When communication breaks down, a marriage suffers. “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri presents characters that live with this frustration. Failing marriages, buried guilt, and romanticized relationships—the story’s characters find themselves trapped in these circumstances.
The narration is third person point of view with the majority of the story seen through the thoughts of Mr. Kapasi, the protagonist. Mr. Kapasi is a tour guide part of the week. Today, he will take a family, Mr. and Mrs. Das and their three children, to see one of the nearby temples.
Communication breaks down repeatedly in the story. Mr. Kapasi relates to the family of five that his real job is to act as an interpreter for a local doctor with patients who speak an obscure language. Until that point, Mrs. Das had been totally uncommunicative with everyone. It is obvious that she is not a happy person. Suddenly, she takes an interest in Mr. Kapasi and his job. Mrs. Das gives him the name of “interpreter of maladies.”
The Das couple are apparently in a loveless marriage. Mr. Das loses himself in a guidebook; Mrs. Das, hiding behind her sunglasses, is rude both to her children and her husband. Their frustrated attempts to communicate with each other lead to hurt feelings.
Mr. Kapasi also has a difficult marriage. He has lost the ability to talk to his wife. The turning point in his marriage has been the death of a son. His wife does not want to listen to the events of his workday, as his work in the doctor’s office reminds her of the son’s death. Consequently, she belittles his work and, as resentment builds in Kapasi, he becomes starved for affection.
Because of the interest in his job, Kapasi feels an infatuation for Mrs. Das. When they stop for pictures, the woman includes him in one of the pictures. She has him write down his address, so that she can send him a copy of the picture. Kapasi begins to imagine a long term letter writing communication between the two of them.
When they are alone for a few minutes, the explanation for Mrs. Das interest becomes clear. Rather than thinking that Kapasi was her potential lover, Mrs. Das thought of Kapasi as a father figure. Sharing a secret with him and asking for his opinion surprises Kapasi:
Raj [Mr. Das] told her that Punjabi friend, would be staying with them for a week….Bobby was conceived after the friend learned that a London company had hired him. He made love to her swiftly, in silence, with an expertise she had never known…
When he points out that her problem stems from the guilt that she feels for deceiving her husband. Mr. Kaposi’s diagnosis troubles her, but a “certain knowledge seemed to pass before her eyes.” Disturbed, she exits the car.
The woman changes immediately toward her children and her family. However, the connection between the two is irretrievably broken. As the woman walks back toward the car, the paper with Kapasi’s address symbolically blows out of her purse.
Thematically, Kapasi loses any feelings for Mrs. Das. When she reveals her trivial little secret to him about her adultery, she obviously could not understand the devastation he has suffered because of his son’s death. He comes to dislike her because she has caused him to confront his own loveless marriage. Again, communication fails. He must face the silence of his own marriage, which, “now oppressed him.”