“The Interpreter of Maladies:” Culture and Knowledge v. Fantasies

“The Interpreter of Maladies:” Culture and Knowledge v. Fantasies

On the surface, it is most likely that a reader may interpret ‘The Interpreter of Maladies” as one of the simplest stories about a family of five on vacation in a foreign country. However, the introduction of Mr. Kapasi, who is portrayed as a lonely tour guide, makes the short story a poignant estrangement. Jhumpa Lahiri employs a unique approach to narrating the tale, using Mr. Kapasi’s subjective viewpoint about the Das family. In particular, Mr. Das, Mrs. Das, and Mr. Kapasi are Indians, but the Das family has lived the better part of their lives in United States (U.S.), a different culture (Lahiri 12). Although Lahiri uses a stranger to describe the Dases, this narration technique succeeds in highlighting the various ways in which people perceive cultural differences, including the projection of a person’s own belief systems onto others.

“The Interpreter of Maladies” is a representation of Lahiri’s opposition to the superficial or layman’s adoption of what constitutes either the American or Indian culture. The author achieves this demonstrating how Mr. Kapasi fantasizes about having a romantic relationship with Mrs. Das. The protagonist is portrayed grasping onto a variety of trivial moments as a way of supporting his fantasies. For instance, when Mrs. Das describes his tour guide job as “romantic,” he somehow becomes crazier, imagining how she is already interested in him. Mr. Kapasi does not stop there, but rather continues to compare and contrast his love life, guessing “if Mr. and Mrs. Das were such a bad match, just as my wife and I were’ (Lahiri 21). With these fantasy-driven projections, Mr. Kapasi appears to reach a point of no return when he does not only construct a weird image the Das family but also imagine living with Mrs. Das as his lover and potentially wife.

Besides reliance on fantasy to imagine a future with Mrs. Das, Mr. Kapasi uses his preconceived knowledge about culture to observe and interpret the Dases. Lahiri ensures this is a success by telling the story in the third person point of view, with the reader getting little to no insight into the interior thoughts of individual members of the Das family. In other words, the author places much emphasis on how Mr. Kapasi watches and notes behaviors that, in his view, are odd. For instance, he is disgusted when Mr. Das calls his wife “Mina” before his daughter Tina (Lahiri 14). To Mr. Kapasi, it is unethical in India to have men refer to their wives using their first names, especially in the presence of children. From this observation, Mr. Kapasi concludes that the Das family members have poor relationships, behaving like are siblings (Lahiri 14, 15). The same misconception about culture does not apply to Mr. Kapasi alone, but also to the three children, especially when they are amazed by traffic rules: “Daddy, why is the driver sitting on the wrong side in this car?” (Lahiri 16). Concisely, the biased interpretations by Mr. Kapasi and observations made by the Dases constitute a projection of their own beliefs, values, and desires; depicting a clash of cultures. 

Work Cited

Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1967. <https://learning.hccs.edu/faculty/nicole.zaza/engl1301/1301-readings/library/interpreter-of-maladies-by-jhumpa-lahiri/view>

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