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Mar 7, 2019 in Review

The Scrap of Paper in Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri as the Focus of Criticism

The short story Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri is a perfect example of a profound psychological fiction, comprising layers of sense and some crucial elements that are essential for developing a plot and revealing characters. One of these elements is a short scrap of paper which Mrs. Das, the female protagonist of the story, gives to Mr. Kapasi, the male protagonist of the story, to write his address on. The address is needed to send Mr. Kapasi, who is a tour guide, photos of him and Mrs. Das, taken by Mr. Das in a roadside café. Thesis. The scrap of paper turns out to be quite a powerful tool of the plot development and discovery of some very important internal motifs of the protagonists. 

Analyzing the role of this object for the whole story, everything should be taken into account. The origin of this scrap is the thing that matters. Mina Das produces it out of her big straw bag, which was, as the author highlights “almost as big as her torso, shaped like a bowl, with a water bottle poking out of it”. This big bag can be compared to an abyss where it is possible to find many objects – for example, a bottle of nail polish, but there is no proper writing paper inside. The scrap of paper given to Mr. Kapasi to write his address was torn out of a film magazine. Mrs. Das’s magnificent and glamorous life in America could seem as unreal as a movie to Mr. Kapasi. The woman rips off a paper strip and gives it to the guide as if inviting him to join her wonderful life, free of patriarchal conventions, where a woman can expose her bare shaved legs to public and let everybody admire her body, not hidden into plaits of her sari.

It should also be mentioned that the source of the paper scrap was a Bombay film magazine written in English. As we know, Bombay (Mumbai) hosts the biggest number of film studios in India, which produce the biggest amount of films in the world – even more than in Hollywood. This rival of the famous American ‘dream factory’ is named after it, with the change of the initial letter – Bollywood. The movies produced in Bollywood are very bright and exuberant, saturated with Indian local color, but have little to do with the actual life in India. The Das family is also an analogy to a Bollywood artifact – they are of Indian origin, but they do not know anything about the motherland of their ancestors and feel like tourists in the place where they could actually belong. Their double Indian-American identity is a source of contrast and misunderstanding between them and Mr. Kapasi. Though the guide is a person of a broad mind (he has a good command of several European and Indian languages, including Gujarati, which allows him to work as an interpreter with the doctor) and experienced foreign tourist companion, some things in their behavior impress him. For example, he is surprised by the willingness of Mr. Das to shake hands rather than to press palms together. In spite of belonging to the same race and nation, Raj and Mina Das and Mr. Kapasi are very different in terms of culture.

However, the strip of paper Mina Das gave to Mr. Kapasi was not a blank one. The author clearly accentuates this, “The blank portion was limited, for the narrow strip was crowded by lines of text and a tiny picture of a hero and heroine embracing under a eucalyptus tree”. The lines of printed text over which Mr. Kapasi had to write his address mean the difficulty for the guide to become a regular part of Mrs. Das’s life. In spite of the fact that they belong to the same race and might have a variety of things in common, their lifestyles differ dramatically.

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Still, the paper strip has not only a printed text, which may make letters written over it difficult to read, but also a tiny picture of two lovers embracing under a eucalyptus tree. Eucalyptus usually symbolizes protection, wealth and happiness. Taking into account sudden impulses that overwhelmed Mr. Kapasi – the impulses to hug Mrs. Das here and now, – this picture could be interpreted as a kind of a prophecy, which never came true. Whatever different these people might be, the paradox is that essences of their lives bear a striking resemblance. We do not know much for sure about Mina’s life (apart from the fact that she went to college together with her future husband), as the narration is mainly focused on Mr. Kapasi’s personality, but we are more than sure that her ambitions and wishes have not been fulfilled. These unfulfilled aims create some enigmatic ties between her and the guide, who is also aware of his wasted talent. There is a wide gap between Mr. Kapasi’s career ambitions to become an interpreter for diplomats and help nations to understand each other and his actual career of an interpreter in a physician’s office, where he translates symptoms of Gujarati-speaking patients to the doctor who does not have a basic level of this language. Mr. Kapasi has never thought of this work as of something really valuable and important, until the moment Mrs. Das expressed her idea of his work as ‘romantic’ and ‘a big responsibility’. These words gave a strong impulse to the guide to rethink his attitude towards his usual routine and, at the same time, provided him with the glimpse of reality concerning his marriage life, which was dissatisfactory to him. Comparing the two women – Mrs. Kapasi, who never cared for her husband’s ambitions and intentions, and Mina Das, who seemed to be showing a deep genuine interest in his personality, Mr. Kapasi could not but start feeling affection towards the latter one. This affection was not deprived of erotic element – he was admiring Mina’s body and appearance, suddenly realizing – and the author pays a special attention to this – that he had never admired his wife fully naked. However, the guide did not show any interest in Mina’s personality, wishes and concerns. He viewed her not as a separate unique human being, but rather as a part of the Das married couple which, judging by some signs (indifference, bickering, etc.) he was able to catch and decode, was not a very happy family.

