Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies
Interpreter of Maladies  
Cover of paperback edition
Author(s) Jhumpa Lahiri
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Short stories
Publisher Houghton Mifflin
Publication date 1999
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 198 pp
ISBN 0-618-10136-5sffsfffs
OCLC Number 40331288

Interpreter of Maladies is a book collection of nine short stories by Indian American author Jhumpa Lahiri published in 1999. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award in the year 2000 and has sold over 15 million copies worldwide. It was also chosen as The New Yorker's Best Debut of the Year and is on Oprah Winfrey's Top Ten Book List.

The stories are about the lives of Indians and Indian Americans who are caught between the culture they have inherited and the "New World."


The Stories

  1. A Temporary Matter
  2. When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine
  3. Interpreter of Maladies
  4. A Real Durwan
  5. Sexy
  6. Mrs. Sen's
  7. This Blessed House
  8. The Treatment of Bibi Haldar
  9. The Third and Final Continent

Story Summaries and Analysis

A Temporary Matter

Told from the third-person perspective of the husband, this story deals with the disintegrating relationship of an Indian couple, Shoba and Shukumar. Their stillborn child has created distance between the two of them, and Shukumar observes as Shoba transforms from the attentive wife into someone more aloof and self-absorbed. As in most of Lahiri’s stories, food plays a significant role in the couple’s relationship. Shoba had always given the impression that their pantries were stuffed with endless supplies of food. When she begins to neglect this, Shukumar simply observes as the food vanishes, cooking what he can of it using Shoba’s old recipes. He makes no moves to create a new supply. In fact, he makes no move to cover up the signs of neglect throughout the house that he holds Shoba accountable for when in fact his own apathy and grief are to blame as well. Likewise, he does little to comfort Shoba in her grief, not quite realizing the seriousness of their relationship problems. One day, they receive notice that their electricity will be out for one hour every night for five days. They spend each of these nights in the dark sharing secrets with each other, things they had never shared before. Each confession becomes more bold and reveals a larger flaw in their marriage, until their impending separation becomes clear.

This Blessed House

Sanjeev and Twinkle, a newly married couple, are exploring their new house in Hartford, which appears to have been owned by fervent Christians: they keep finding gaudy Biblical paraphernalia hidden throughout the house. While Twinkle is delighted by these objects and wants to display them everywhere, Sanjeev is uncomfortable with them and reminds her that they are Hindu, not Christian. This argument reveals other problems in their relationship; Sanjeev doesn’t seem to understand Twinkle’s spontaneity, whereas Twinkle has little regard for Sanjeev’s discomfort. He is planning a party for his coworkers and is worried about the impression they might get from the interior decorating if their mantelpiece is full of Biblical figurines. After some arguing and a brief amount of tears, a compromise is reached. When the day of the party arrives, the guests are enamored with Twinkle. Sanjeev still has conflicting feelings about her; he is captivated by her beauty and energy, but irritated by her naivete and impractical tendencies. The story ends with her and the other party guests discovering a large bust of Jesus Christ in the attic. Although the object disgusts him, he obediently carries it downstairs. This action can either be interpreted as Sanjeev giving into Twinkle and accepting her eccentricities, or as a final, grudging act of compliance in a marriage that he is reconsidering.


One of only two stories in this collection told by a non-Indian narrator, “Sexy” tells the story of a young woman, Miranda, and her affair with a married Indian man named Dev. Aside from what she hears from her one Indian friend at work, a woman named Laxmi, Miranda knows very little about India and its culture. The first time she meets Dev, she is not able to discern his nationality. However, she is instantly captivated by his charm and the thrill of being with an exotic, older man. The title of the story refers to something he whispered to her in the Christian Science center’s Mapparium, a moment that she would remember for its intimacy but would later come to be seen as a sign of an unhealthy relationship. She has pangs of guilt because he is married, and this is highlighted by the fact that Laxmi’s cousin has recently been abandoned by her husband for a younger woman. One day, Laxmi’s cousin comes to Boston and Miranda is asked to babysit her seven-year-old son, Rohin. Rohin ends up giving Miranda some insight into his mother’s grief and calls to her attention the more unglamorous aspects of being the “other woman.” This experience eventually leads her to call off her affair.

