It was twenty years ago when Jhumpa Lahiri published her landmark book of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies. The book went on to sell 600,000 copies and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. It is useful to think through Lahiri’s own perspectives on writing, to read the title story with historical attentiveness, and to suggest some of its implications for world literature today. In approaching these issues, I will look at how realism is made, the role of the tourist, and the archipelagic relations of place in Lahiri’s writing.
Lahiri’s work could be read as being focused on the issue of language and identity, amongst other concerns such as migration, family, social relations, place, and belonging. Lahiri’s own story incorporates several of these themes: she was born in London in 1967 to Bengali parents who had migrated from Calcutta. She moved to the United States when she was two, and grew up in the suburbs before studying in New York and Boston. Her writing was rejected for many years before The Interpreter of Maladies was released in 1999. Lahiri has subsequently gone on to win many awards, had her work made into movies, and has been involved with writers’ organisations and festivals. At present, she lives in Rome and has a teaching post in New Jersey.
In terms of her literary influences, she has listed William Faulkner as a major one, arguing for his internal yet peripheral perspective on regionalism and reality. When coupled with the presence of Gogol in her novel The Namesake, where the main character is titled after the Russian writer, there is a pathos that underpins Lahiri’s work. Such a perspective is refracted through her reflections on liberal identity, and, as she stated in a 2006 Newsweek essay, “My Two Lives,” “my perception as a young girl was that I fell short at both ends, shuttling between two dimensions that had nothing to do with one another.”
Lahiri’s comments suggest something of the anxiety that is felt by migrants when making sense of themselves in places they do not have a deep sense of belonging to. She speaks of hybrid identity, of being Indian and American, and yet it is the hyphen that separates these component parts of her identity. She also speaks of dimension, suggesting that we are in worlds of reality, not simply in aspects of it. She went on to state: “There was evidence that I was not entirely American.”
By her reckoning, Americanness relies on appearance and names, on religion, on leisure, and on being present in a place at a certain time. And yet, her type of migration was specific, unique, and recent, extending the natural metaphor of “roots” we commonly use to mean “part of the family.” Speaking of herself as an adult, Lahiri wrote:
Around non-Indian friends, I no longer feel compelled to hide the fact that I speak another language. I speak Bengali to my children, even though I lack the proficiency to teach them to read or write the language. As a child I sought perfection and so denied myself the claim to any identity. As an adult I accept that a bicultural upbringing is a rich but imperfect thing.
It is this bicultural upbringing that allows her to reflect on where she is and whom she writes for and to. In the Newsweek essay and in The Interpreter of Maladies, she speaks about the dialogue that happens between places, between India and America, between diasporic subjects, and the seemingly irreconcilable space between being one thing or two things. Lahiri is interested less in hybridity than exchange, relationships, and autonomous places that cross into each other but can still be somewhat separate. So, how does this manifest in the titular short story “The Interpreter of Maladies”?
Perhaps the best place to start is the title itself. It refers to the job of the main character Mr. Kapasi, who works as a translator in a local medical clinic, mediating the world of the patient and the world of the doctor. An interpreter can refer to someone who makes different meanings from a single language or text — much like literary criticism is a type of interpretation — and his work can be seen as a point of connection between people across languages and worlds. As for maladies, this derives from the Old French word meaning “sickness.” Its usage predominated in the 19th century, but it has since become antiquated.
Kapasi’s other job, the one where the reader encounters him, is as a tourist guide showing people around India. The other characters are the Das family, featuring a young and immature Mr. and Mrs. Das and their three children, Tina, Bobby, and Ronny, who are Indian by origin but live in suburban New Brunswick, New Jersey. As Lahiri writes, “the family looked Indian but dressed as foreigners did, the children in stiff, brightly coloured clothing and caps with translucent visors.” They are a family on holiday in India. The children are disinterested — chewing gum, teasing goats, playing with car locks, annoying each other.
The story recounts Kapasi showing the Das family temples and other sites, and focuses heavily on his own desire for Mrs. Das. The third person narrator notes that he had not felt lust for any tourist he had shown around before. His fondness for Mrs. Das leads him to take the family to another temple as a detour on the way home. While Mr. Das and the children leave the car to explore the site, Mrs. Das reveals to Kapasi that one of the children, Bobby, is not Mr. Das’ son. She recounts her affair with another man. Their interaction is interrupted when they hear Bobby screaming because monkeys are attacking him. This image of fraught, fragile togetherness between the family is how the story ends. The story, like other short stories in Lahiri’s collection, is situational: no one gets what they think they want when it is unfolding, and yet that might be for the best.
