Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 674
“The Interpreter of Maladies” chronicles a day during an Indian American family’s vacation in India visiting tourist sites with their Indian guide. On this summer day, Mr. and Mrs. Das, a young Indian couple born in the United States, and their three children, Ronny, Bobby, and Tina, as well as...
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“The Interpreter of Maladies” chronicles a day during an Indian American family’s vacation in India visiting tourist sites with their Indian guide. On this summer day, Mr. and Mrs. Das, a young Indian couple born in the United States, and their three children, Ronny, Bobby, and Tina, as well as their Indian guide, Mr. Kapasi, travel by car to the Sun Temple at Konarak. When they stop at a roadside tea stall for refreshments, the middle-aged guide Kapasi observes the young family. Though the family is of Indian heritage, their manner, attire, and interactions are American. When Mrs. Das purchases a snack from a shirtless vendor, he sings a popular Hindi love song to her, but she does not understand the language and expresses no embarrassment.
During the ride to the temple, the Das family engages in mindless activity: Tina plays with the door lock, the two boys snap their chewing gum, Mrs. Das paints her fingernails in boredom, and Mr. Das tinkers with his camera. Kapasi observes them. Mrs. Das converses with Kapasi and learns he has another job as a translator for a physician and his Gujarati patients. Intrigued with Kapasi’s description of this job, Mrs. Das questions him further. Mrs. Das’s interest sparks in Kapasi a sexual infatuation toward her. Kapasi notices Mrs. Das’s sensuous appearance.
The group stops for lunch, after which the children leave the picnic table, and Mr. Das photographs his wife and Kapasi together. Mrs. Das asks Kapasi for his address so she can later send him a copy of the photo; he writes it on a scrap of paper, which she places in her handbag. Silently, Kapasi fantasizes how this photograph could be the beginning of an intimate correspondence between him and Mrs. Das. The fantasy continues in his mind throughout the day.
At midday, they reach the ruins of the Sun Temple, whose exterior walls are covered with sculpted erotic friezes: Naked bodies are depicted in various positions. Kapasi observes Mrs. Das studying the carvings and notices her own sexy qualities, her short skirt and tight blouse. To himself, he laments his own loveless marriage.
Kapasi suggests they detour to visit a ruined monastery. At the monastery, Mr. Das and the children exit the car to photograph the many monkeys climbing on the ruins. Mrs. Das and Kapasi remain in the car. After her family walks away, Mrs. Das gets into the front seat with Kapasi. After some small talk, Mrs. Das suddenly confides to Kapasi that her husband is not the father of her second son, Bobby. She recounts the story of her unwise marriage to her husband, her growing unhappiness, her brief infidelity, and the son she conceived with a friend of her husband. She tells Kapasi her husband is ignorant of these facts.
Mrs. Das reveals her painful secret to Kapasi because of his talent as “an interpreter of maladies”; she wants his opinion on her case. Kapasi kindly asks if she is mistaking guilt for pain. That is not what Mrs. Das wants to hear; she exits the car in a huff and goes in search of her family.
Meanwhile, hungry monkeys surround Bobby, who holds a bag of puffed rice. Bobby is frightened and injured slightly by the monkeys as his family stands by panicking. Kapasi rescues Bobby, chasing away the monkeys. The group returns to the car, consoling Bobby. Mrs. Das removes a hairbrush from her handbag to smooth Bobby’s hair. As she does so, the slip of paper with Kapasi’s address slips from the bag and is taken away by the wind. Only Kapasi notices it. At this moment, he observes the Das family as a tableau and knows this image of them will forever be preserved in his mind.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (April 15, 1999): 1514.
Boston Globe, July 14, 1999, p. F8.
The New York Times, August 6, 1999, p. B46.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (July 11, 1999): 11.
Publishers Weekly 246 (April 19, 1999): 59.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 24, 1999, p. E1.
Time 154 (August 2, 1999): 91.
The Times Literary Supplement, October 22, 1999, p. 22.