Type: Literary Analysis
Pages: 8 | Words: 2101
Reading Time: 9 Minutes

Among the stories written by Jhumpa Lahiri, which are collected under a single cover, there is a special one that gave its name to the whole book. This story is Interpreter of Maladies, where the author describes a young couple of Indian Americans in comparison to a middle-aged native Indian tour guide. Coming to India in order to visit their parents, the Das family with children decides to take a tourist travel to one of the famous Indian attractions, the Sun Temple. Attended by an Indian tour guide, who during the trip develops romantic feelings to Mrs. Das, they visit one more place of interest they have not planned. While an unpleasant accident happens to the youngest of the three Das children, Mr. Kapasi understands the whole futility of his romantic hopes, as there is a large generation and nationality gap between him, as a native Indian, and Mrs. Das, as an assimilated American Indian. Jhumpa Lahiri demonstrates in her story that ignoring one’s own origin can have a negative influence on the understanding between people of one race born in different countries. New adopted appearance and behavior, high rate of selfishness, which is the result of losing one’s national identity, set boundaries between people with similar roots. The writer shows that even facing the same challenges in life does not stimulate the people to understand and support each other.

Theme of Understanding Between People of One Race Born in Different Countries in the Story

The way the Das family looks and behaves is not typical for the native Indians, and it indicates the lack of ethnic identity of assimilated American Indians and their total integration into American society. The first impression of the married couple with children, which Mr. Kapasi gains, is rather confusing: “The family looked Indian but dressed as foreigners did”. It appears strange to the tour guide that he has to treat Hindu people, as though they were just typical foreign tourists. However, the way Mr. and Mrs. Das are dressed speaks volumes about the nationality they relate themselves to. For instance, Mr. Das “had a sapphire blue visor, and was dressed in shorts, sneakers, and a T-shirt”, and “the camera around his neck . . . was the only complicated thing he wore”. The kind of unsophisticated clothes is very typical for a common American inhabitant. One more feature that describes modern American society is the gradual disappearance of the outward differences between men and women. The loss of their womanhood became for women one of the side effects of emancipation. The author shows it in the story by describing Mr. Das’ wife: “She wore a close-fitting blouse styled like a man’s undershirt”; “Her hair, shorn only a little longer than her husband’s, was parted far to one side”. The couple does not only differ from the traditional Indians in appearances, but also behaves in the way that is not typical for Hindu people. For instance, when Mr. Kapasi welcomes the Das family with the traditional Indian greeting, the young people greet him not like it is accepted among Indians, but rather like among Americans: “When he’d introduced himself, Mr. Kapasi had pressed his palms together in greeting, but Mr. Das squeezed hands like an American . . . Mrs. Das for her part, had flexed one side of her mouth, smiling dutifully at Mr. Kapasi”. Moreover, these two American-raised Indians, as Lahiri demonstrates in the story, do not know Hindi, the language of their parents: “Mr. Kapasi heard one of the shirtless men sing a phrase from a popular Hindi love song as Mrs. Das walked back to the car, but she did not appear to understand the words of the song, . . . for she did not express irritation, or embarrassment . . .” (46). Mrs. Das also buys a Bombay magazine in English, and Mr. Das reads a guide-book about India printed in the USA. Not knowing the language of the country that was the motherland of your ancestors for generations is the strongest evidence of separation from your own roots. What also makes these two assimilated American Indians different from average Indians, is individualism and an emphasis  they make on their own comfort. They think and care mostly about themselves, like Mrs. Das, who “sat slouched at one end of the back seat, not offering her puffed rice to anyone” complaining about the absence of air-conditioning in the car, or Mr. Das, who during the journey directs his attention mostly at his photo camera and his tour book. The author demonstrates one of the modern American habits, which is not typical for Indian natives, to take things and comfort they have for granted. She does it by contrasting the Das family, who has money to spend on the tour to India and the expensive photo camera, and a poor barefoot Indian man, whose “head wrapped in a dirty turban, seated on top of a cart of grain sacks pulled by a pair of bullocks” (50) and picture of whom Mr. Das takes with her camera.

