Interpreter of Maladies Novel summary and themes

 Interpreter of Maladies Novel summary and theme

The stories in the book are not linked but mostly share a common thematic purpose: an exploration of the immigrant experience and how it changes or alienates people from their heritage. Six of the nine stories in the collection focus on Indian immigrants of the first or second generation living in America, and the conflict is often driven by their difference or difficulty adjusting to life in America. Three stories are set in India, with two of those concerning women living in poverty and their role in the community.

“A Temporary Matter” is the debut story and the one that veers furthest from the themes in other stories. Shoba and Shukumar are comfortably settled in America but are struggling with a miscarriage that has disrupted their marriage. When they learn that the power will be shut off in their home for an hour each night, the two take the opportunity to confess secrets to each other in the darkness. Each night, Shukumar’s confessions grow more intimate, and he thinks that he and his wife are headed toward reconnection; however, on the final night of their game, Shoba reveals that she has found a new apartment. Shukumar makes one last confession—that he held their child’s body before he was buried—and the two cry together in grief.

In “When Mr. Pirzada Comes to Dine,” a young Indian girl is introduced to Mr. Pirzada, a friend of the family whose hometown of Dacca has been invaded at the beginning of the Bangladesh War for Independence. His wife and daughters are still in Dacca, so he spends evenings with the family watching the news for word of what’s happening. Meanwhile, the young girl struggles to understand the difference between her family and Mr. Pirzada, since they are of different nationalities. Mr. Pirzada and the girl grow close, and when he leaves to find his family, she learns what it is to miss someone.

“Interpreter of Maladies” is the story of a tour guide, Mr. Kapasi, taking the Das family, who are Americanized Indian immigrants, on a tour of a temple in East India. Mr. Das views the family as strange and undisciplined, but he takes a liking to Mrs. Das when she shows an interest in his other job as an interpreter at a doctor’s office. He tries to prolong the tour by offering to take them to another site, and when they arrive, Mrs. Das stays in the car with him and confesses that one of her children is not her husband’s. Mr. Kapasi’s image of her fades, and when that child is attacked by monkeys, Mr. Kapasi saves him, knowing that he has a secret that has ruined the illusion of this family.

“A Real Durwan” concerns an old woman who is living in the stairwell of a run-down building. The tenants put up with the stories of her fall from grace since she watches over the building, but when one resident installs a wash basin in the stairwell, her life is disrupted as other tenants jealously compete to add improvements of their own. She takes to sleeping on the roof and wandering the streets during the day; she is robbed of her life savings, and her absence from the building leads to the wash basin’s theft. She is cast out by the tenants, who no longer have any sympathy for her.

In “Sexy,” a young woman named Miranda begins an affair with an Indian man, Dev, at the same time as her Indian colleague’s cousin is going through a separation due to her husband’s infidelity. Miranda is caught up in the whirlwind romance and buys a sexy cocktail dress, but when Dev’s wife returns home, their affair becomes a routine weekly occurrence without any excitement. She agrees to watch the cousin’s son while her colleague takes her around the city; her experience with the boy disabuses her of any hope of getting what she wants with Dev, and she breaks off the affair.

“Mrs. Sen’s” is the story of a woman who is relatively new to America and her experience watching over a young boy, Eliot, after school. Eliot and Mrs. Sen grow close, and Eliot watches as Mrs. Sen struggles to learn to drive and experiences loneliness as an immigrant without a support network. After going back and forth with her husband on driving, Mrs. Sen decides to learn the bus schedule instead, but she is insulted when bringing home fresh fish—her favorite indulgence—on the bus. The next time she wants fish, she drives, but she is in an accident, leading to the end of her time with Eliot.

“This Blessed House” is about a newly married immigrant couple, Sanjeev and Twinkle, who keep finding Christian artifacts in their new home. Twinkle wants to display the artifacts, but Sanjeev finds them distasteful, and this difference leads him to consider if he really loves his new wife. He presses her to get rid of them before a housewarming party, but she refuses; at the party, the guests are charmed by her and decide to go on a scavenger hunt for more items. They all go to the attic, and Sanjeev considers shutting them in there until Twinkle returns with a giant bust of Christ, leading Sanjeev to resign himself to who she is.

