Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story Interpreter of Maladies hinges on the irony arising out of the strange encounter between a romantic tourist-guide-cum interpreter of maladies and a second-generation couple of Indian diaspora in U. S. A. When the interpreter is asked to play the confessor at the end of the story by the young attractive Mrs Das, he is awakened from his romantic reverie that her compliments have a ulterior motive. Guilty of adultery, she wants a confessor to unburden her heart and suggest penance, if any.
The readers enjoy the technique of gradual unraveling of the truth and Mr. Kapasi’s epiphany that far from any romance, Mrs Das is not least interested in him. She wants to use him to get rid of her sense of guilt. “It crushed him; he knew at that moment that he was not even important enough be properly insulted. ”(66) She even regarded him as a father figure whereas Mr. Das cherishes romantic feelings as she jots down his address and promises to send him photographs. Mr. Das hopes to receive letters about her personal as well as social life and he also intended to write about the social and personal life, thus becoming a interpreter of two different cultures.
Self-centeredness becomes a barrier to communication. Interpreter as Confessor in Interpreter of Maladies The titular story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection Interpreter of Maladies hinges on the irony arising out of the strange encounter of romantic tourist-guide-cum interpreter of maladies and a vacationing family of the second- generation Indian diaspora in U. S. A. Mrs. Mina Das, the attractive wife of Mr. Raj Das with three children shows interest in the profession of their tourist guide-cum-interpreter which he misinterprets as a sign of romantic interest.
It is only at the end of the story that the readers and Mr. Kapasi come to terms with the truth that she wants to use him as a confessor for “her common, trivial little secret. ”(Lahiri,1999, p. 66) which she has successfully guarded from everybody for eight years. This irony is also expressed in the clash of the points of view of twenty-eight-year-old Mrs. Das and her forty-six-year-old confessor Mr. Kapasi. Economically they belong to different class. It is the compulsive urge to confess her youthful adultery and find a remedy that she turns to the middle-aged interpreter.
But Mr. Kapasi’s sex-starved soul develops a romantic infatuation encouraged by her admiration of his unusual vocation. At her request he tells her many amusing anecdotes from his experience as the interpreter. Under the pretext of fatigue she declines to accompany her husband and children to find an opportunity to confess and share her most secret intimacy. But as Mrs. Das reveals the real reason for his confession: she is “tired of feeling so terrible all the time”.
The interpreter himself is so frustrated that he cannot bring succor to the remorseful: “Her confession depression depressed him, depressed him all the more …”(66) The speeches and the situations are steeped in irony from the beginning to the end. The main characters Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das go through transformation but not wiser through communication. As the story develops they rise and fall: Mr. Kapasi begins with an innocuous romantic attitude to the winsome Mrs. Das which soon lapses into an inescapable cynicism, while the vivacious lady’s interest in the interpreter’s vocation turns out to be only a narrow self-interest – expiation of her past sin.
Mrs. Das in caught in a dilemma: though born and brought up in U. S. A. , she can neither dismiss and forget her physical intimacy with her husband’s Punjabi friend leading to the birth of Bobby as a trivial experience; nor is she bold and honest enough to confess it to her adoring husband. As a half-hearted alternative she turns to the middle-aged interpreter as believer goes to the confession box. But the confessor has all the weaknesses of flesh and blood; he is shocked by her rootless moral character.
She has neither left behind the Puritanism of Indian conservative society, nor has she absorbed the scientific and amoral values of her adopted country. As a result the climax turns into an anti-climax. The flowering of a romance between two romantic strangers is reduced to a pseudo-religious act of a failed confession. Both the souls become miserable in their narcissistic world. Though the story is narrated from the point of view of Mr. Kapasi, focusing more on his thoughts and feelings, the writer remains a detached observer of their conflicting interests: each trying in vain to secure happiness from the other.
