Written by Natsuki Noguchi
Interpreter of Maladies is a short story featured in the book collection of the same name, written by Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri and first published in 1999. This specific tale illustrates the dangerous romanticism between a young mother and the family’s tour guide on their vacation in India, implying various themes connected to gender expectations. This critical analysis will focus on such depictions of traditional gender roles and their disparities through the thoughts and actions of the two main characters.
The story commences when Mr. Kapasi, an English-speaking tour guide, starts developing a love interest for Mrs. Mina Das, who complimented him as “romantic” for the responsibility he holds amid his weekday occupation: an interpreter for a doctor. He then starts imagining himself being in a relationship—an affair—with her, vividly dreaming of their future letter exchanges and becoming internally obsessed, “… so much so that he had an overwhelming urge to wrap his arms around her, to freeze with her, even for an instant…” [page 15].
His inner desires contrast heavily with his actual marriage life: his relationship with his wife is cold and loveless, and in contrast to Mrs. Das’s words, Mr. Kapasi’s wife both detests and belittles his current job working for the doctor that failed to cure their son. Thus, he perceives her as his dream girl under kindred circumstances. In his constructed daydreams he ignores many unfavourable factors: the entire existence of his wife (and the ugly truth that this is an unfaithful dalliance), the flaws of Mrs. Das (he internally compliments her looks, with a “pleasing smile and strawberry shirt” [pages 16-17], but fails to see her immaturity and selfishness, displayed in her reluctance in taking her daughter to the bathroom), and most importantly, Mrs. Das’s opinions amid their “relationship”. Although this is all contained in his self-satisfying reverie, not only did he expect her to “…reveal the disappointment of her marriage” [page 12] even before her secret confession, he also unconsciously overwrites Mrs. Das’s personality and her potential desires to his preference. The traditional male superiority in relationships is evident here; he unintentionally disregards her stances and assumes she would be pleased by whatever he provides. Furthermore, placing significance on her appearances more than her behaviour refers to the common female expectation of requiring to be exquisite and attractive, to men. Her role to him is solely a provider of pleasure and positivity, and her individuality is irrelevant.
The double standard Mr. Kapasi holds is also evident when Mrs. Das reveals her past adultery with Bobby’s real father. When he suggests to her “Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?” [page 22], he felt depressed and disgusted at her, contradicting his own fantasy-indulged thoughts. Not even feeling a tint of guilt for his wife, he holds Mrs. Das fully responsible for crushing his inner imagination, and for her act of infidelity. This section also reflects the social context of patriarchal India and its traditional masculine culture. Female subjection is a historically prevalent issue in the country: chaste women are idolised, whereas rape victims (another topic of widespread case study in India) face social stigma for not matching the “pure and virginal” stereotype. In light of this patriarchal culture, both characters’ Indian descent certainly may have reinforced Mr. Kapasi’s revolt.
“I told you because of your talents … I was hoping you could help me feel better, say the right thing. Suggest some kind of remedy.” [page 21] On the other hand, Mrs. Das embodies stereotypical American flaws, portrayed as self-absorbed, disrespectful, and being a bad parent. Like Mr. Kapasi, she also narcissistically expected him to lift her feelings of culpability, trusting blindly in his profession. These traits of hers represent the negative expectations of a woman from a husband; by delineating her character so pessimistically, Lahiri emphasises her infidelity as a result of her neglecting to face her own circumstances (e.g. separating from her husband). This written nuance strengthens Mr. Kapasi’s discomfort mentioned earlier, linking to his perspective and securing Mrs. Das as a character to bash on. Additionally, this is a reference to how usually a woman is blamed in both cases of affairs (even when she is the victim, the woman may be condemned for failing to satisfy the man), this may also be an implication of how social norms are not very supportive of women abandoning their husband and families, thus resulting in such actions. If the entire story setting had been the opposite – if Mrs. Das had been the dreamy interpreter instead – Mrs. Das would have been socially vilified for just having such visions and be judged as an ungrateful and indecent wife.
The chapter explores gender expectations through India’s cultural context; the diverse portrayals of female expectations and male dominance are evident throughout the two’s behaviours. Mr. Kapasi projects his euphoric desires on Mrs. Das as his manic pixie dream girl (a common stock character type in films depicting an eccentric, girlish and attractive female, whose sole purpose is to outgoingly provide and/or support the male protagonist with pleasure and enlightenment), which is conflicting as in reality she is an egocentric Indian woman who had committed extramarital sex. Once aware of this societally denounced act, Mr. Kapasi shows his repugnance, being hypocritical to his initial, flirtatious thoughts. Through the portrayal of double standards and social inequality between the two genders, the reading skillfully covers the social context of patriarchy via various discussions circling marriage, sex, and gender roles.