As with other works by Lahiri, there are cultural references in this story that suggest something of the local conditions that constitute a world. This is a world that is known to insiders but perplexing to outsiders.
To start with names, Lahiri uses Das and Kapasi. “Das” derives from the Sanskrit dasa, meaning “servant, devotee, or votary” — a common surname all over the subcontinent and among diaspora. Mr. and Mrs. Das were born in America but come to India every couple of years to visit their parents who live in Assansol. Lahiri’s use of Das suggests that these people are relatively common, pointing to the familiar diasporic phenomenon of parents who return to their ancestral homelands and children who stay in their own settler societies, not dissimilar to Lahiri herself. In other words, the commonness of the surname makes it hard to place the protagonists — they are non-specific.
“Kapasi” derives from Gujarati kapas, meaning “cotton dealer,” and has greater regional specificity. In this way, Lahiri reverses the significance of the names. Kapasi is employed as a servant to the Das family, but there is a dialectical inversion of power relations, where the bondsman becomes the lord in the moment when Mrs. Das reveals the secret of her affair and Bobby’s paternity to him. He becomes the specialist, as his name would imply, while she is the commoner.
From the names alone, we know the story takes place in India, but where? We are in the state of Odisha, which lies to the south of Calcutta on the northeast coast towards Bangladesh on the Bay of Bengal. Our characters travel to the Sun Temple at Konark. As noted by Kapasi, this temple is dedicated to the Hindu sun god Surya. The setting at a temple to Surya matters because they are known as a god that dispels darkness and empowers knowledge, allowing us to think about how Kapasi is asked to perform a therapeutic function yet fails to do so. If anyone is supposed to be a disciple of Surya, Mrs. Das expects it to be Kapasi, in hopes that he and Surya will bring light to her and help her overcome her dark festering, secret.
The next place the characters travel to is Udayagiri and Khandagiri, two adjacent hills with caves in them. It was believed that these caves were residential caves for ascetic Jain monks from the 2nd century BCE onwards. Caves are spaces with great resonance in literary theory, not only in Indian religious traditions but also in the West, from Plato on.
There is one other place mentioned: the Chandrabhaga River, which runs the length of India. Given the setting in Odisha, Lahiri’s story likely refers to Chandrabhaga Beach, a real place situated three kilometers from the Sun Temple, believed to be the site where the god Krishna’s son Shamba worshiped Surya after being cured of leprosy. And so, as with the other locations, we can speculate that Lahiri chooses this place for its connotations of healing and duty, which recur throughout the story. The layering of religious myth is something that many Indian readers would immediately recognize, if not gloss over, precisely because it traffics in well-known cultural symbols that are rooted in local customs.
If we accept that “The Interpreter of Maladies” brings with it an Indian — or an even more localized — world of association, we might also read the story as weaving together: family drama; sexual tension and male fantasy; labor exploitation and class divisions; the failure of therapy; and miscommunication.
From the opening sentence, Lahiri establishes that all is not well in the Das household. We meet Mr. and Mrs. Das as they bicker over who will take their daughter Tina to the bathroom. Although this could be easily dismissed as an inconsequential part of daily life between married partners, it takes on a greater importance when we discover Mrs. Das’ secret affair. With the arguments between the children, the impatience between the parents, and the dissolution of the day, this story can be read as a story of suburban alienation when suburbanites stray from their comfort zone. If the Das family has come to India to be welcomed by their ancestral homeland, they cannot paper over the cracks in their relationships. This is a holiday that tests their limits as opposed to providing relaxation and connection, something that is reinforced by the monkey’s attack on Bobby and the fragile restoration of the family unit at the story’s close.
