Poor Mrs. Das. She doesn’t really want to be on vacation in India, but she isn’t happy at home in the New Jersey either. The distracted, emotionally distant mother is at the center of Jhumpa Lahiri’s titular story in the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999), a woman who in the midst of marriage and family has lost track of her self. On a guided tour with her husband and three children, the family is shown the local sights by one Mr. Kapasi, a slightly depressed, once-promising linguist who in middle age has ended up a part-time tour guide and Gujarati interpreter for a local doctor:
“Interesting. I’ve never heard of anything like that,” Mr. Das said.
Mr. Kapasi shrugged. “It’s a job like any other.”
“But so romantic,” Mrs. Das said dreamily, breaking her extended silence. She lifted her pinkish brown sunglasses and arranged them on top of her head like a tiara. For the first time, her eyes met Mr. Kapasi’s in the rearview mirror: pale, a bit small, their gaze fixed but drowsy.
The malaise suffered by Mrs. Das cannot be solved by a family vacation, a tour of the Sun Temple at Konarak or an interpretation by Mr. Kapasi. But for the reader of this marvelous moment-by-moment account, the way in which Mrs. Das’ and Mr. Kapasi’s individual yearnings crash one against the other has the effect of a sharp earthquake—with a single jolt, the ground is not the same as it was. Lahiri’s precise way with character has Mr. Kapasi stunningly expose this sad young mother’s failings. The outcome doesn’t remedy the deep malaise suffered by Mrs. Das, but it makes for an excellent story.