the story. Mr. Das’s photographs depict a happy family on vacation, whereas this final image that Mr. Kapasi notes is much darker; it is an image of a family riven by betrayal, guilt, and lurking danger. It is also an image that emphasizes Mr. Kapasi’s exclusion—he is an outsider, who can only stand at a distance and observe.
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