It is the growth and changes in the central characters that make the story worthwhile. When Mrs. Das tells him gratuitously that the brave Bobby was not Mr. Das’ son, but conceived on the sofa with one of his friends who spent a week with the family, the confessor is overwhelmed. He is awakened from his romantic reverie to realize that her compliments like “interesting” and “so romantic” (50) about his profession have a prosaic motive. “Her sudden interest in him, an interest she did not express in either her husband or her children, was mildly intoxicating.
” (53) The wife guilty of adultery wanted a confessor to unburden her heart and be counseled about penance, if any. But the confessor refused to offer any remedy as it is beyond his two vocations of tour and interpretation of maladies. Mrs. Das may have repented her impulsive unfaithfulness, but the professional interpreter finds no gap in language; therefore no role for him to play. Mr. Kapasi works as a tourist guide on Fridays and Saturdays; he works as an interpreter to Gujarati patients for a local doctor who does not understand that language.
Mrs. Das perceives an intoxicating power associated with his job as his patients absolutely depend on his interpretation “In a way, more dependent on you than the doctor. ” and then adds, “It’s a big responsibility. ” (51) In sharp contrast Mr. Kapasi’s wife underestimates his job as it is not well-paid. His linguistic skill in English, French, Russian, Portugese, Italian, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya and Gujarati means little to her; he is no more than a doctor’s assistant. The readers enjoy the technique of gradual unraveling of the truth and Mr.
Kapasi’s epiphany that far from any romance, Mrs. Das is not least interested in him. She wants to use him to get rid of her sense of guilt. It is a deadly blow for him. “It crushed him; he knew at that moment that he was not even important enough be properly insulted. ”(66) Then it emerges that she even regards him a father figure good for confession and counsel whereas Mr. Kapasi so long has cherished romantic feelings as she jotted down his address and promised to send him photographs. He expected an affair to grow out of her incompatible and unhappy marriage.
Kapasi is also delighted to find that unlike other foreign tourists who remain glued to their guidebook and adore temples, she has taken an interest in him. Mr. Kapasi hopes to receive letter from Mrs. Das about her personal as well as social life and he also intends to write about the social and personal life, thus dreams “of serving as an interpreter between two nations. ”(59). The story becomes a clash between the world of fantasy and harsh reality, the unfulfilled dream of an ambitious polyglot and a pampered housewife who has cheated her husband to satisfy her lust and given birth to an illicit child.
Mr. Das finds an affinity with Mr. Kapasi’s profession: as a science teacher he takes his students to Museum of Natural History in New York City and explains exactly as Mr. Das gives the historical interpretations of Konarak Sun temple. He remarks: “In a way we have a lot in common, you could say, you and I. ” (46) Ironically, both the interpreters are manipulated by a woman who plays false with them. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies men turn out to be gullible and poor judge of women they love.
She has not only been unfaithful, she has also managed to keep it a secret till she meets a friendly elderly interpreter-cum-tourist guide during her visit to Orissa in India. It is also evident that the two interpreters in Mrs. Das’s life are conveniently maneuvered by her beguiling charm. As the story reaches its climax, she emerges as a clever dissembler who possesses little sensitivity.
While Mr. Kapasi comes to know the truth and is disillusioned, the husband Mr. Das remains in the dark about his wife’s extramarital affair and the real father of his son, Bobby. Mr. Kapasi’s hopes of a romantic pen-friendship with Mrs. Das are shattered as the piece of paper on which his address was written “fluttered away in the wind. ”(69), and Mrs. Das wanting at once to leave the place which gives her the creeps. From a caring and kind woman Mrs. Das gradually degenerates into a common self-centered person absorbed only in her own sin and atonement. Mr. Kapasi is rewarded with the picture of Das family firmly imprinted on his mind.
References Lahiri, Jhumpa. (1999) Interpreter of Maladies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. http://www. lib. ncsu. edu/theses/available/etd-04262006-153827/ dt. 25. 02. 08