Analysis of A Temporary Matter, This Blessed House, Sexy

Lahiri's objective in opening her collection with "A Temporary Matter" is to start from nothing; the story is clearly about a failed relationship. By starting with a defeat, Lahiri seems to foretell that her stories will be about the hardships of communication and relationships, but that each has the possibility of success. Even in "Sexy," where the featured couple ends up separating, Miranda is actually stronger for ending her relationship with Dev because she can see that it has no potential.[1] Food is also a common theme among the stories. In "A Temporary Matter", the haunting absence of food in the household is a parallel to the lack of affection in their marriage. In "This Blessed House", Twinkle is not at all the accomplished cook that Shoba is. Having grown up in California instead of in India like Sanjeev, she doesn't seem to have any background knowledge in Indian cooking. However, she surprises Sanjeev with her spontaneous creative streak in the kitchen. Although he's annoyed that she cannot cook authentic Indian food, he is still pleasantly surprised by the meal she serves him. His attitude toward her food mirrors his attitude toward her. In "Sexy" food plays a much smaller part. Miranda's only significant encounter with Indian food in the story is when she visits an Indian grocery looking for a movie. She comes across the Hot Mix that Laxmi is always eating, but the grocer tells her it is too spicy for her. Miranda feels uncomfortable in the grocery store, and doesn't buy the Hot Mix for Laxmi because she feels like she needs to give an excuse for being in an Indian store in the first place. This guilt or feeling of ostracism highlights the fact that she feels uncomfortable with Dev; she knows so little about him and his background, and yet their relationship is so intimate that it seems inappropriate for her not to understand more about India.[2]

Interpreter of Maladies

Mr. and Mrs. Das, Indian Americans visiting the country of their heritage, hire middle-aged tour guide Mr. Kapasi as their driver for the day as they tour Ronny, Bobby, and Tina. Mr. Kapasi notes the parents’ immaturity Mr. and Mrs. Das look and act young to the point of childishness, go by their first names when talking to their children, and seem selfishly indifferent to the kids. On their trip, when her husband and children get out of the car to sightsee, Mrs. Das sits in the car, eating snacks she offers to no one else, wearing her sunglasses as a barrier, and painting her nails. When Tina asks her to paint her nails as well, Mrs. Das just turns away and rebuffs her daughter.

Mr. and Mrs. Das ask the good-natured Mr. Kapasi about his job as a tour guide, and he tells them about his weekday job as an interpreter in a doctor’s office. Mr. Kapasi’s wife resents her husband’s job because he works at the doctor’s clinic that previously failed to cure their son of typhoid fever. She belittles his job, and he, too, discounts the importance of his occupation as a waste of his linguistic skills. However, Mrs. Das deems it “romantic” and a big responsibility, pointing out that the health of the patients depends upon Mr. Kapasi’s correct interpretation of their maladies.

Mr. Kapasi begins to develop a romantic interest in Mrs. Das, and conducts a private conversation with her during the trip. Mr. Kapasi imagines a future correspondence with Mrs. Das, picturing them building a relationship to translate the transcontinental gap between them. However, Mrs. Das reveals a secret: she tells Mr. Kapasi the story of an affair she once had, and that her son Bobby had been born out of her adultery. She explains that she chose to tell Mr. Kapasi because of his profession; she hopes he can interpret her feelings and make her feel better as he does for his patients, translating without passing judgment. However, when Mr. Kapasi reveals his disappointment in her and points out her guilt, Mrs. Das storms off.