“The Treatment of Bibi Haldar” depicts the plight of a poor Indian woman who suffers from seizures. Although she tries everything, there is no treatment, and she is left in the care of her cousin and his wife, who dislike her. The community agrees she should be married, but they cannot find a suitor. Nevertheless, they teach her how to be a proper Indian woman. When the cousin’s treatment of her grows worse, the community puts him out of business, and he and his wife leave the city, leaving Bibi alone. The community thinks she has isolated herself in depression, but it turns out she is hiding a pregnancy. Though the father is never found, she is happy and opens her own store to support the child.

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Shukumar is the main character in “A Temporary Matter”; he is grieving the loss of his son by miscarriage alongside his wife, Shoba. The miscarriage has made him distant from his wife and unproductive in his graduate work, and in his withdrawn state, he has become a homebody. The miscarriage has likewise had a profound impact on Shoba; she used to be a caretaker, putting away stored spices and chutneys and filling the freezer with goods, but now she takes on extra work and stays away from the home as much as possible. She is a planner, a trait that initially seems to have also been lost in the tragedy, but it is revealed that she has been planning to leave Shukumar and has worked everything out.

As the two confess things to each other over the course of their story, Shukumar begins to soften toward Shoba, but that progress is halted when she reveals she is leaving him, and he confesses to holding their deceased child, a fact that he withheld out of love but now admits to freely when he knows their relationship is over.


Lilia in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” is a 10-year-old girl in 1971, when a man named Mr. Pirzada begins to visit her house to eat dinner and watch the international news. Mr. Pirzada is a stoic professor who is trapped in America when his home of Dacca—where his wife and children still live—is invaded and is taken in by Lilia’s family. Mr. Pirzada is from East Pakistan, not India like Lilia’s family, and Lilia struggles with the concept of Mr. Pirzada’s nationality in comparison to her own—she sees only their similarities. Her failure to see the distinctions between them is in part a result of her education: She is learning only American history, and her teacher attempts to suppress her interest in learning about the Indian subcontinent. When Mr. Pirzada is reunited with his family and Lilia realizes she will never see him again, she essentially loses a piece of her childhood. Only then does she realize how much his presence meant to her.


Mr. Kapasi works as a tour guide and as an interpreter in a doctor’s office. He is middle-aged and married, though his marriage is strained by the death of a child, and his wife resents that he works with the doctor who could not save their son. When a young American mother takes an interest in him, he fantasizes about growing close with her, in part because she values the work he does. He is a tragic figure since his assumptions are rooted in his own desire to have intimacy and dignity.


Boori Ma is a proud woman who has fallen on hard times in “A Real Durwan.” She is living in the doorway of an apartment building in exchange for keeping the stairwell clean and guarding the door, and she insists that she comes from a wealthy family, regaling the neighbors with stories of her past. Her pride keeps her from caring about whether she is believed, which ends up being a factor in her downfall when the building is robbed while she is away.


Miranda is a young, na├»ve American woman who has an affair with an Indian man, Dev, in “Sexy.” She rationalizes her situation because she has never been made to feel special, and she takes an interest in Indian culture to get to know Dev better, particularly after their relationship becomes routine instead of romantic, as she had envisioned. She realizes the error of her ways when she is confronted by a young boy, Rohin, whose own father is having an affair.


Mrs. Sen is a woman in her thirties who has come to America for her husband’s work. She is struggling to integrate into American society, and she is deeply lonely for her family and her home in India. She finds joy in getting fresh fish, which reminds her of home, but since she doesn’t know how to drive, she relies on her husband to get it for her. Her difficulty learning to drive leads to further feelings of loneliness and isolation and is emblematic of her inability to adjust.

Eliot, the 11-year-old boy she babysits, is lonely as well, and Mrs. Sen sees a kindred spirit in him. In their time together, Eliot learns about her culture, and the two come empathize with each other due to the shared bond of loneliness. When Eliot’s mother decides he is old enough not to need a babysitter, both Eliot and Mrs. Sen lose the social bond they have come to value, returning to an isolation that the story suggests is a central part of the American experience.