In part, the Das family’s fragility is complemented and complicated by Kapasi’s fantasies about Mrs. Das. Usually, he is in a hurry to finish work and return to his wife, but on this day he finds his mind wandering and his hopes heightened. He notices her legs, smells her “rosewater and whiskey” scent, and anticipates with some excitement what might happen between them. If this is a family drama about the Das’s, it is also about the older male fantasy. When describing Kapasi, Lahiri writes that he has a “receding hair that had gone completely silver, but his butterscotch complexion and his unlined brow, which he treated in spare moments to dabs of lotus-oil balm, made it easy to imagine what he must have looked like at an earlier age. He wore grey trousers and a matching jacket-style shirt, tapered at the waist, with short sleeves and a large pointed collar, made of a thin but durable synthetic material.” Kapasi is an older service worker, and we first notice him noticing Mrs. Das. Moreover, he perceives that Mr. Das is more interested in his own camera and what it sees than in his youthful, beautiful wife. Perhaps sensing this tension, Kapasi’s fantasies run wild. These fantasies mainly take the form of an imagined epistolary relationship where he writes letters to Mrs. Das in America, one freighted with desire and invested with an erotic symbolism that gives a charge to the story as a whole.
And yet, there are interesting intersections of identity here because it is not only about the older male gaze, but also the complications of different social positions. Kapasi is unmistakably a subaltern figure. The Das family employs him as their guide, and he clearly comes from a far less wealthy milieu. Kapasi works two jobs, suggesting something of economic precarity, and his daughter died of a preventable disease. It does not seem that he seeks to exploit Mrs. Das as a class equal. This is not to say he is without problematic gender views (if anything, she seeks to gain a sense of solace from him). There is no point of view that renders one character ideologically pure and able to speak with ethical authority on what has transpired. Rather, all the characters are compromised by personal interests, desires, and, to some extent, narcissism.
“The Interpreter of Maladies” becomes about the failure of therapy and miscommunication between individuals. Riffing off cultural expectations about Americans as neurotic, needing treatment, and alienated, Lahiri focuses much of the story’s penultimate scenario on how Mrs. Das expects Kapasi to be a source of wisdom, calm, and help. He is called upon to play the role of the Indian savant, the yogic guru, the enlightened interpreter of her malady, a “common trivial little secret to his mind.” Kapasi’s failure to perform this function not only suggests that he is a translator of a different kind, but also that we can only miscommunicate across the gulf of our individuality, be that a distinction of nation, class, gender, age, or experience. There is no easy resolution to be had when it comes to Bobby’s place in the family and Mrs. Das’ own moral compass. Whether Kapasi wilfully withholds his advice leaves open to interpretation whether he does sees this as a fair exchange, or whether he is unable to play the role expected of him. It becomes a cautionary tale of domestic femininity and of subaltern masculinity as they try to find a talking cure while the outside world becomes increasingly hostile and in need of their help.
In terms of genre, these themes suggest the story is not only a family drama, a road trip, and a failed romance, but also that it foregrounds the phenomenon of self-orientalising (between diasporic communities and those who stayed). There is internal abjection and relative debasement from within the social group, fraying of the bonds of shared origin. This offers a way to think through Othering at a conceptual level. Undoubtedly there are forms of mutual othering that happen in this text, and even though we hear more from Kapasi’s perspective, we do get a sense from Mrs. Das that she has expectations of him that cannot be easily met. The failure to communicate is also about the failure to see each other truly — that all kinds of mutual regard must work hard to collaborate on an idea of consciousness and language that is closer to a historical and contemporary truth based on evidence and values beyond the self.
I could propose that “The Interpreter of Maladies” is realist, but it is a certain type of realism, one I might label “tourist realism.” The tourist has a vexed position in literary and lived realisms. On the one hand, tourists can be seen in a positive light, connecting disparate people with empathy, insight, and care. They visit places with a sense of curiosity, of opening up boundaries, of learning about customs and cultures. On the other hand, and more commonly, they can be seen as harbingers of an apocalyptic future, where climate has changed because of jet fuel emissions, where cities crumble under the onslaught of foot traffic of cruise ship passengers, where locals cannot afford rent because visitors push up the price of apartments. The positive-negative judgment depends partly on whether the tourist as an individual can establish meaningful bonds with locals rather than instrumentalize their brief stay for their own purposes. In some ways, the tourist is the antithesis of the nomad, who, by contrast, seems genuine, anti-modern, and deeply settled despite moving around. Tourists bring with them considerable concerns precisely because they are so unsettled that they exploit their surroundings without reflecting on what might be happening in a deeper way.
