What is the central conflict in "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri? 

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

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Mr. Kapasi’s unhappiness stems from his son’s recent death. His loneliness and personal disdain for his life make him vulnerable to Mrs. Das.  This is the beginning of the conflict that occurs in “The Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri. The Indian/Americans Mr. and Mrs. Das vacation in India and want to visit the Sun Temple.   Like Mr. Kapasi, this family struggles to maintain a façade of a happy family. 

Despite Mr. Kapasi’s mediocre jobs, he is a well-educated man who studied languages. He feels that he is a failure.  He has an unhappy, arranged marriage.  His wife demeans his interpreting job in which he translates for a doctor who does not speak his patients’ language.  The wife connects his job with the death of the son to typhoid.  Their marriage is loveless with no intimacy.

Mr. and Mrs. Das were in love when they married. They are now estranged.  When the story starts, they are arguing about who should take their little girl to the restroom.  Obviously, it should be Mrs. Kapasi; however, she seems unattached to her children. They also annoy her.  It is apparent that she is not happy. 

What is the primary conflict?

When Mr. Kapasi explains his interpreting job to the family, Mrs. Das’s attitude toward him changes.  She appears intrigued by his ability to work with a doctor.  She asks him questions and even includes him in the family picture. Mr. Kapasi gives her his address for her to send him a copy of the picture. The problem arises from the difficulty in communication between the two cultures.  Both are Indian, but Mr. Kapasi is a true Indian and the Das couple is Americanized.   

Mr. Kapasi begins a fantasy about Mrs. Das.  He thinks that they will have a brilliant correspondence.  He believes that they have similar problems in their marriages. Feeling that they can commune with each other, he also thinks that Mrs. Das is infatuated with him.   .

The conflict which arises is within Mr. Kapasi.  He is unhappy and believes that he will have something to look forward to with the potential correspondence with Mrs. Das.  In his mind, he builds a relationship between the two of them.

When Mrs. Das stays behind with Mr., Kapasi, he is delighted.  Mrs. Das wants to confide in Mr. Kapasi because she believes that his work with the doctor qualifies him to interpret her problem.

She admits that she had an affair and her son Bobby is not her husband’s child.  Unfortunately, Mr. Kapasi is hurt by her obvious lack of feeling for him personally. He listens to her and tells her that it is the guilt about her affair that keeps her from being happy.  She does not respond.

Mrs. Das makes an immediate change and is more involved with her family.  Her selfish attitude ignores or misunderstands the rapport that Kapasi desired from her. Mr. Kapasi feels disgusted by Mrs. Das.  He has faced the death of his son and the real unhappiness of marriage. She has forced him to look at his own actions.

I told you because of your talents.  About my secret and about how terrible it makes me fell.  I feel terrible looking at my children and at Raj.  One day I had the urge to throw everything I own out of the window.  Don’t you think that is unhealthy?

…and so he [Mr. Kapasi] asked, “Is it really pain that you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?

The problem stems from the cultural gap between the Kapasi and Mrs. Das. His fantasy ends, and he must become the ordinary tour guide again with no change in his future.


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