4. What if?
This story is one of my favourite pieces of fiction of all time. It’s elegant, beautifully written and there are plenty of literary tropes to discuss.
And I’m not the only one who rates ‘Interpreter of maladies’. Besides selling over 15 million copies worldwide, the short story’s eponymous collection has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and the New Yorker Debut of the Year award, just to name a few.
Before we dive into it, please do go ahead and give it a read. If you don’t have a copy to hand, you can read it online by clicking here.
Let’s start off by talking about Mr Kapasi and the narrative role he plays. During the opening scene, he acts as the guide, not just for the Das family, but also for us the reader. He is an observer, and it’s through his eyes that we watch the story begin to unfold.
Just look at how he’s first introduced to the reader in the third sentence of the story:
In the rearview mirror Mr. Kapasi watched as Mrs. Das emerged slowly from his bulky white Ambassador, dragging her shaved, largely bare legs across the back seat.
There is nothing here that gives any information about Mr Kapasi, other than the fact that he drives a ‘bulky white Ambassador’. Indeed, it isn’t until the third page that we have a first visual description of Mr Kapasi, when we learn that he is ‘forty-six years old, with receding hair’ that has gone ‘completely silver’.
In this sense, Mr Kapasi starts out as what we might call a traditional narrator, one that is on the periphery of the action, but not central to it, serving more as a guide to the reader. It’s a common device used by writers (think of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby or Dr Watson in many of the Sherlock Holmes stories). It allows the writer to describe the world in which the story takes place without pages and pages of dull exposition.
In ‘Interpreter of maladies’, Mr Kapasi’s observations of the Das family provide the reader with a vivid picture of who they are and how they interact with one another. For instance, we know that:
Interestingly, this type of narrator usually comes in the form of first-person narrative. (Again, think of Nick Carraway and Dr Watson.) They are telling us their view of the world as they encounter it. Not so in ‘Interpreter of maladies’. The narrative style is called ‘Third-Person Limited Point of View’. This means that the story uses pronouns like ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’, but that the point of view is limited to a single character – in this case, Mr Kapasi.
What is Lahiri doing here and how does it affect the story as a whole?
While Mr Kapasi does start out as a generic observer, he soon becomes a more integral part of the plot. About a third of the way through the story, a new and exciting element is introduced. Mrs Das suddenly comes to life. From the backseat of Mr Kapasi’s car, she hears him say that he also works as an interpreter for a doctor. It piques her interest, and she asks him questions. She even describes it as ‘so romantic’.
This is the point where Mr Kapasi’s infatuation begins, and he ceases to simply be an observer, but a very central actor in the story, with his own developing motivations and role to play.
Her sudden interest in him, an interest she did not express in either her husband or her children, was mildly intoxicating. When Mr. Kapasi thought once again about how she had said “romantic,” the feeling of intoxication grew.
One of the most fundamental aspects to all fiction – regardless of medium or genre – is the need for constant development among the story’s principal characters. We need to see the characters make significant changes from the first to the last scene, with plenty of smaller, contributing changes taking place along the way.
Let’s think about this development in regards to ‘Interpreter of maladies’. You could analyse any one of the adult characters in this way, but for the sake of argument, we’ll look at the character who goes through the most evident shift, Mr Kapasi.
We can map out Mr Kapasi’s overall character arc by considering how he appears at the beginning of the story versus how he is presented at the end. As we’ve already seen, in the opening pages, Mr Kapasi is a passive character. We learn that he is intelligent, polite and practical (for instance, he has a ‘preferred uniform for giving tours because it did not get crushed during his long hours behind the wheel’).
However, this depiction is drastically different by the time we reach the end of the story. By that point, Mr Kapasi comes across as a man of failed ambition, stuck in a loveless marriage, with the tragedy of his dead son hanging over his relationship with his wife. His pursuit of Mrs Das might also cast him in a creepy, arrogant light, fantasising about a romance that will never come to be.
How does Lahiri craft this transition, and to what end?