Sanjeev is an up-and-coming figure at his company in “This Blessed House,” and he has recently married Twinkle; he initially finds her charming, but he has begun to question whether he loves her because of their differences. Twinkle is a free spirit who is relatively content in life, and she becomes fascinated by the Christian paraphernalia that she finds in her new house with Sanjeev. She isn’t religious, but she finds the pieces charming. She is careless in the way she takes care of herself, the house, and her belongings, but she is naturally charismatic, making friends with Sanjeev’s colleagues easily. Sanjeev is concerned with appearances and proper behavior, and he married in part because he wanted to escape the loneliness of bachelorhood. He thinks that he and Twinkle are a bad match, but ultimately his fear of loneliness is greater than his growing feelings of resentment.


The narrator of the final story in the collection is born in India, spends time in England as a bachelor, then returns to India to marry Mala, a woman he barely knows, before leaving to take a job at MIT in Boston. There, he meets Mrs. Croft, a centenarian woman who rents him a room. She is stubborn and frail, and she makes very specific demands of her renters. The narrator defies one of them, paying his rent by giving it to her in person, an act that touches her greatly. The two grow close, with Mrs. Croft coming to serve as a kind of surrogate mother to the narrator.



Without exception, the central theme of each story in Interpreter of Maladies has to do with empathy for the other, either in the phenomenological sense, which concerns the way our perceptions of someone else influence and interfere with our understanding of them, or in the related phenomena first outlined in Edward Said’s Orientalism, which argues that Western colonialist history has created a divide between the Western Occident and the Eastern Orient, with the concept of the Orient as described in centuries of colonialist writing having an enormous sway over how Westerners engage with Asian cultures. Since most of the characters in this collection are immigrants of Indian or Bangladeshi descent, these two concepts are often interrelated throughout the stories: An immigrant’s national and cultural identity are inextricably tied to their interpersonal relationships in a way that is often invisible for non-immigrants.

In the phenomenological sense, characters’ assumptions about each other drive their behavior, and in stories like “A Temporary Matter” and “Interpreter of Maladies,” the epiphany that the viewpoint characters experience has to do with their assumptions about the other being challenged by the person’s intentions or confessions: Shoba is not using the confessional game to bring them closer together as Shukumar expects, and Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das both bring idealized versions of each other to their conversation about Mrs. Das’s infidelity. Two stories in the collection are from the viewpoint of children, which is a natural fit for stories about empathy as children are often in a situation that asks them to interpret the adult world—this is true of both Eliot in “Mrs. Sen’s,” as he watches his babysitter and her husband struggle with a new life, and of Lilia in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” who is trying to reckon with the title character’s worry and grief while coming to an awareness about her own role as a surrogate daughter to him.

When Said’s postcolonial theory of the self/other distinction is applied, a rich thematic trend emerges. Eliot and Lilia again serve as a model for understanding this: Eliot can set aside his assumptions about what’s strange or un-American about the Sen family, while his mother (and the people on the bus Mrs. Sen encounters) sees her as an outsider. He still understands the difference between American culture and Indian culture, but he approaches Mrs. Sen on her own terms. Lilia struggles with the concept of Mr. Pirzada’s nationality in comparison to her own—politically, they are not the same, but all she sees are their similarities. In her story, there is the added wrinkle of her education, which is stressing the importance of American history and attempting to suppress Lilia’s interest in learning about the Indian subcontinent. In “Sexy,” the difference between cultural identities is stressed even further: Miranda becomes interested in Indian culture because of her affair, and there is evidence that part of the excitement for her illicit relationship lies in Dev’s “exotic” identity. This idea mirrors a common colonial trope, in which the exotic, strange other is seen as a point of romantic fascination with little regard to the real life being lived by the people in that culture. For Miranda, the image of Dev falls away when she is confronted with the real pain of the young Indian boy who is also being hurt by an affair.

