What are some of the cultural differences highlighted in the story "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri?

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

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“Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri explores the unhappiness of people in loveless marriages. This problem crosses cultures. This story involves a man who has lost a child and his wife who blames him for her unhappiness.  On the other hand, the female protagonist in the story lives with the guilt of an affair; her husband is unaware of the reason for their marriage difficulties.

Since the author of the story is from both the American and Indian cultures, she has conflicting selves. Using this aspect of her own life, what cultural differences can be found in the story?

  • When the main character Mr. Kapasi introduces himself, he presses his palms together in greeting.  This is an Indian greeting called Namaste which translates as “I bow to you.”  It is accompanied by the pressing of palms as a gesture of respect.  Mr. Das, the Indian/American shakes hands typical of the American greeting.
  • When Mr. Das refers to his wife as Mina to his daughter, Mr. Kapasi finds this odd. Parents are always referred to with respect and never by the first name.
  • The children are afraid of the monkeys.  When the boy encounters the monkeys by himself, the monkeys can tell that he is afraid and come closer to him.  In general, the monkeys are loud, direct, playful, and violent.They are worshipped and greatly respected by the Hindus.
  • The difference in the placement of the driver in the car is different for the India driver.  This influence would be a carry-over from the English who ruled India for many years. The discussion with the child indicates that he is confused by the difference from American drivers.
  • There is an obvious difference between the reaction of Mrs. Das to Mr. Kapasi’s main job as an interpreter for a doctor and his wife’s reactions. Mrs. Das is impressed by the interpreter of maladies and its intellectual challenges. She even gives Mr. Kapasi the respect of counseling her with her guilt problem.  In deference to this reaction, Mrs. Kapasi feels that his job reminds her too much of the loss of her son.
  • To Mr. Kapasi, his interpreter’s job is a sign of his failure.

“In his youth, he had been devoted scholar of foreign languages…he had dreamed of being an interpreter for a diplomat. If given the opportunity, he could converse in English, French, Russian, Portuguese, and Italian, not to mention Hindi, Bengali, and Orissa, and Gujarati…”

  • To Mrs. Das, this job was impressive and romantic that he could converse with a doctor.  This must make him a “kind of doctor.”   
  • As Mr. Kapasi looks at the Sun Temple with the Americanized family, he realizes that he has never seen his wife naked.  Propriety and covering of the body is an important aspect of the Indian culture. He also finds that he is attracted to Mrs. Das partially because she shows an interest in him.  Of course, Americans do not really have the same interest in covering the arms or the body. 
  • The language barrier also strikes a difference.  Mr. Kapasi daydreams about the correspondence that the two of them would share.  Mrs. Das probably will not even remember that she said would send him a copy of the family picture.  She loses Mr. Kapasi’s address later in the story.  At one point, she uses the word “neat.” He does not understand the meaning of the word as she uses it but feels that it sounds like a favorable word.

This story shows striking differences between the Americanized Indian couple and the Indian guide.

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