Individualism, selfishness and indifference to other people needs, and other features, which are typical for those, who lost their national identity and were separated from their native culture, can lead to negative consequences. The author indicates it in the story by describing the careless way, in which the young couple treats its children, and by comparing it with sympathy and concern that Mr. Kapasi has. During the journey Mr. and Mrs. Das little care about the little ones showing almost no interest in them: “It seemed that they were in charge of the children only for the day. It was hard to believe they were regularly responsible for anything other than themselves”. Mr. Kapasi showed more responsibility for the Das’ children than the Das couple itself. While Mr. Kapasi “reached back to make sure the cranlike locks of the inside of each of the back doors were secured,” Mrs. Das “said nothing to stop her [daughter] . . . [when] the little girl began to play with the lock on her side”. What is more, Mrs. Das expresses no warm feelings or compassion towards her children. When her daughter yearning for mommy’s attention asks Mrs. Das, who is polishing her nails to do the same thing for her, Mrs. Das replies in irritation: “Leave me alone, . . . [y]ou’re making me mess up” (48). Mr. Das, whose “voice, somehow tentative and little shrill, sounded as though it gad not yet settled into maturity” just as his wife does not express much interest in his children. When one of them, Ronny, decides to play with a goat, his father, who do not approve such a piece of fun, “appeared to have no intention of intervening”. Such careless behavior of both parents leads to the terrible accident, which stresses their youngest child, Bobby. When his mother is talking with Mr. Kapasi striving for some remedy to clear her conscience, and his father is totally absorbed by his hobby of making photos, wild monkeys attack Bobby. Not due to his helpless parents, but due to Mr. Kapasi, who saves the little boy, Bobby remains alive: “Mr. Kapasi took his branch and shooed [monkeys] away, . . . gathered Bobby in his arms and brought him back to where his parents and siblings were standing”. Still in shock and hurt physically, the boy cannot count on his parents’ compassion: “When Mr. Kapasi delivered him to his parents . . . Mr. Das brushed some dirt off the boy’s T-shirt and put the visor on him the right way . . . [and said], “He’s fine. Just little scared, right, Bobby?”. These were the only words of support from the boy’s parents. In contrast to Mr. Kapasi, Mr. and Mrs. Das are not the members of the large family of Indian nation they could belong to. The two people were separated from their roots and lost their national identity. That is why the couple does not have the feeling of family, and treats its own children in such an indifferent and selfish way, as though the little ones were complete strangers.

Even the universal problems of relationship that everyone can encounter despite his origin and nationality cannot become the point of contact between assimilated Indian Americans and native Indians. Demonstrating how negatively the loss of one’s ethnic identity can influence people, Lahiri also touches upon the issue of universality of some relationship problems. Nevertheless, Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi do not have many things in common because of the generation and national gap between them, they both meet the same hardship of incompatibility with their spouses. For Mr. Kapasi this problem was caused by an old Indian tradition of arranged marriages. Mrs. Das’ situation was a bit different because the wish of her parents coincided with her own wish. However, with time the woman understood that she and her husband were a bad match, and “had little in common apart from three children and a decade of their lives. The signs [Mr. Kapasi] recognized from his own marriage were there – the bickering, the indifference, the protracted silences”. She suffers from this and wants to put it off her chest asking Mr. Kapasi to listen to her story and “interpret her malady”, as he does it for patients in the hospital. Mr. Kapasi also does not have much in common with his wife. While the Kapasi’s job, as an interpreter in the hospital, intrigues Mrs. Das, who decides that it is a very important and even romantic occupation, the interpreter’s wife has never respected this kind of job: “Mr. Kapasi knew that his wife had little regard for his career as an interpreter.”. The lack of romance and understanding in their marriages, and the routine life they have to lead cause these people to search the things they need so badly on the side. Mrs. Das committed adultery with her husband’s friend, which resulted in Bobby’s birth. Mr. Kapasi dreams about a romantic relationship with Mrs. Das and becomes truly happy, when she takes his address to send him a photo, and, as the interpreter hopes, to write a few words to him. These people would never do these things and feel so desperate if they were lucky enough to have successful marriages. Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das find themselves in the similar situation encountering the same problems in spite of the place they were born and raised. This is how the writer shows that even though awareness of one’s own national identity is an essential aspect of one’s life, some problems appear no matter whether a person respects his roots or not. However, the differences between Indians raised in America, who try to ignore any bound with India, and native Indians are too big to promote understanding between Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das. Lahiri shows in the story that American raised Indians do not tend to associate themselves with India. She uses the problem of unhappy marriages to demonstrate that even the desire to overcome the same hardships cannot combine people with totally different perceptions of life. As the writer expresses it in the story assimilated American Indians and people born in India, though refer to the same race, belong to the two different worlds that bear no resemblance to one another. That is why the ways they perceive life are different. Lahiri uses very symbolical scene to express the idea that the huge gap between people of the two worlds, unfortunately, cannot be filled up: “When she (Mrs. Das) whipped out the hairbrush, the slip of paper with Mr. Kapasi’s address on it fluttered away in the wind”. Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi are too different to understand each other, and even the presence of the same problems in their lives is not enough to unify them.

As an American-raised Indian American, Lahiri uses the story to demonstrate the problem of losing touch with one’s roots, as a result, losing one’s national originality. She skillfully relates it to the relationship problems anyone has a risk to encounter in his/her marriage. She indicates the differences between assimilated American Indians and native Indians by describing the appearances and behavior of American Indians, which sometimes can lead to the tragic consequences, and compares it with the behavior of the native Indian inhabitants, who respect his origin. The writer expresses the idea that for people, who grew up in different social environments, there is no way to understand each other even if they encounter the same hardships in their lives and have the same color of skin.

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