Sunday, April 30, 2017

"Interpreter of Maladies" (1999)

Read story by Jhumpa Lahiri online.

Among other things, Jhumpa Lahiri's story explores what it means to be American. It takes places in India. Mr. and Mrs. Das, a young Indian-American couple born and raised in New Jersey, are there to visit their parents, who have moved back. They are taking a day to sightsee with their three children. The story is told mostly from the point of view of the tour bus driver. He is a middle-aged man and this is his second job. His main job is that he works for a doctor translating for patients who speak Gujarati, an Indian language. Mrs. Das pretends to be fascinated by this, and it's also the source of the title. Or perhaps she really is fascinated by it. The couple and their three children are traveling together, making a family vacation of it, but Mrs. Das is distant from them, and vaguely scornful of her husband, who pores over tour books. The driver, Mr. Kapesi, takes a fanciful interest in her. He is a lonely man, with an unhappy marriage. When he ends up in a picture someone takes, Mrs. Das wants his address to send him a copy. He begins to spin a fantasy in his mind of correspondence and romance. Kind of sad stuff, but it only makes Mr. Kapesi more likable. The Das family is familiar with India—all except the youngest child have been there before. But they are American. They do not consider themselves Indian. They sightsee and look at their heritage, but it has no more meaning than boxes to tick off on a checklist. Everything about them—the way they dress and talk and what they want to do—proclaims their Americanness. They are above all this. But they are not happy, and it's the unhappiness of narcissists. Thus, perhaps, Mrs. Das picks up somehow on Mr. Kapesi's fantasies and his little hopes, and she kind of starts playing with him, maybe testing him, all unconsciously no doubt. But she reels him in, whispers a terrible personal secret to him, and figuratively smirks at his shock and horror. Maybe it's another Tom and Daisy Buchanan, an American story of smashing things and leaving them behind, blotting out the past relentlessly. An odd incident with monkeys finishes out this strange and moving story, which almost feels like a parable on one level, at the same time it's fundamentally great story writing, a Chekhovian meditation on random devastating moments in life. Very nice one.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

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