Interpersonal, cultural, and class identity are all entangled in whether characters can connect with each other and what barriers they face; even in the opening story, Shoba and Shukumar’s difficulty is in some way rooted in the fact that Shoba went to India often as a child and Shukumar did not, despite their shared heritage. In each story, the narrative centers around these questions of empathy; in some, the misunderstandings between characters fall away, leading to a realization that true empathy and connection were not possible after all. In others, empathy is the fulcrum point of successfully making a life in a new country (as in “The Third and Final Continent”) or moving past a stigmatizing illness (“The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”).


Seven of the nine stories in Interpreter of Maladies focus on immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, and in four of those stories—“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” “Interpreter of Maladies,” “Mrs. Sen’s,” and “The Third and Final Continent”—the characters’ relationships between their homeland and their adopted country plays a key role in their lives. Questions of identity and belonging are at the core of immigrant narratives, and Lahiri’s are no different, taking a somewhat pessimistic view of the toll that immigration takes on a person.

Nowhere is this pessimism clearer than in “Mrs. Sen’s”; the title character of the story has moved to America for her husband’s professorship, and she is struggling to integrate at all, spending much of her time in the company of the boy she’s babysitting and reminiscing bitterly about the life she has left behind in India. Her inability to integrate into even the practicalities of life in America—driving, for example—mean that she is trapped in her isolation, and the story concludes with Mrs. Sen losing her job as a babysitter because of her attempt to force herself to learn to drive. For her, moving to America is a tragedy.

A related alienation happens in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”; the title character is trapped in America without a support system when political strife breaks out in his home city. Though the differences between the Indian family that hosts him and his own East Pakistani nationality are explored, the real alienation that occurs is in his detachment from his homeland at a time of crisis; his stoicism in the face of the nightly news belies his real feelings that he is cut off from everything that matters to him.

“Interpreter of Maladies” complicates this idea by presenting a thoroughly Americanized family that no longer fits in to Indian culture. Mr. Kapasi is surprised by the way the Das family treats one another and the children in particular, as they appear Indian but are thoroughly American in their way of life. He comments on this point throughout the story, suggesting that they have somehow lost something that’s essential to their Indian heritage.

In these stories, the connection to home is viewed as something to be cherished, and the lack of access to a character’s Indian (or Bangladeshi, in the case of Mr. Pirzada) heritage is viewed as tragic and isolating. There’s also an undercurrent in the stories that these characters are struggling with what is and is not an authentic Indian identity. It’s only in “The Third and Final Continent” that integration is presented in a positive light, as the narrator and his wife put down roots that are sparked by their interaction with an elderly American woman. Taken as a whole, the collection seems to be saying that the immigrant experience is a positive development in the long view, but the struggle is difficult, lonely, and possibly insurmountable.


Arranged marriages are a common custom in the Indian subcontinent, and the Indian ideas of marriage and romantic love are very different than established Western tropes of love and marriage. In many respects, Indian cultures look on marriage as an economic and social prospect rather than a romantic one; however, the cultural imperatives are still accompanied by a desire for emotional connection, and the differences in a culture with prevalent social mores surrounding arranged marriage have more to do with the understanding that love is a learned behavior that takes effort and that love is rooted in larger ideas of family and legacy.

“The Third and Final Continent” offers a clear example of this view in the relationship between the narrator and his wife, Mala. Their marriage is arranged, and they spend very little time together before the wedding and only a short time together after they are married before the narrator heads to America to begin work. As a result, the characters are essentially strangers, and the narrator struggles with the enormity of what he is being asked to do in becoming a good husband. He begins to understand this while thinking of the long life of Mrs. Croft—his marriage to Mala sprawls out into the future, and warming toward her requires that he put in the work to make a home together.

“This Blessed House” offers up a more fraught model; Sanjeev, who has married Twinkle in an arranged marriage, realizes he has no concept of love, only the absence of it. The romance between the two has faded as they struggle to reconcile the day-to-day reality of who they each are. Similarly, in “Sexy,” the romantic love that Miranda feels toward Dev is insufficient and ultimately hollow. When she ends the relationship, it’s not just an admission of guilt; it’s also a realization that they weren’t actually close in the first place, and the excitement she was feeling was rooted in a desire of discovery that would never be fulfilled.


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