What is the primary theme in "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “Interpreter of Maladies” forces the reader to examine the difficulty of communication between adults. The characters in the story must fight isolation, guilt, separation, and misunderstanding.

Mr. Kapasi, the travel guide and interpreter of maladies, finds no comfort in his marriage.  Mr. and Mrs. Das fail to interact and show no connection to each other or their children. This failure to communicate extends into the relationships within the story with hurtful consequences.

Mr. Kapasi’s life has been impacted by the death of his young son which is the turning point in his life and marriage.   Not only does he suffer from the loss of his son, but now his wife resents him because his job working with the doctor reminds her of the death of her son.  

His wife separates herself from Mr. Kapasi’s job and makes him feel like a failure because he has to work in this position. She does not talk to him or even listen.  Her separation from him has left him searching for human connection.

In addition, Mr. Kapasi realizes that he and his wife have no real intimacy. He has never seen his wife naked; even more upsetting is that she keeps her clothes on when they make love.

Mr. Kapasi completely misunderstands Mrs. Das’s interest in him.  He believes that she seems something that appeals to her romantically. Through the trip, he fantasizes about making love to her. He believes that they will have a great correspondence beginning with her sending a copy of the picture of which he was included. When Mrs. Das shares her secret with him, he feels resentful that she had only wants his advice because she foolishly thought that he could help her.

Mr. and Mrs. Das appear to have a loveless marriage.

Mr. Kapasi notes:  “Mr. and Mrs. Das behaved like an older brother and sister, not parents.  It seemed that they were in charge of the children only for the day; it was hard to believe they were regularly responsible for anything other than themselves.”

Neither communicates with the other.  For most of the trip, Mrs. Das displays an interest only in herself or Mr. Kapasi. She hides behind her dark glasses and completely separates herself from the rest of the family.  It is not until she discovers Mr. Kapasi second job that she shows an interest in anything about the trip.  She is annoyed by her children.

Mr. Das buries himself in his travel guide. If they communicate at all, it is in a ridiculing way. Ironically, the story opens with the couple bickering about who has to take the daughter to the restroom. The mother who loses the battle does not even hold the hand of the little girl.  Mr. Das fails to watch his son; when the boy is attacked by the monkeys, it is Mr. Kapasi that saves the boy and carries him back to the car.

Mr. Kapasi sees Mrs. Das as a lonely housewife living in a miserable marriage.  He believes that she finds him attractive in some way and begins to romanticize their relationship.  In the same vein,  Mrs. Das glamorizes Mr. Kapasi’s job.  She does not bother to really communicate with him about his life or the reality of his job.
When she reveals her secret to him about her affair, Mr. Kapasi sees that her life is based on trivialities.  Her misery cannot compare to the suffering of him and his wife about the death of their son.  When Mr. Kapasi tells her that she feels guilt for her affair,  Mrs. Das has a look of understanding and immediately leaves the car.
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Interpreter of Maladies

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