As Mrs. Das walks away towards her family, she trails crumbs of puffed rice snacks, and monkeys begin to trail her. The neglectful Das parents don’t notice as the monkeys, following Mrs. Das’s food trail, surround their son, Bobby, isolating the son born of a different father. The monkeys begin to attack Bobby, and Mr. Kapasi rushes in to save him. Mr. Kapasi returns Bobby to his parents, and looks on as they clean up their son.


The story centers upon interpretation and its power. The interpreter has power as a vehicle of understanding. Mr. Kapasi’s work enables correct diagnosis and treatment by understanding the pains and troubles of patients—effectively, he enables the saving of lives. Mrs. Das looks for this understanding from him, seeking absolution for the secret of her adultery. In confessing to Mr. Kapasi, she endows him with a sort of priestly power, expecting her confession to draw out forgiveness and consolation. Interpretation also becomes a means of communication and connection, something for which both Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das yearn. Both feel a disconnect from their spouses and their families, unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives.[1]

Mr. Kapasi interprets her marital situation in relation to his own, and she asks him to interpret her secret marital violation as a connection exclusively between them. Lahiri also establishes a contrast in this story between characters who care and those who don’t.[1] Mr. Kapasi cares about this family he has only just met; he ponders them and considers their situation. He also quickly begins to care about Mrs. Das, developing attentiveness to her every move. On the other hand, the Das parents exhibit complete carelessness, neglecting to keep an eye on their children, ignoring each other, acting completely self-centered.

Main Theme—Interpretation/Seeing

In the story of “Interpreter of Maladies” each character has a deformed way of viewing each other. Mr. Das views the world through the lens of his camera (one of the symbols in the story). Since his camera is always around his neck, he sees even tough realities through the lens of his camera, which is blinded to other characters. For example, he takes pictures of the starving peasant, and doing so openly ignores the peasant's fundamental reality. Mrs. Das, always wearing her sunglasses, sees others through their tint and this blocks others from seeing her eyes. Furthermore, when in the taxi, her window does not roll down, so she can not directly see the world outside. Mr. Kapasi watches Mrs. Das through the rearview mirror, which distorts his view of her and prevents him from looking at her directly. All the children in the story are wearing a visor, this suggests that one day, their vision will be as distorted and deformed as their parents' visions are. Mr. Das and Ronny closely resemble each other, whereas Mr. Das and Bobby have little in common. Mr. Kapasi simply observes this fact but draws no reference from it, even though this simple fact is a hint to the deeper truth. Because Mr. Kapasi sees the Das family as a unit, he never suspects the simple truth that Mr. Das is not Bobby's father. His idea of family deforms the reality of the situation.

A Real Durwan

Boori Ma is a feeble 64-year-old woman from Calcutta who is the stair-sweeper, or durwan, of an old brick building. In exchange for her services, the residents allow Boori Ma to live on the roof of the building. While she sweeps, she tells stories of her past: her daughter’s extravagant wedding, her servants, her estate and her riches. The residents of the brick building hear continuous contradictions in Boori’s storytelling, but her stories are seductive and compelling, so they let her contradictions rest. One family in particular takes a liking to Boori Ma, the Dalal’s. Mrs. Dalal often gives Boori Ma food and takes care of her ailments. When Mr. Dalal gets promoted at work, he improves the brick building by installing a sink in the stairwell and a sink in his home. The Dalal’s continue to improve their home and even go away on a trip to Simla for ten days and promise to bring back Boori Ma a sheep’s hair blanket. While the Dalal’s are away, the other residents become obsessed with making their own improvement to the building. Boori Ma even spends her life savings on special treats while circling around the neighborhood. However, while Boori Ma is out one afternoon, the sink in the stairwell is stolen. The residents accuse Boori Ma of informing the robbers and in negligence for her job. When Boori Ma protests, the residents continue to accuse her because of all her previous inconsistent stories. The residents' obsession with materializing the building dimmed their focus on the remaining members of their community, like Boori Ma. The short story concludes as the residents throw out Boori Ma’s belongings and begin a search for a “real durwan.”

