In "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri, how is food used as a tool in the story?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The story “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri centers on understanding between people in a cultural gap.  Normally an interpreter uses his language skills as a tool of acknowledgement.  This does not happen in this story.  Mr. Kapasi saves lives in this interpreting job of translating for a doctor who does not speak the language of his patients. 

Mr. Kapasi’s foil in the story is Mrs. Das.  An unhappily married woman and mother—Mrs. Das believes that Mr. Kapasi can help her with her secret.  One of her children has a different father than her husband.  This happened in an affair.  She feels Mr. Kapasi can help her figure out what she should do.

One of the aspects of Lahiri’s writing is her use of food in her stories. The author uses food as a motivating factor that propels the action of the story forward. In this particular story, Mrs. Das provides the metaphor of food. Her actions and attitudes find fruition in the Indian snacks that she chooses to bring with her on the sightseeing trip. 

When Mrs. Das begins the trip, Mr. Kapasi sees her walking toward his car with a strawberry on her matching skirt.  She  obviously is Americanized.  When she sits in the car in front of her children, she eats snacks of puffed rice tossed with peanuts and chili peppers in a large packet made from newspapers. She offers none of her snacks to her children or husband. Mrs. Das's sunglasses help her to hide her lack of emotions and unhappiness.  

When the family sits down to a lunch, they feast on bottles of mango juice and sandwiches and plates of onions and potatoes deep-friend in graham-flour batter.  Normally, when the lunch time came, Mr. Kapasi enjoyed sitting by himself and peacefully drinking his tea.  On this day, Mr. Kapasi was pleased to be invited to join the family while they ate. This added to his infatuation of Mrs. Das for her to consider him worthy of joining her family while they ate.

Another incident involving food follows the incident between Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das when she shares her family secret.  He tells her that it was her guilt that made her unhappy. 

With no word, she gets out of the car and reaches for her snack of rice and begins to accidentally make a trail of rice crumbs for the monkeys to eat. Soon about six of the monkeys begins to follow her. Mr. Kapasi gets a branch and scares them away without Mrs. Das even knowing what has happened.

The son who came from her illicit affair begins to scream.  At his feet are some of his mother’s rice puff snacks.  The monkeys have surrounded him, and one of the monkeys has scratched the boy’s leg with a branch that the boy had given it. Mr. Kapasi takes his branch and scares them away.  He returns the boy to his family. Mr. Kapasi receives no thanks from the parents.

God, let’s get out of here, Mrs. Das said. She folded her arms across the strawberry of her chest.  This place gives me the creeps.   

The puffed rice, non-caloric and bland, represents the actual personality of Mrs. Das. She seems devoid of emotions and internally uninvolved with her family.  With her strawberry outfit, she is young and attractive. 

It is her demeanor and lack of insight into other people’s feelings that makes her an unsympathetic character.  Her careless dropping of her snacks threatens not only her personal safety but her children's as well.  When Mr. Kapasi scares the monkeys away, she gives him no credit and ignores his efforts. 


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