"When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpra Lahiri and her short fiction is known for its views on bicultural, hybrid sentiments. In her work, she often raises issues of American society, politics and ways of life in regards to culture clashing and loss of culture identity through its' systems. Highly regarded in the literary world, "What makes Lahiri's work unique is that the American problems that it identifies are ones that most Americans wouldn't be able to see unless they had examined America through eyes that have seen and minds that have understood other places. Moreover the stories expand the definition not only of what it can mean to be bicultural, but of post-colonial, Asian American, and American literatures. This transcendence of the boundaries of what have been rather insulated subcategories of contemporary fiction is particularly evident in the second story of the collection, "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine.", (Caesar 1).
In the short story, a man who has left his wife and seven daughters behind in Pakistan visits a family every night for dinner during his studies in New England. The story is narrated by the ten year old child of the family, Lilia. During the story, Mr. Pirzada comes to the family to hear news on the Indo-Pakistan War and find support and company within their home. He writes to his family every week but has not heard from them, and worries every night when his home country goes to war. The story illustrates themes of culture preservation and awareness, coming of age, and time. Lahiri writes the story to call personal changes within the reader through the use of Pakistan and Indian narrators to raise awareness on the issues of current events and wars and American ignorance of those things.
Lilia meets Mr. Pirzada as an Indian man her parents sought out in the hopes of connecting with other Indian people and their homeland. She does not think much of him at first but then becomes familiar with his presence within her home. He treats Lilia like he would one of the daughters back in Pakistan. He gives her candies every night and tells her not to say thanks, "What is this thank you? The lady at the bank thanks me, the cashier at the shop thanks me, the librarian thanks me when I return an overdue book, the overseas operator thanks me as she tries to connect me to Dacca and fails. If I am buried in the country I will be thanks, no doubt at my funeral.", (Lahiri 29). Though Lilia feels uncomfortable initially with Mr. Pirzada's kidness towards her she keeps the candies in a special box given to her by her grandmother because she feels they are not ordinary gifts, but something to be cherished. She is a child and understands his actions slowly throughout the story.
In a separate aspect, Lilia's father also talks about the division of India. He explains that after winning independence from England, the country was sliced in two, "One moment we were free and then we were sliced up like a pie. Hindus here, Muslims there. Dacca no longer belongs to us.", (Lahiri 25). So when Lilia regards Mr. Pirzada as "the Indian man", he explains he is really considered a Muslim. This incident brings up his unhappiness with Lilia's ignorance of her own culture and home country's current events. Though her mother is proud of her American upbringing, her father is upset at the holes in her knowledge. He believes in the roots of tradition and culture. When Lilia talks about school in America, she explains how she seems to have learned the same things every year, all concerning America's history and nowhere else. When she is researching in the library on an American project, her teacher chastises her when she catches Lilia glancing through a book on Pakistan.
Her father's worry stems from their fear that Lilia will become "American" not Indian anymore. The fear of this loss of identity is one of the important nods to cultural preservation created by Lahiri's narrative.
After the realization that Mr. Pirzada is not an "Indian", Lilia watches Mr. Pirzada more closely and her interest within him is piqued. She ponders a lot about his family and one night, eats a candy and says a prayer for them. At this point, Lilia's relationship towards Mr. Pirzada is one of compassion. She does not understand everything but she grows a special place in her heart for him.
During Halloween, Mr. Pirzada learns that the country goes to war and ruins the pumpkin the family had carved together. It was the first time the four of them had gathered around the table together and the face on the pumpkin became one of shock and disbelief. Lilia had to explain what the pumpkins were to Mr. Pirzada earlier. The image not only represents his culture difference but then the bleeding of the Pakistan events into their everyday lives. When Mr. Pirzada worries about Lilia and her friend then going trick or treating on their own, Lilia understands it is because he sees his daughters in them. She doesn't tell her friend about the real reason because she fears that saying it out loud would make it true. "I didn't mean they were missing. I meant, he misses them. They live in a different country, and he hasn't seen them in a while, that's all", (Lahiri 39), keeping the news to herself shows Lilia's growing sense of maturity.
