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Mrs. Primack's English Class

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“Interpreter of Maladies”

The title story of Lahiri’s debut collection offers an excellent introduction to her highly accomplished but unassuming art. At first glance “Interpreter of Maladies” looks like a case of yet another Indian writer exploiting a distant homeland to satisfy the American appetite for the foreign and faraway. The story does not exploit, however; it explores. Its Indian setting acts as a necessary backdrop for a complex portrayal of that sense of disappointment and displacement central to Lahiri’s vision. A young, thoroughly Americanized Indian couple, Mr. and Mrs. Das, both born in the United States, pay a visit to the Sun Temple in Konarak, under the watchful eye of their guide and driver, Mr. Kapasi, from whose perspective, but not in whose voice, the story is told. Thus, it is the couple, not the country, that appears strange to Mr. Kapasi, who takes note of, and quiet exception to, a family that acts as if “they were all siblings.” Although appalled by their effusive, even excessive informality, Mr. Kapasi also finds himself attracted, especially as they take pains to include him in their little circle and even more when Mrs. Das pays him an unexpected compliment, saying how important his regular, weekday job is, interpreting patients’ maladies for a doctor.

Lahiri quickly sketches Mr. Kapasi’s life as a series of disappointments. Having once dreamed of becoming a scholar of languages, he has had to settle for much less: first, as a teacher of English at a local grammar school, and then, in order to pay his dead son’s medical bills, as an interpreter of maladies and weekend tour guide. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Das’s compliment goes to his head. Her promise to send him a copy of the group photo that her husband has just taken leads this otherwise hopeless husband of an embittered wife to fantasize a chaste but satisfying epistolary relationship with the attractive, twenty-eight-year-old Mrs. Das. It is an imaginary airmail affair of the heart that appears at once touching and ridiculous, especially as played against the backdrop of the temple’s erotic friezes. However, when Mrs. Das, whose own marriage is none too happy, tells Mr. Kapasi of her secret symptoms—the child fathered by another man, the “terrible urges to throw things away”—he proves inadequate, even “insulted that Mrs. Das should ask him to interpret her common, trivial little secret.” Failing to understand the depth of her despair, he responds in a way that serves as the ironic measure of his own failures of nerve and compassion. “‘Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?’” Even the scrap of dignity he salvages from rescuing her son from hungry monkeys is quickly stripped away when he alone sees the paper on which he had written his address (and pinned his hopes) fall from Mrs. Das’s bag and blow away in the wind.

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