Indian tour guide Mr. Kapasi takes American couple Mr. and Mrs. Das and their children to the Sun Temple at Konarak. Mr. Kapasi notes that Tina, the daughter, begins to complain within five minutes of being picked up at the hotel. Mr. and Mrs Das are a young couple, perhaps not yet 30, but they have two boys – Ronny and Bobby – in addition to Tina. They look Indian but are dressed like foreigners, wearing brightly colored clothing and sun visors. Mr. Kapasi is 46 and has silver hair and an unlined brow. He wears suits tailored to sitting long hours in a hot car.
Ronny, who looks just like his father, inspects a goat near the tea stall where the travelers have stopped. Mr. Das tells Bobby to make sure his brother doesn’t do anything stupid, but Bobby is too engrossed in a picture of the elephant god taped to Mr. Kapasi’s glovebox to be bothered. Mr. Kapasi ensures the father that the animal is harmless and then inquires about Mr. and Mrs. Das. They were both born in America, Mr. Das says proudly. He refers to his wife by her first name, Mina, to their daughter.
Mr. Kapasi stops to observe Mrs. Das, who is serenaded with a Hindi love song by the tea seller. She doesn’t understand and so doesn’t react. Mr. Kapasi notices her slightly plump figure under her shirt featuring a large strawberry on her chest. The family does not act like a unit, each member lost in their own activities.
A sudden rush of monkeys excites the children and Mr. Das takes pictures. Mrs. Das paints her fingernails and dismisses Tina when she insists on having her nails done too. She then complains to her husband for not getting an air-conditioned car. When asked, Mr. Kapasi says that being a tour guide is not boring, as he works in a doctor’s office the rest of the week. He works as an interpreter, translating the Gujurati spoken by patients. Mrs. Das declares the work romantic, and offers Mr. Kapasi a piece of gum. Their eyes meet in the rear-view mirror.
Mrs. Das urges Mr. Kapasi to give an example of his work, and he tells them that a man came in with a specific pain in his throat – like straw – and the doctor was able to cure him based on the description. Both Mr. and Mrs. Das insist that he holds a lot of responsibility, but Mr. Kapasi had never thought of his job as anything other than thankless, a mark of failure. Before his marriage, he dreamed of being an interpreter for diplomats as he was so skilled with languages. When his son contracted typhoid at the age of 7, he met the doctor and bartered his services as payment for the boy’s treatment. The boy died, but Mr, Kapasi kept translating in order to cover the cost of the funeral, school fees, and luxuries to keep his wife from crying in her sleep. His wife resented the job – a reminder of their loss – and denigrated his work to their friends. Mrs. Das’s interest is gratifying to him. Mr. Kapasi wonders if Mr. and Mrs. Das were a bad match, as he and his wife were.
Mr, Kapasi is now intoxicated by Mrs. Das. He studies her body, the strawberry patch on her shirt and the way she parts her hair. When they stop for lunch, Mr. Kapasi joins the family though he usually takes this time to have a moment for himself. Mr. Das takes a picture of his wife with Mr. Kapasi, imploring her to get closer to him. She asks for his address to send copies of the picture. He writes it on a slip of paper torn from a magazine. He indulges in a fantasy of correspondence, each revealing their dissatisfaction with their respective spouses after trading tales of their lives. Mrs. Das drops the slip of paper into her bag.
They arrive at the sun temple, a pyramid-like structure carved in the shape of a chariot sitting within a dry river. The wheels are 9 feet high and represent life. Friezes of men and women in erotic poses appear along with symbols of daily life like trading and hunting. The entire family appreciates the site, to Mr. Kapasi’s delight. He watches Mrs. Das, the first person to take an interest in him. He admires the three statues of Surya, the sun god, representing dawn, afternoon, and sunset. Mrs. Das appears next to him and asks him about the statue. He hopes she understands the beauty and the power. He asks when she will return to America, and he calculates the time it will take for her first letter to arrive.
In an effort to prolong the day with the Das family and put off the silence he will face with his wife, Mr. Kapasi suggests a detour to monastic dwellings. He fantasizes about taking Mrs. Das’s hand while her husband is occupied with his camera. She decides to stay in the car while the children explore with her husband. Again, the children are delighted by the monkeys that line the path. Bobby picks up a stick and plays with one of the more aggressive monkeys. Mr. Kapasi compliments the boy and Mrs. Das reveals that Mr. Das is not the boy’s father. He gets his bravery from another man.