The Treatment of Bibi Haldar

Analysis of A Real Durwan and The Treatment of Bibi Haldar

"A Real Durwan" and "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar" are both examples of the effects of globalization in India. Globalization has caused many women to be or to be on the path to poverty. Although the Indian government officially eliminated the caste system in 1949, it is still a part of the social structure in India because of its deep-rooted tradition in history. Because a person is usually born into a caste, the caste rarely changes from generation to generation. Most women in poverty are in lower castes. The women who are lucky to be employed are paid poorly and exploited for their long hours of labor. Women are seen as "replaceable and disposable".[citation needed] Many women enter the "unorganized, underground economy".[citation needed] In this type of economy, there are extended hours, horrible conditions, poor wages, and they are treated unfairly. Both Boori Ma and Bibi Haldar were a part of the unorganized, underground economy because they were paid in food and shelter instead of legal, monetary compensation. Boori Ma was thrown out of her building because the community saw her as inferior and unequal. Furthermore, women's poverty is a direct link to the lack of access to education and legitimate healthcare. If Bibi Haldar had access to proper healthcare and a good doctor, her illness may have been diagnosed correctly and she would have received the right medication.[3]

Mrs. Sen's

In this story, 11-year old Eliot begins staying with Mrs. Sen - a university professor's wife - after school. The caretaker, Mrs. Sen, chops and prepares food as she tells Elliot stories of her past life in Calcutta, helping to craft her identity. Like "A Temporary Matter," this story is filled with lists of produce, catalogs of ingredients, and descriptions of recipes. Emphasis is placed on ingredients and the act of preparation. Other objects are emphasized as well, such as Mrs. Sen's colorful collection of saris from her native India. Much of the plot revolves around Mrs. Sen's tradition of purchasing fish from a local seafood market. This fish reminds Mrs. Sen of her home and holds great significance for her. However, reaching the seafood market requires driving, a skill that Mrs. Sen has not learned and resists learning. At the end of the story, Mrs. Sen attempts to drive to the market without her husband, and ends up in an automobile accident. Eliot soon stops staying with Mrs. Sen thereafter.

Analysis of Mrs. Sen's

Mrs. Sen, the titular character of Lahiri’s story demonstrates the power that physical objects have over the human experience. During the entire story, Mrs. Sen is preoccupied with the presence or lack of material objects that she once had. Whether it is fish from her native Calcutta or her special vegetable cutting blade, she clings to the material possessions that she is accustomed to, while firmly rejecting new experiences such as canned fish or even something as mundane as driving a car. While her homesickness is certainly understandable given her lack of meaningful social connections, her item-centric nostalgia only accentuates the fact that the people she meets in America are no barrier to her acclimation. The man at the fish market takes the time to call Mrs. Sen and reserve her special mmuff. The policeman who questions Mrs. Sen after her automobile accident does not indict her. For all intents and purposes, the people in the story make it easy for Mrs. Sen to embrace life in America. But despite this, Mrs. Sen refuses to assimilate to any degree, continuing to wrap herself in saris, serving Indian canapés to Eliot’s mother, and putting off the prospect of driving. By living her life vicariously through remembered stories imprinted on her blade, her saris, and her grainy aerograms, Mrs. Sen resists assimilation through the power of material objects and the meaning they hold for her.