As presented in Lahiri’s story, tourist realism is a literary realism that gazes upon reality as though one is a visitor to it. The tourist is a subject simply passing through and passing by, the person who has a certain distance from the mundane, quotidian, and ordinary. In Lahiri’s story, things happen even if she generally avoids overly lyrical flights of fancy, long sentences, or fantastical dialogue. She crafts tourists who experience drama, if not to the degree of melodrama. Monkeys attack but people do not die. This is not quite the same as the unending boredom of daily life, which suggests that touristic experience is somewhat heightened when contrasted against the reality of our home life where nothing happens.
Like tourists, the reader is taken to sites of authenticity — a temple, a local food stall, places where monkeys live — and sites of artifice — the airport, for example, before we come to Konark with the Das family. Lahiri does not dwell on the mechanisms through which the Das’s arrive in India; the action happens once they are there. How the reader, like the Das’s, observes the place as a touristic subject, as a touristic literary critic, is mediated by our own reality and fantasy. Lahiri gives us an outsider-insider perspective on things we might not otherwise know, from the vantage of being Indian American but not quite Indian in America, like Lahiri’s own parents. The tourist is the embodied translator who bridges worlds. Translation is vital to Lahiri’s work as a whole: she grew up code-switching as a child, between Bengali and English, having different tongues for different people in different places, and translating multiple ideas of home between Calcutta and Rhode Island.
It is important to reflect on where Lahiri is now with regard to translation. In her interviews she often speaks of the duality between Indian and American identity in the past tense. There is a discernible note of postcolonial pride when she suggests she has come to accept and celebrate her hyphenated sense of belonging. This is the case even if she writes with some ambivalence about being “a kind of linguistic exile”:
My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.
This is not a novel concept — the idea of the writer as being exiled, of estrangement, the notion that you are in a place you can never fully belong to. It is an absence, and yet, in something that recalls ideas of homesickness and tourism, you grow distant.
At the moment, Lahiri lives in Rome, where she seems to have found a reconciled place, a neutral territory that permits a synthesis of her Indian and American heritage, a middle path that she can embrace as a writer wholeheartedly. Lahiri writes of how her themes emerge in the Italian language in “In Translation” in a 2015 New Yorker essay. She claims that the language became a serious interest when she decided to write her doctoral thesis on how Italian architecture influenced English playwrights of the 17th century. Lahiri wonders why certain playwrights decided to set their tragedies — written in English — in Italian palaces, which recall for her notions of Orientalism, othering, and the Global South before it moved out of the European continent. In terms of how Lahiri engages with the Italian language, of how she translates herself from Bengali and English into Italian, she writes:
My first teacher is a Milanese woman who lives in Boston. I do the homework, I pass the tests. But when, after two years of studying, I try to read Alberto Moravia’s novel La Ciociara (“Two Women”) I barely understand it. I underline almost every word on every page. I am constantly looking in the dictionary.
In reflecting on this moment, and after sustained struggle with learning a language outside its home context, outside an environment where daily life happens in Italian, she writes:
What I learned in America, in the classroom, isn’t sufficient. My comprehension is so meagre that, in Italy, it doesn’t help me. The language still seems like a locked gate. I’m on the threshold, I can see inside, but the gate won’t open. Marco and Claudia [her Italian publishers] give me the key. When I mention that I’ve studied some Italian, and that I would like to improve it, they stop speaking to me in English.
She makes an analogy that the language is locked, a thing that needs a key, as if a gateway to a new place. Lahiri thinks she knows what is inside, but she needs help to push the door open. She finds it in the form of other people, suggesting that learning, language, and literature are performative ways to build a community, that it is with the help of others that we can know ourselves and begin to access what we truly want, or think we want, beyond the exile’s sense of displacement, estrangement, and longing. When people ask her why she is learning Italian, why English or Bengali are not enough, Lahiri is cautious. She has a public face for these questions, but in the New Yorker essay she reveals that, for her, Italian becomes a way to stay alive as a writer, a way to become refreshed precisely because it is difficult, a “mist.” When she relates every unknown word to a “jewel” we get the sense that it is precious to her, something valuable and vital that sustains her and strengthens her regardless of if she thinks it is stupid. And so, she moves to Rome with her family, leaves America behind. Importantly, she begins to write in Italian. Of this moment, Lahiri recalls:
During the first months in Rome, my clandestine Italian diary is the only thing that consoles me, that gives me stability. Often, awake and restless in the middle of the night, I go to the desk to compose some paragraphs in Italian. It’s an absolutely secret project. No one suspects, no one knows. I don’t recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new, approximate language. But I know that it’s the most genuine, most vulnerable part of me.