Mrs. Das has kept the secret for eight years – Bobby’s age. She tells Mr. Kapasi that she and her husband were engaged in high school and married in college. They never wanted to spend a moment apart. But the reality of being married and having a child so young took its toll. She rarely saw friends from college and ended up staying at home all day, isolated with baby Ronny. A visiting friend of Mr. Das’s made advances towards Mrs. Das and she did not resist. The man is now married and the couples trade photos at Christmas time.
Telling Mr. Kapasi, insisting that his talents caused her to open up, unburdens Mrs. Das. Mr. Kapasi doesn’t understand, as there is no language barrier between them. She insists he offer a remedy for the pain she has carried for eight years. But the truth of a woman not yet thirty who is in love with neither her husband nor children simply depresses Mr. Kapasi. He asks if it is pain she feels, or guilt. Insulted, she gets out of the car, spilling her snack of puffed rice in a trail behind her. The monkeys gather for the treat, unbeknownst to Mrs. Das. When she joins the family, she realizes that Bobby is missing. He is surrounded by aggressive monkeys.
Mr. Kapasi rescues the stunned boy and delivers him to his family. When Mrs. Das reaches into her bag for a brush to smooth Bobby’s hair, Mr. Kapasi’s address flutters away in the breeze.
Again, communication is the main theme of this story. Mr. Kapasi works as an interpreter of symptoms for Gujurati-speaking patients. He enables remedies to be administered. Mrs. Das considers this both romantic and necessary, but Mr. Kapasi is disappointed by the path his life has taken. He had dreamed of being a translator for diplomats. For him, cracking a translation proved that all was right with the world. Both he and Mrs. Das silently bear marriages that do not work. Mrs. Das recognizes his loneliness and seeks his opinion on her secret affair. However, Mr. Kapasi cannot cure Mrs. Das. Guilt can only be absolved by communicating with one’s partner.
Mr. Das is oblivious to his wife’s affair and dwindling affection. Though he carries a camera around his neck and snaps frequent pictures, there is irony in his choice of accessory. Just as the innocence of the strawberry appliqué on Mrs. Das’s shirt is misleading, the camera gives the impression of perception where there is none. It could also be considered that Mr. Das, who met his wife very young and is content with his life, is ignoring obvious problems either for the sake of the children or his own happiness. Mr. Kapasi is also trapped in a loveless marriage, but his endurance stems from a place of duty and custom.
The theme of cultural differences between Indians and Indian-Americans is another important component in this story. At first glance, the Das family appears to be Indian, but Mr. Kapasi knows them to be tourists. Their manner of dress and attitude give them away despite their skin tone. Mr. Kapasi is reminded of the televison show Dallas when his fares speak. Lahiri points out the guidebook held by Mr. Das labeled simply INDIA, suggesting he is looking for his own culture. Mrs. Das’s coolness towards her own children astonishes Mr. Kapasi.
The Das’s also appraise Mr. Kapasi. Mrs. Das’s insistence on the romance of his job smacks of exoticism. It was a simple, humble job taken to support himself, and Mr. Kapasi is startled that his duty would elicit such a response. In a way, Mrs. Das is searching for an experience that is separate from her own mundane existence. Thus, half a world away, she decides to share her secret with a stranger. The false togetherness Mr. Kapasi and Mrs. Das briefly share is built upon misunderstanding and exoticism of their respective cultures.
There are many symbols at work that bear the weight of the inner life of the characters. Mrs. Das’s puffed rice snack is an extension of herself. She shares the snack with no one in the car just as she withholds attention from her daughter. After the reveal of her secret and her disappointment in Mr. Kapasi, she joins her family at the monastic dwelling. She leaves a trail of puffed rice behind her and monkeys gather. When she finds her family, Mrs. Das is shocked to see Bobby – the child conceived in the affair – surrounded by vicious creatures. It is her guilt and mistake that invites trouble.
The environment is also rife with representations of thematic and narrative points. Their destination, the Sun Temple of Konark, is filled with rubble and can no longer be accessed. The monument once stood at the shore of a river but it has long since dried. This is indicative of the crumbling marriage of the Das’s. The monkeys are also harbingers of chaos. At first they are playful, but eventually threaten the family’s safety. Mrs. Das’s secret and guilt operate much like the monkeys – an ever present force that can turn dangerous in an instant.