It is often said that those who involve themselves in the care of others, particularly in the care of emotional and psychological illnesses, are often the ones in the greatest need of help. Of course, a desire for self-healing need not be the only incentive to helping others, but might someone expose him or herself willingly to others’ suffering, to be able to take away from the experience, at least in part, some semblance of vicarious self-therapy? This idea lies at the heart of the story, “Interpreter of Maladies,” the title story contained in the book of the same name, written by Jhumpa Lahiri. The title itself might lead the reader to ask, what is an "interpreter of maladies"? Is there truly such a thing or person? In a purely concrete sense, like the one presented in the story through Mr. Kapasi, a part time doctor’s interpreter and tour guide, such a person could exist as one who bridges a language gap between patients and a doctor, interpreting the patients’ ailments for a doctor who, though he may not share their language, might provide the patients with treatment and relief. But can an interpreter of maladies, being overlooked as a mere facilitator of the interpretive process, also be in need of care? This story, in all appearance, answers affirmatively to this question. And though Mr. Kapasi’s job involves giving words to physical aches and pains of others, the maladies from which he suffers prove to be more emotional in nature. Depicting both the experiences of the Das’s, an Indian American family taking a tour with Mr. Kapasi in India and living with dysfunction of which they are not even aware, and of Mr. Kapasi, who observes and interprets their maladies though is himself stricken with his own emotional afflictions, the story implies ironically that an interpreter of maladies, however effective he may be in communicating the pain of others, can often not help but suffer as well himself.
Told through the perspective of Mr. Kapasi, the story reveals the dysfunctional dynamics of the Das family as well as the accuracy with which Mr. Kapasi’s perceives and diagnoses their dysfunction. One of the first observations that Mr. Kapasi makes on the Das parents during their tour is that they are very young, so young, in fact, that Mr. Kapasi notes that they behave “like an older brother and sister, not parents” to the children. In an even more revealing aside, he remarks, as Mr. and Mrs. Das quarrel over who should take their daughter to the bathroom, that it is “hard to believe that they [a]re regularly responsible for anything other than themselves”. Not only are they young, Mr. Das notes, but they seem to lack the basic sense of responsibility, care, and affection which would seem standard criteria for appropriate parenting at any age. This observation is likely the most crucial in detailing the severity of their inefficacy and dysfunction as parents. When one of the two Das boys discovers a goat and excitedly runs off to examine it, Mr. Das reacts by directing his other son to “make sure that [his] brother doesn’t do anything stupid” with, as Mr. Kapasi notes, seemingly “no intention of intervening” in the matter further. Mr. and Mrs. Das take their parenting duties quite halfheartedly, clearly not in an active, conscientious manner, and shirk their responsibilities over to each other and even to their children. Further, they are depicted as being childish, inattentive, and self-seeking parents, with Mr. Das constantly preoccupied with his camera, and Mrs. Das with her conversations with Mr. Kapasi and with eating a snack of puffed rice, which she greedily refuses to share with anyone. In Mr. Kapasi’s eyes, the family’s “bickering, the indifference, and the protracted silences” all point to a rather unhealthy family dynamic, a diagnosis with which the reader would also agree. Though the irony of Mr. Kapasi’s observations of the Das family lies in the fact that their unhealthy behavior is all too similar to the behavior of his own family, which explains his quick recognition. He admits that he and his wife are a “bad match” and that the signs he observes in the Das family are “signs he recognize[s] from his own marriage” including the “silence, something to which he’[s] long been resigned, [but] now oppresse[s] him.”
Mr. Kapasi also suffers from an apparent complex of inferiority and a lost sense of dignity. He is quite meticulous and takes great care in his appearance, wearing “gray trousers and a matching jacket-style shirt” of a “specified… cut and fabric." These details of appearance may seem superfluous and overly fastidious for a mere part time tour guide. However, the reasons for these details become clearer when revealed that Mr. Kapasi had once “dreamed of being an interpreter for diplomats and dignitaries”. By his own admission, his job as a doctor’s interpreter is “a sign of his failings”, yielding “little regard” even from his wife. The contrast between his low regard of his job and the degree to which he concerns himself with a formal, professional appearance points to Mr. Kapasi’s attempted compensation for feelings of inadequacy and indignity.