The Third and Final Continent

Analysis of The Third and Final Continent

In contrast to depictions of resistance to Indian culture found in several of the stories in Lahiri’s collection, "The Third And Final Continent" portrays a relatively positive story of the Indian-American experience. In this story, the obstacles and hardships that the protagonist must overcome are much more tangible, such as learning to stomach a diet of cornflakes and bananas, or boarding in a cramped YMCA. The protagonist’s human interactions demonstrate a high degree of tolerance and even acceptance of Indian culture on the part of the Americans he meets. Mrs. Croft makes a point of commenting on the protagonist’s sari-wrapped wife, calling her “a perfect lady” (195). Croft’s daughter Helen also remarks that Cambridge is “a very international city,” hinting at the reason why the protagonist is met with a general sense of acceptance. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 into law, abolishing several immigration quotas. This piece of legislation resulted in a massive surge of immigration from Asian countries, including India during the late 1960s and 1970s. In particular, this allowed many Asians to come to the US under the qualification of being a “professional, scientist, or artist of exceptional ability” contributing to the reputation of Asian-Americans as being intelligent, mannered, and a model minority. In this story, the only reason the narrator even meets Mrs. Croft is because he is an employee of MIT, a venerable institution of higher learning. Whereas prior to the INS Act of 1965, Asians were often seen as a yellow menace that was only tolerable because of their small numbers (0.5% of the population), by the time the Asian immigration boom tapered off in the 1990s, their reputation as a model minority had been firmly cemented, building a reputation for Asian Americans of remarkable educational and professional success, serving as the cultural backdrop in Lahiri’s The Third and Final Continent.[4] By ending on a cultural tone of social acceptance and tolerance, Lahiri suggests that the experience of adapting to American society is ultimately achievable.

Book Reviews

Noelle Brada-Williams argues that the Interpreter of Maladies is not just a collection of random short stories that have common components, but that the stories are combined to create a "short story cycle." She argues that Lahiri intentionally connects the themes and motifs throughout them to produce a cumulative effect on the reader. She goes on to argue that Indian American literature is under-represented and Lahiri deliberately tries to give a diverse view of Indian Americans so as not to brand the group as a whole. Brada-Williams also examines the idea of care and neglect in all of the stories. She points out that this reoccurring theme is present in all nine short stories and helps to support the notion that Lahiri intended to create a short story cycle.[1]

Ketu H. Katrak reads The Interpreter of Maladies as reflecting the trauma of self-transformation through immigration, which can result in a series of broken identities that form "multiple anchorages." Lahiri's stories show the diasporic struggle to keep hold of culture as characters create new lives in foreign cultures. Relationships, language, rituals, and religion all help these characters maintain their culture in new surroundings even as they build a "hybrid realization" as Asian Americans.[5]

Laura Anh Williams observes the stories as highlighting the frequently omitted female diasporic subject. Through the foods they eat, and the ways they prepare and eat them, the women in these stories utilize foodways to construct their own unique racialized subjectivity and to engender agency. Williams notes the ability of food in literature to function autobiographically, and in fact, Interpreter of Maladies indeed reflects Lahiri’s own family experiences. Lahiri recalls that for her mother, cooking "was her jurisdiction. It was also her secret." For individuals such as Lahiri's' mother, cooking constructs a sense of identity, interrelationship, and home that is simultaneously communal and yet also highly personal.[2][6]


Interpreter of Maladies was translated into Persian by Amir Mahdi Haghighat, as Motarjem-e Dard-hā. Interpreter of Maladies was translated into Swedish by Eva Sjöstrand, as Den indiske tolken.


  1. ^ a b c d Noelle Brada-Williams, "Reading Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies as a Short Story Cycle," MELUS, Vol. 29, 2004
  2. ^ a b Laura Anh Williams, "Foodways and Subjectivity in Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies," MELUS, Saturday, December 22, 2007.
  3. ^ Argiropoulos, Catherine, and Indhu Rajagopal. "Women in Poverty: Canada and India." Economic and Political Weekly 38.7 (2003): 612-14. Print.
  4. ^ Le, C.N. 2009. "The 1965 Immigration Act" at Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> (November 9, 2009).
  5. ^ Ketu H. Katrak, “The Aesthetics of Dislocation”, The Women’s Review of Books, XIX, no. 5 (February 2002), 5-6.
  6. ^ Jhumpa Lahiri, "Cooking Lessons: The Long Way Home." The New Yorker 6 Sept. 2004: 83-84.

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