The last two sentences are revealing, about the feeling other languages give us when we are inside them. Lahiri fails to recognize even herself, suggesting that she is making a part of herself new, one that is unknown in the literary world and that is a genuine and vulnerable part of her subjectivity. It recalls a romantic idea of the self as being deep and secret. In reflecting on her journey in Italian, Lahiri also reflects on her relationship to language as a whole: “I’m bound to fail when I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn’t torment or grieve me.”
Italian becomes a space of liberation for Lahiri, a way for her to unify disparate threads of her identity and to feel freedom, to feel that her failures are not a sign of failing at all because there is no presumption of mastery, because it is not where she comes from in an original sense. This matters for her precisely because she cannot write in Bengali and precisely because she is treated as an Other in the racial logic of the United States. And so, there is not a turn inward, a desire to gain control over her heritage, but rather a desire to move elsewhere, to find a sense of home in a new language that brings with it a kind of syncretic tradition and a resolute sense of civilization.
It is a complex milieu in which to enter, and yet translation is not about the original or the pure or the metropolitan, but about the exchanged, the hybrid, and the dispersed. The subject is not therapeutically made whole, as if an illusory completeness happens because she is not speaking English or Bengali, but rather there is a sense of possibility when working in a language new to her, one that Lahiri cannot claim to be expert in, precisely because she is a migrant or even a tourist.
In thinking through translation, what we might then reflect on is both the specific expression of language — a word here or there like “Das” or “Kapasi” — but also the method, spirit, logic that connects all of language together. Call this a historical attentiveness to the soft structures that flex in new ways when it comes to her short stories. Our characters, like us, speak our language, but in doing so they translate their own unique worldview into a shared semiotic sign system — language, but also gesture, history, food. And so, the global depends on what a world is. But it also depends on literature as one aspect of language, an aspect where the aesthetic quality predominates.
On this, I should say that it is not that the author translates thoughts to a reader — not that Jhumpa Lahiri speaks to us as if she picked up a bottle of water and poured it into a glass that we then drank from. Rather, we go to the well together and draw the water up together, where the water is a language we know, one that resides within us but has to be called forth in the company of others. We translate our individuality through a medium we share, which we can call language. This is to say that language, and hence literature, is communal and it performs this aspect of itself by our very use.
What does Lahiri and “The Interpreter of Maladies” mean for world literature today, twenty years after the story’s release? It means that the very idea of “world literature” is still being made, that the lingua franca is not English or French or Spanish or Arabic or Chinese, nor even Italian, that literature itself in is dialogic, heterogenous, mediating forms. Lahiri’s short stories push the heterodoxies of India and America beyond their monolingual and hegemonic fantasies.
From that opening, there are useful spatial binaries we can draw upon: India and America; third world and first world; city and rural; Bengali and English; East and West. In recognizing these binaries, Lahiri’s project might not be about settling in their synthesis — be that Europe, the second world, the suburbs, Italian, the Global South. Rather, it might be about how they mesh together to create even more multiplicity, how we can reflect on the heterogeneity and plurality that resists totalizing myths. This might be what it is to be an interpreter of the interpreter of maladies: to come to rest in translation as a lived reality. This is not as a way to be unsettled, or to be a tourist, or a nomad, but rather to be conscious of possibility when one shifts homelands, or when homelands change around you. With Lahiri, we find meaning as her work recognizes and respects otherness, as it makes going through doors safer and finding keys easier, as it reinvigorates people in their language and lives on a daily basis. And if not, then maybe it is enough to simply share good stories with one another over a plate of kebabs with coriander chutney, and if not that, then surely a slice of pizza on the Spanish Steps in the late afternoon light when the tourists from Bombay and New Jersey come to photograph each other and live la dolce vita, with us, together.