It’s one of the reasons ‘Interpreter of maladies’ is such a literary masterpiece. Mr Kapasi’s transformation is a subtle one. There’s no one big moment; rather, a series of events and revelations to the reader, all starting from the moment Mrs Das takes an interest in his work as an interpreter:
All of these moments lead to a significant shift in how we perceive Mr Kapasi, which Lahiri uses with great effect to create a powerful final scene. At the beginning of the story, we couldn’t possibly have imagined Mr Kapasi making a romantic move for Mrs Das. It would be out of the question. But thanks to the numerous subtle shifts throughout the story, it arrives naturally, and the final scene is loaded with tension.
Of course, Lahiri changes our expectations as a reader once again, by dropping the bombshell about Mrs Das’s infidelities. It’s another plot twist that arrives unexpectedly, changing the shape of the entire story yet again.
The ending of ‘Interpreter of maladies’ is one of my favourite finales in all of fiction. It is beautiful and elegant; it neatly wraps up all the story’s loose ends; and Mrs Das’s revelation comes as a bombshell to both the reader and Mr Kapasi.
Up until this point, the story belongs to Mr Kapasi. The Das family are relatively insignificant, or at least passive, to his journey. Yes, Mrs Das’s interest in his second job is what triggers the main storyline, but you couldn’t say she’s a conscious participant in it. Rather, it’s Mr Kapasi’s imagination running away with itself.
And that’s where we’re led to believe the story is going. Will Mr Kapasi make a romantic move for Mrs Das, and if so, how will she react?
Of course, this isn’t what happens. Instead, we’re told that Mrs Das had an affair and that her husband is not the biological father to her youngest son, Bobby. Mr Kapasi doesn’t confess his feelings. He doesn’t have the chance. He is expected to provide some magic remedy for Mrs Das’s problem, and when he can’t, she storms off, leaving him devastated.
It’s a subversion of reader expectations that is perfectly played. There’s no strong foreshadowing to speak of, and yet the ‘plot twist’ doesn’t seem out of place. In fact, Mrs Das’s interest in Mr Kapasi’s job as an interpreter is an unanswered plot point up until this scene – a loose thread that needs tying up. Plus, it gives character to Mrs Das. It turns her from passive to active. All this time, she had a plan.
It’s difficult to pull off a plot twist like this in fiction, especially one that ties up the drama rather than creating new plot holes. But Lahiri does it masterfully. The guided tour (both in the story and for us readers) has come to an end; Mr Das is none the wiser about his wife’s infidelities; and Mr Kapasi is no longer left wondering about a future romance with Mrs Das.
When she whipped out the hairbrush, the slip of paper with Mr. Kapasi’s address on it fluttered away in the wind. No one but Mr. Kapasi noticed. He watched as it rose, carried higher and higher by the breeze, into the trees where the monkeys now sat, solemnly observing the scene below. Mr. Kapasi observed it too, knowing that this was the picture of the Das family he would preserve forever in his mind.
As we always do in long-form fetish articles, let’s imagine some alternate literary scenarios for ‘Interpreter of maladies’ and consider the impact they would have on the plot.
As we’ve seen, this story benefits from a third-person limited point of view narration, where we are given insights into Mr Kapasi’s inner thoughts. But what if it were written in first-person POV, in Mr Kapasi’s voice? What would it change? The tone, certainly. But what about our perception of Mr Kapasi and the Das family? How would that be affected?
Mrs Das’s role in ‘Interpreter of maladies’ is what drives the plot forward. It’s her interest in Mr Kapasi’s second job that triggers the principal drama and tension. But what if the story were written from her narrative point of view, either third-person limited or first person? Would we know about her secret? At what point would it be revealed to the reader? And how would Mr Kapasi’s attraction to her unfold?
Mrs Das’s revelation about the true identity of Bobby’s father comes as a shock. But what if it weren’t part of the story? How else might Lahiri choose to wrap things up? Would Mr Kapasi act on his feelings? And if so, how would Mrs Das react?