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Interpreter of Maladies | Study Guide

Jhumpa Lahiri

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Interpreter of Maladies | When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine | Summary

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Summary

The setting is the Boston suburbs in 1971. The story's narrator is Lilia, the 10-year-old daughter of an Indian American couple. Lilia's father is an academic at a local university, while her mother is a homemaker. Lonely for company, they have combed the pages of the university directory and have discovered the name of Mr. Pirzada, a visiting researcher from Dacca in East Pakistan, who is spending a year in the United States on a government grant to research and write about the foliage of New England.

Lilia recounts in detail Mr. Pirzada's first visit to her house, when her parents invited him for dinner. Mr. Pirzada is formal, polite, and impeccably dressed. It turns out that he has a wife and seven daughters, whom he greatly misses, in Dacca. He strikes up a bond with the family right away. Their common South Asian background gives them much to talk about, as well as their mutual appreciation of the food of their homeland. Mr. Pirzada takes a special liking to Lilia, presenting her with candy each evening.

In a conversation with her father, Lilia learns that Mr. Pirzada is no longer considered an Indian by nationality. Ever since Partition in 1947, India has been divided. The distinction makes no sense to Lilia: Mr. Pirzada and her parents speak the same language, share the same sense of humor, eat the same foods, and have many customs in common. Lilia's father adds that Mr. Pirzada is a Bengali but is Muslim. He lives in East Pakistan, not India. Lilia's father is upset that Lilia is not learning such things at school, but Lilia's mother reminds her husband that Lilia, born in America, is lucky enough to look forward to a safe life, free from such disturbances as rationed food, curfews, riots, and power cuts.

Mr. Pirzada's nightly visits follow the same routine. The evening news on television is the center of attention. Lilia worries about Mr. Pirzada's wife and daughters. At school, however, no one follows the war featured on television. Instead, students are studying the American Revolution. When Lilia reads a book about Pakistan in the school library, her teacher, Mrs. Kenyon, reprimands her because this material is not relevant to the report Lilia has been assigned to write.

Because of government censorship, television news reports about Dacca grow rarer. On Mr. Pirzada's evening visits, the adults tell stories, sip tea, and play Scrabble. Mr. Pirzada departs around midnight, walking home to his dormitory.

In October, Mr. Pirzada inquires about the Halloween pumpkins on people's doorsteps. Lilia's mother buys a pumpkin at the supermarket, and the family, together with Mr. Pirzada, carves a jack-o'-lantern. Mr. Pirzada's knife slips, and the result is a strange gash in the pumpkin.

On Halloween, Lilia goes trick-or-treating with her fiend Dora. They dress up as witches. Mr. Pirzada is worried about the girls' safety. When the children return, they find the pumpkin smashed, the television turned off, and Mr. Pirzada with his head in his hands. War is imminent between India and Pakistan. For the first time, Mr. Pirzada spends the night at Lilia's house, sleeping on the sofa, so that he and Lilia's family can monitor the situation in South Asia closely.

In January, Mr. Pirzada returns to his house and family in Dacca. Several months later, Lilia's family receive a card, together with a brief letter from Mr. Pirzada describing his reunion with his family and offering heartfelt thanks for the hospitality he received in America. Lilia's family celebrates the good news, but Lilia herself is sad, knowing what it is like to miss someone so far away.

Analysis

As with many of the stories in the collection, the title is notable. The verb dine (meaning "to have dinner") bespeaks an adult perspective, hinting that the child narrator has had time to reflect on the significance of the events she recounts. The verb's formality suggests that this is a word choice that the formal, polite, and considerate Mr. Pirzada might himself have made.

Separation and contrast are some of Lahiri's principal thematic threads in "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine." First, the difference between the ways adults and children perceive the world receives major emphasis in the story. The narrator Lilia, 10 years old, cannot understand why Mr. Pirzada "is no longer considered Indian," as her father remarks. After all, he is Bengali, and he shares the same sense of humor, the same food, and many of the same customs with her family. Lilia has yet to learn about Partition, the wrenching realignment and bloodshed that followed the independence of both India and Pakistan in 1947. She is also innocent of the realities of 1971, the year of the story's action, when East Pakistan fought its way to nationhood as Bangladesh. At the beginning of the story, Lahiri emphasizes the shocking losses entailed in the civil war: 300,000 people dead, with teachers dragged into streets and shot, and women dragged into barracks and raped.

Separation is also a key element in the portrayal of Mr. Pirzada. As signaled by the watch he carries, Dacca is 11 time zones away. It is there that Mr. Pirzada's wife and seven daughters live in a three-story house. Each week he writes letters to his family, but he has not heard a word from them in over six months, because of the collapse of the postal system.

Lilia's parents represent two contrasting attitudes toward assimilation, even though their loneliness as newly settled immigrants in America causes them to join together in locating Mr. Pirzada for company. Lilia's father is bothered by Lilia's failure to learn in school about the past and present of South Asia. Lilia's mother, on the other hand, takes pride in Lilia's American identity. Her child, she believes, will never have to suffer through such obstacles as rationed food, curfews, and riots. Mrs. Kenyon, Lilia's teacher at school, represents American parochialism in her curt dismissal of Lilia's curiosity about Pakistan.

The Halloween episode, which takes up most of the story's second half, provides a suspenseful, semi-spooky backdrop for the escalation of violence in East Pakistan, half a world away. The custom of pumpkin carving has to be explained to Mr. Pirzada. When he joins in, however, his knife slips, creating a gash in the pumpkin—perhaps a foreshadowing of the bloodshed and chaos in Dacca. Lilia's reassurances to Mr. Pirzada about the children's safety when they are trick-or-treating contrast poignantly with his compassionate concern, and possibly with his unspoken anxiety about his own family in Dacca. When Lilia describes the advent of full-scale war, in December of that year, she stresses how unity can bridge divisions when she comments about Mr. Pirzada and her parents: "Most of all I remember the three of them operating during that time as if they were a single person," she says, "sharing a single meal, a single body, a single silence, and a single fear."

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