Of Mr. Kapasi’s many emotional burdens, his loneliness reveals itself in the most painfully conspicuous ways. Through elaborate fantasies, Mr. Kapasi shows that he desperately needs both intellectual and romantic stimulation but that he is generally unable to verbalize, and thus realize, these thoughts and feelings. During the course of the tour, Mr. Kapasi becomes smitten with Mrs. Das, if only for her interest in talking to him as an alternative to talking to her family. Mr. Kapasi becomes excited, even “mildly intoxicated”, by his interactions with Mrs. Das. He has an active imagination, dreaming up complex scenes of occurrences he would like to have happen between them. When Mrs. Das asks Mr. Kapasi for his address so that she can send him copies of photos she has taken while on the tour, he conjures up the following vision:
She would write him… and he would respond eloquently, choosing only the most entertaining anecdotes, ones that would make her laugh out loud…. In time she would reveal the disappointment of her marriage, and he his. In this way, their friendship would grow, and flourish.
Through this rather pitiable reverie, Mr. Kapasi is revealed as a man who lives a life of elaborate dreams, which go largely unfulfilled. Though his hopes and morale seem to be lifted by mere notions of romance between himself and Mrs. Das. He somehow believes that his supposed relationship with Mrs. Das might provide some pleasure, fulfillment, and relief in his otherwise lonely and unrewarding life.
Despite Mr. Kapasi’s hopes for redemption, he ultimately learns that the one object of his hope and affection, Mrs. Das, is truly no prospect at all. In one of the story’s final scenes, Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das have a conversation alone, wherein Mrs. Das divulges the fact that she is not in love with her husband and that their son, Bobby, is not actually his child. Though she makes a plea for help to Mr. Kapasi, she clearly directs her plea to the wrong person, and Mr. Kapasi pointedly asks her, “Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?” Here again, Mr. Kapasi provides Mrs. Das with an accurate diagnosis of her malady, but at this point, Mr. Kapasi also begins to see that there is no real possibility of a relationship between himself and Mrs. Das, and thus no romantic salvation for him. “The feeling he ha[s] toward her… evaporate[s]”, and he feels “crushed”. Mr. Kapasi notices that the sheet of paper, that was once in Mrs. Das’ purse and containing his address, blows away in the wind, meaning that no correspondence, real or imagined, will ever occur between them, leaving Mr. Kapasi in the same lonely place where he has been all along. He is perhaps even worse off for having had the flames of his desires fanned only to be put out swiftly, by a woman who, he thought, if only for a moment, might satisfy his desire and need for romance and stimulation, and somehow contribute to his sense of being significant as a man.
Though Mr. Kapasi succeeds at interpreting the physical maladies of local patients and domestic maladies of the Das family, in the end he suffers greatly from his own pain and affliction, though is unfortunately unable either to help himself, or to find any other effective means of help. He is perhaps the most vulnerable of all, having no one who can interpret or relieve him of his pain, something that those around him, at least, can count on from him. In Mr. Kapasi’s case, the idea of a person in a care-giving role being in greatest need of care is especially applicable. The reader could speculate that Mr. Kapasi’s need for help plays a crucial role in his decision to work as a doctor’s translator and as a tour guide, that is, to be able to experience, even if unconsciously, some form of self-healing and social stimulation. In this sense, it comes as no surprise that a character who suffers in the manner of Mr. Kapasi would opt for the kind of work that he does. Unwittingly through his work, he desperately searches for some kind of comfort and fulfillment, things he sorely lacks in his life. But as proven by his experience in this story, the search for relief can often be misdirected and ultimately unsatisfying.