When they arrive home, the pumpkin is smashed. The image juxtaposes the scene when Lilia walks in and Mr. Pirzada has his head in his hands, beginning the twelve days of war in Pakistan. The family then only eats boiled eggs and rice. To Lilia, it seems as if the whole house is on the same emotional plane, "Most of all I remember then three of them operating during that time as if they were a single person, sharing a single meal, a single body, a single silence and a single fear.", (Lahiri 41). She is slowly beginning to wrap her head around the consequences of grief and wartime. As a child, she felt the need to grieve the loss of the pumpkin but in the reality of the situation, Lilia observed and understood that greater matters were happening elsewhere.
After the twelve days of war, Mr. Pirzada flies home to Dacca and is reunited with his family. Lilia continues to imagine Mr. Pirzada and the images of what "could" be happening on the other side of the world. Lilia misses Mr. Pirzada and continues to eat the candies even when she knows there is no need for it. Eventually, she throws them out.
The themes of the story are constant: the importance of family, cultural identity issues, love for homeland, people coming together during war. These themes are illustrated through symbols like the candies and pumpkin and other foods eaten and events partaken by the family and Mr. Pirzada. In a critical article discussing Lahiri's writing, "She describes fiction writing as an act of cultural translation and identity formation in a tongue-in-cheek Cartesian manner: 'Translato ergo sum,' I translate, therefore I am.", (Kuortti 1). She uses subtle techniques of narrative like with Lilia's character to convey bigger ideas.
The parallel of the two countries is often times brought up. While Mr. Pirzada is playing Scrabble or watching the news, in Pakistan there are villages burning and people dying. Even in small ways, Lilia notices that his family could have started their day earlier than them or not be alive. The parallel means to raise awareness and the need for more political and culture knowledge throughout the world. Lahiri is pointing out a call for change, Lilia representing the change in youth. Told from the eyes of a child, the lessons learned by Lilia are taught to the reader in a less didactic way.
The idea of Lilia living "a ghost life" also brings up the important theme of time and her coming of age within the short story. She feels as if her life has been experienced by those before her and often puts herself in other's shoes. Though she narrates the present, she narrates from the remoteness of childhood having only understood after years passed.
In this specific story, Lahiri addresses the relationship between the two characters as purely platonic. Lilia learns of love for family from Mr. Pirzada and through want for his approval and continued attentions, awakens unknown maturity within herself. She accepts him into her life and family and gradually understands his need of them. To be able to empathize with him, she is putting herself almost as his equal. Through the development of this relationship and the unfolding of the Pakistan war and his returning to his family, the narrative illuminates this growth and also flaws within her own life and the slow realization of that within herself means to bring a realization to the reader's life as well.
"The value of these stories-although some of them are loosely constructed-lies in the fact they transcend the confined borders of immigrant experience to embrace larger human issues, age-old issues that are, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "cast into the mould of these new times" redefining America.", (Noor 4). Lahiri writes to make change. She wants the reader to reevaluate their own lives and though usually centralized around Indian and Asian cultures, the short stories themselves are wide and knowledgeable political and cultural criticisms of educational systems in America, among many other worthy personal vendettas concerning traditions and culture.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999. 23- 42. Print.
Caesar, Judith. "Beyond Cultural Identity in Jhumpa Lahiri's 'When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine.'." North Dakota Quarterly 70.1 (Winter 2003): 82-91. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 96. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.
Noor, Ronny. "Review of Interpreter of Maladies.." World Literature Today 74.2 (Spring 2000): 365-366. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 96. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.
Kuortti, Joel. "Problematic Hybrid Identity in the Diasporic Writings of Jhumpa Lahiri." Reconstructing Hybridity: Post-Colonial Studies in Transition. Ed. Joel Kuortti and Jopi Nyman. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. 205-219. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 282. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.