On the surface, Jumpha Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” is a simple story about a family on vacation in India. As the lonely tour guide Mr. Kapasi drives Mr. Das and Mrs. Das and their three children to visit a temple, however, Lahiri’s tale becomes one of poignant estrangement. By telling the story largely from the perspective of Mr. Kapasi, a stranger to the Das family, Lahiri is able to highlight the ways in which, in the absence of genuine knowledge, people project their own beliefs and desires onto others. Beyond suggesting the inability to ever truly know another person, the story also closely links knowledge with a sense of loss: the closer characters become—the more they know each other—the more alone they feel.
“Interpreter of Maladies” is told in the third person, sticking very closely to the point of view of Mr. Kapasi. The reader gets no insight into any member of the Das family’s interior thoughts, and as such has only Mr. Kapasi’s observations to color their perspective. Mr. Kapasi watches the Dases closely, noting behaviors and qualities that seem odd to him—such as the fact that Mr. Das refers to his wife by her first name, Mina, when speaking to his daughter Tina. Mr. Kapasi uses these observations to interpret the family members’ relationships to one another—for example, by assuming they are more like siblings than parents and children. These observations, however, are largely a projection of Mr. Kapasi’s own beliefs and desires. Because Mr. Kapasi has been born and raised in India and the Das family is from the United States, the latter comes across as strange and foreign.
Mr. Kapasi’s most obvious projection, of course, is in his fantasizing about a romantic connection with Mrs. Das. He grasps onto trivial moments to support this fantasy, such as the fact that Mrs. Das uses the word “romantic” to describe his occupation as a sign of her interest in him. He even directly conflates his own experience of marriage with hers, wondering “if Mr. and Mrs. Das were a bad match, just as he and his wife were.” He begins to imagine their future together, constructing an image of Mrs. Das to align with his fantasy.
While Mr. Kapasi is correct in his assumption that Mrs. Das is unhappy in her marriage, however, by the end of the story it becomes clear that the rest of his fantasy is not reciprocated. In fact, Mrs. Das sees Mr. Kapasi more as a parent than a potential lover. Not only is Mrs. Das interested in his professional, rather than romantic, assistance, but the revelation of her past affair quickly causes Mr. Kapasi’s crush to evaporate. The woman he imagined never existed, and, ironically, the closer Mr. Kapasi comes to knowing Mrs. Das, the more estranged from her he feels. Through Mr. Kapasi, then, Lahiri suggests the difficulty of truly knowing another person. What’s more, projecting desires on to another seems only a recipe for alienation and disappointment.
The simultaneous difficulty and danger of knowledge is further reflected within the Das family itself. Mrs. Das reveals that she has known her husband since childhood, and that in the early days of their relationship they “couldn’t stand the thought of being separated.” Yet with time—and the familiarity such time entails—they drifted irreparably apart. Now, Mr. Das is not aware that his wife has cheated on him, nor that their son Bobby is not actually his biological child. Such awareness would, in all likelihood, lead to a shattering of the Das family, again underscoring the appealing yet precarious nature of fantasy and delusion in place of genuine knowledge.
The connection between knowledge and pain or loss is made most explicit by Mr. Kapasi’s second job as an “interpreter of maladies,” from which the story gets its title. It is his job to understand—to know—what is wrong with ill patients and relay this information to a doctor. But, the story suggests, people don’t always want to know what is wrong with them. Just as people project their own beliefs and desires onto others, they are prone to constructing fantasies of themselves. This is why Mr. Kapasi is “disturbed” upon learning that Mrs. Das thinks of him as a parent, for instance; he views himself as seeming younger than he actually appears. This is also why Mr. Kapasi’s interpretation of Mrs. Das’s pain leads to her anger; deprived of the fantasy that something beyond her own actions is causing her discomfort, she is forced to confront the reality of her guilt over her affair.
Not only can people never truly know one another, the story ultimately suggests, but they may never even know—or want to know—themselves. The absence of knowledge allows for the projection of one’s own fantasy and desires onto another, for an escape from the mundanity and pain of familiarity. Knowledge, on the other hand, robs people of the imaginative joy of possibility—both for those around them, and for themselves.
Knowledge and Fantasy ThemeTracker
Knowledge and Fantasy 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.
For this reason it flattered Mr. Kapasi that Mrs. Das was so intrigued by his job. Unlike his wife, she had reminded him of its intellectual challenges. She had also used the word “romantic.” She did not behave in a romantic way toward her husband, and yet she had used the word to describe him. He wondered if Mr. and Mrs. Das were a bad match, just as he and his wife were.
She would write to him, asking about his days interpreting at the doctor’s office, and he would respond eloquently, choosing only the most entertaining anecdotes, ones that would make her laugh out loud as she read them in her house in New Jersey. In time she would reveal the disappointment of her marriage, and he his. In this way their friendship would grow, and flourish.
Bobby was conceived in the afternoon, on a sofa littered with rubber teething toys, after the friend learned that a London pharmaceutical company had hired him, while Ronny cried to be freed from his playpen. She made no protest when the friend touched the small of her back as she was about to make a pot of coffee, then pulled her against his crisp navy suit.
“For God’s sake, stop calling me Mrs. Das. I’m twenty-eight. You probably have children my age.”
“Not quite.” It disturbed Mr. Kapasi to learn that she thought of him as a parent. The feeling he had had toward her, that had made him check his reflection in the rearview mirror as they drove, evaporated a little.
“I told you because of your talents.” She put the packet of puffed rice back into her bag without folding over the top.
“I don’t understand,” Mr. Kapasi said.
When she whipped out the hairbrush, the slip of paper with Mr. Kapasi’s address on it fluttered away in the wind. No one but Mr. Kapasi noticed. He watched as it rose, carried higher and higher by the breeze, into the trees where the monkeys now sat, solemnly observing the scene below. Mr. Kapasi observed it too, knowing that this was the picture of the Das family he would preserve in his mind forever.