Having analyzed those signs and manifestations, Mr. Kapasi started thinking of Mina Das as of a soul sister. The emergence of such ideas was provoked by the atmosphere in the car during their dialogue: the children were totally engaged into admiring views through the windows, Mr. Das was fully absorbed into his guidebook, and the conversation between Mina and Mr. Kapasi was almost intimate, not involving any third party. That unexpected but incredibly pleasant privacy was a kind of a heaven’s gift to Mr. Kapasi who could rejoice the attitude he had never experienced from a woman’s side.

Therefore, when in a roadside café Mr. Das asked Mina and Mr. Kapasi to sit closer together so that he could make a nice photo of the two, the degree of emotional intensity in the guide’s mind had almost reached its peak. The author emphasizes the superiority of smell over all other senses Mr. Kapasi could use to comprehend his affection to Mina and his worries about her perception of him. The delicate fragrance of Mina’s skin is juxtaposed to the perspiration from under Mr. Kapasi’s synthetic shirt, marking the social and emotional difference between them. Mina’s scent was the smell of indifference and idleness, while the odour of Mr. Kapasi was the smell of hard work and emotional involvement. “He could smell a scent on her skin, like a mixture of whiskey and rosewater. He worried suddenly that she could smell his perspiration, which he knew had collected beneath the synthetic material of his shirt”.

 
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However, that seemingly trifle fact of writing his address on a scrap of tiny paper together with the genuine interest that Mina Das had shown in him, gave Mr. Kapasi a strong hope that it could be possible to become friends with this good-looking woman that he had already begun to adore. He was writing in very accurate, visible and readable letters in order not to give Mrs. Das the slightest chance to misunderstand his address. Moreover, while covering the scrap of paper with ‘clear, careful letters’ (343), the guide was having a kind of a vision about his future communication with Mrs. Das. This perspective promised him many intellectual pleasures he could not get with his wife. While writing he was really happy, perhaps as much happy as when he discovered that he could translate texts without dictionaries, “In those moments Mr. Kapasi used to think that all was right with the world, that all struggles were rewarded, that all of life’s mistakes made sense in the end. The promise that he would hear from Mrs. Das now filled him with the same belief”.

Mr. Kapasi imposed such an important meaning on the paper scrap that as soon as he gave it to Mina he became worried about the possible mistakes. The idea of not receiving a letter and photos from Mrs. Das was unbearable to him. This tiny film magazine fragment concentrated all his hopes, emotions, secret wishes and ambitions. However, Mina had a different attitude to this paper: what was a treasure to Mr. Kapasi, she treated as some unworthy additional attention – the paper was buried in the depth of her large straw bag.

After this scrap of paper episode, the plot develops further; however, the reader together with Mr. Kapasi keeps in mind that the paper (similarly to Chekhov’s gun, which should fire in the last act) is in Mina’s bag. The narration focuses several times on this big straw bag, reminding the reader of its content. However, when the story comes to its culmination, the author moves the focus of narration from Mr. Kapasi to Mrs. Das and her shocking confession. Thus, the paper scrap falls out of attention completely. When the narrative focus returns to Mr. Kapasi, we find out that this paper strip is no longer important for him, as Mrs. Das has lost her magic appeal to the guide. The paints in his emotional palette change from interest, affection, and adoration to remorse, sympathy and sorrow. He feels pity both for this unhappy woman and for himself being deprived of a chance to get a shade of sincere interest and affection.

In conclusion I would like to add that the situation described in this short story is quite unusual, though completely possible. Being tired of life in general and of her family life in particular, Mina Das is unhappy and indifferent to everything. The flashlight of interest to Mr. Kapasi woke her up for a moment from her lethargic being, but this awakening brought her only disappointment and dissatisfaction. Mr. Kapasi, on the contrary, could have learned a very important lesson from this situation – a marriage is unhappy not in the case when the wife brings her husband tea in silence, but when the wife has a terrible secret hidden from him.

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