“The Interpreter of Maladies” is set in India, and the story’s main characters are all of Indian origin. While both the Das family and Mr. Kapasi share a certain cultural heritage, however, their experiences of the world are very different. The members of the Das family have all been born and raised in America, whereas Mr. Kapasi has lived and worked his entire life in India. Lahiri emphasizes the subsequent gulf between the affluent, very American Das family and their Indian-born tour guide to suggest a specific cultural tension between Indians and Indian-Americas, as well as the notion that identity in general goes beyond heritage. While one’s understanding of and response to the world is certainly, in part, the product of their cultural history, the story suggests that identity is above all shaped by one’s environment and social status.
Mr. Kapasi repeatedly notes the cultural differences that separate him from the Dases. He is particularly struck by the family’s appearance, noting, for example, that while they “looked Indian,” they “dressed as foreigners did.” He observes that they sound like characters on American television, and that the children have English names (“Tina,” “Bobby,” and “Ronny”). Sometimes Mr. Kapasi is unsure of the Americanized expressions that the characters use, such as when Mrs. Das uses the word “neat” to mean that something is interesting. The members of the Das family embody a different cultural identity not only in the way they dress and speak, but also in the way they behave. Mr. Kapasi is surprised, for example, that in speaking to his daughter, Mr. Das refers to his wife using her first name. By using Mr. Kapasi’s perspective to register all the ways that the Das family comes across as foreign, Lahiri suggests that having shared roots does not necessarily mean that people will share an automatic sense of connection or understanding.
The Das family’s attitude and reactions during the excursion with Mr. Kapasi suggests that they, too, approach their country of origin as strangers. Mr. Das carries a travel guide entitled “INDIA,” which he uses to learn about the different sights that the family visits on the trip. He also takes pictures of things with his camera that, in the context of India, are normal. For instance, he snaps a picture of a barefoot man wearing a turban. In this way, Mr. Das is positioned as a tourist despite his ethnic background.
The family is often depicted as surprised by or wary of the environment surrounding them, further underscoring their sense of foreignness in their ancestral land. Mr. Das tries to dissuade his son Ronny from touching a goat, for example, even as Mr. Kapasi reassures him that the goat is harmless. The children are also excited upon encountering Hanuman monkeys on the way to the temple—a common sight in the area, but a new experience for the American children. They are even surprised that the driver’s seat that Mr. Kapasi occupies is on the “wrong side” of the car (in India, the driver’s seat is on the right, rather the left, side). Such details suggest that, whatever their roots, the Das family aligns far more closely with their familiar American home than an Indian past they never knew.
Importantly, the divide separating Mr. Kapasi from the Das family is not just cultural, but also one of affluence and wealth. Mr. and Mrs. Das are clearly of a higher economic status than Mr. Kapasi. For one thing, they can afford to go on a family vacation in India. Their clothes and the expensive accessories they carry (such as the camera with a “telephoto lens” that Mr. Das continually snaps pictures with), all signal their relative material comfort.
The story sets up a hierarchy based on this material privilege. Mr. and Mrs. Das pay Mr. Kapasi to accompany them as a tour guide, and in this regard are in a position of power; Mr. Kapasi literally serves the Das family in exchange for money. Mr. Kapasi’s different economic status is further underscored by the fact that he has to work two jobs—one as a tour guide and one as an interpreter in a doctor’s office—in order to support his family. Although, like Mr. Das, Mr. Kapasi had once worked as a teacher in a school, he was unable to afford his sick son’s medical bills. It was for this reason that he took on working as a translator at the doctor’s office. In setting up a parallel between Mr. Das and Mr. Kapasi through their shared occupations as teachers, and then revealing that only Mr. Kapasi could not provide for his family in this role, Lahiri highlights the ways in which financial status shapes and separates people’s experience of the world. The gulf that exists between Mr. Kapasi and the family he chaperones further suggests the gulf that exists between the scarcity prevalent in India and the affluence of America.
In presenting the reader with characters who share cultural roots but who are nonetheless deeply foreign to one another, Lahiri questions the degree to which heritage shapes identity. The Das family do not appear to feel innately connected to Mr. Kapasi nor to India, and instead seem distinctly a part of the world in which they were raised—that is, America. Ultimately, the story associates this assimilation with a sense of loss, as the family enjoys the comforts of an American life yet are distinctly cut off from their history. The image at the end of the tale, of Mr. Kapasi watching the paper with his address written on it flutter from Mrs. Das’s purse, suggests that the rift between their cultures may be too large to ever cross.
Culture and Identity ThemeTracker
Culture and Identity Quotes in Interpreter of Maladies
The first thing Mr. Kapasi had noticed when he saw Mr. and Mrs. Das, standing with their children under the portico of the hotel, was that they were very young, perhaps not even thirty. In addition to Tina they had two boys, Ronny and Bobby, who appeared very close in age and had teeth covered in a network of flashing silver wires. The family looked Indian but dressed as foreigners did, the children in stiff, brightly colored clothing and caps with translucent visors.
Mr. Kapasi pulled over to the side of the road as Mr. Das took a picture of a barefoot man, his head wrapped in a dirty turban, seated on top of a cart of grain sacks pulled by a pair of bullocks. Both the man and the bullocks were emaciated.
They reached Konarak at two-thirty. The temple, made of sandstone, was a massive pyramid-like structure in the shape of a chariot. It was dedicated to the great master of life, the sun […] “It says the temple occupies about a hundred and seventy acres of land,” Mr. Das said, reading from his book.