Food and Dining in Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies"
In the collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri uses food and dining as a vehicle to display the deterioration of familial bonds, community, and culture through the transition from Indian to American ways of life. This is most evident in the short stories “A Temporary Matter,” “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” and “Mrs. Sen’s.”
In “A Temporary Matter,” Shoba and Shukumar have grown estranged from one another, despite being married and living together. They no longer eat meals together or cook together, until they receive a notice that repair workers will cut their power for an hour every night, which forces them to eat together by candlelight: “Tonight, with no lights, they would have to eat together. For months now they’d served themselves from the stove, and he’d taken his plate into his study, letting the meal grow cold on his desk before shoving it into his mouth without pause, while Shoba took her plate to the living room and watched game shows, or proofread files with her arsenal of colored pencils at hand” (Lahiri 8). Lahiri uses this as an example to show how modern American relationships often fall apart, partially as a result of (or resulting in) the lack of family dinners. In M.S.A. Rao’s contributions to Food, Society, and Culture, he states, “if a shift in residence occurs across the cultural regions, then the question whether the migrants retain the same food habits or change in favor of the dietary style of the locals in the new place of residence, becomes a significant one” (Khare and Rao 122). In this story, Shoba, more than Shukumar, appears to have adopted a relatively local dietary habit.The first night with no power, Shukumar puts out placemats, makes an expansive dinner, breaks out a bottle of wine, and lights candles. Shoba shows surprise at this when she sees it, compliments his work, and thanks him. This enforced dinner brings the two of them closer together than they have been for months, and the resulting conversation is therapeutic to their relationship. As the week goes on, they both look forward to these meals; Shoba comes home earlier than usual, Shukumar goes to the market to pick up special food items, and their conversations deepen. Lahiri demonstrates here how their relationship improves with the time spent together over these meals.
Lahiri also uses the preparation of food in “A Temporary Matter” as a measure of one’s affection for another. Shukumar dutifully cooks dinners for Shoba, noting “if it weren’t for him…Shoba would eat a bowl of cereal for her dinner” (Lahiri 8). This is a demonstration of his concern for Shoba’s health, as he makes certain that she eats complete meals, even though he could easily make cheap microwave dinners or just leave her to her own means. Later, he reminisces that “for their first anniversary Shoba had cooked a ten-course dinner just for him” (Lahiri 18), while for their most recent anniversary she bought him a sweater. Lahiri shows here that the time and effort put into preparing a meal for a loved one helps to keep the relationship strong.
In “When Mr. Pirzada Comes to Dine,” even Lilia’s initial description of Mr. Pirzada shows how integral food is in Indian culture. She notes that he carries a photo in his wallet of his daughters “at a picnic, their braids tied with ribbons, sitting cross-legged in a row, eating chicken curry off of banana leaves” (Lahiri 24). Throughout her relationship with him, Lilia associates Mr. Pirzada with the sweets he always brings her when he comes to dine, and describes his gifts as a “steady stream of honey-filled lozenges, raspberry truffle, [and] slender rolls of sour pastilles” (Lahiri 29). She considers these candies highly valuable, and “inappropriate…to consume…in a casual manner” (Lahiri 29).
Lilia also describes the lengths to which her mother went to prepare meals: “From the kitchen my mother brought forth the succession of dishes: lentils with fired onions, green beans with coconut, fish cooked with raisins in a yogurt sauce” (Lahiri 30). Lahiri uses this to expand upon dining traditions in India, where every meal was important and required hours of work. Lilia mentions early on that her mother complains about neighbors never dropping by, and that her parents would hunt through the phone book for Indian surnames to find potential friends of the same heritage. This is attributable to the fact that acquaintances held dinners more often in India. In The Migrant’s Table, Krishnedu Ray’s study of Bengali-American households, he notes: “women do express and maintain their social position in the community through food work. They keep account of friends and neighbors who have invited them for dinner and the number of times they have been invited” (Ray 122).
Additionally, one of the few American traditions that Lilia’s family adopts is that of Halloween: one involving food like pumpkin seeds and candy. At the end of the story when Lilia’s family receives word from Mr. Pirzada that he had reunited with his family and all of them were well, Lilia’s family commemorates the occasion with food. She notes that: “to celebrate the good news my mother prepared a special dinner that evening, and when we sat down to eat at the coffee table we toasted out water glasses” (Lahiri 42). Lahiri uses Lilia’s family and Mr. Pirzada to show the vital role that food and dining plays in Indian culture.
In “Mrs. Sen’s,” dining yet again plays a central role. Mrs. Sen constantly labors away over meals, a mark of her dedication to her family and the little boy under her charge. Eliot finds this the most fascinating thing about her:
“He especially enjoyed watching Mrs. Sen as she chopped things, seated on newspapers on the living room floor. Facing the sharp edge [of the blade] without ever touching it, she took whole vegetables between her hands and hacked them apart: cauliflower, cabbage, butternut squash. She split things in half, then quarters, speedily producing florets, cubes, slices, and shreds. She could peel a potato in seconds” (Lahiri 114).
The blade mentioned in this scene plays a very important role in Mrs. Sen’s culture. She tells Eliot of its significance in India during weddings or large celebrations: “all the neighborhood women…bring blades just like this one, and then they sit in an enormous circle of the roof of our building, laughing and gossiping and slicing fifty kilos of vegetables through the night” (Lahiri 115). With this, Lahiri shows that such strong sense of community is lost in America, as Mrs. Sen chops her vegetables alone and painfully misses her country. This point is reinforced by Eliot’s mention of Mrs. Sen insisting that “his mother sit on the sofa, were she was served something to eat: a glass of bright pink yogurt with rose syrup, breaded mincemeat with raisins, a bowl of semolina halvah” (Lahiri 118). This kind gesture from Mrs. Sen is a mark of her courtesy, and of her loneliness, that she has no guests to cook for other than the mother of the boy she watches. Ray states in The Migrant’s Table that the results of a survey conducted indicated “many of the female respondents considered dinner—the most labor-intensive part of the daily meal cycle—to be very important in a keeping the family together” (125). Mrs. Sen embodies this consideration perfectly. Lahiri also comments here on the distant nature of American mothers: “the first thing she did when they were back at the beach house was pour herself a glass of wine and eat bread and cheese, sometimes so much of it that she wasn’t hungry for the pizza they normally ordered for dinner” (Lahiri 118). Lahiri uses Eliot’s mother and her failure to prepare a proper meal for her son as an example of a careless parent.
Lahiri also uses Mrs. Sen to show how important food is to Indian culture, by the lengths to which Mrs. Sen is willing to go to acquire it. When the man who runs the fish market calls to say that he has a whole fish for her, she is delighted and flattered. When her husband will no longer go to the market to retrieve it for her, she steps out of her area of comfort and takes a bus out to the seaside. After receiving an unpleasant experience on the bus, Mrs. Sen works past her fear and hatred of driving to try to make it to the fish market on her own. The importance of this particular dish to her is enough to bring her to this desperate act, despite the fact that she has no license. It is also worth noting that Mrs. Sen keeps her freezer stocked with popsicles, perhaps because ice cream and sorbets are a novelty in India (Visser 288-289).
Throughout the entirety of Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri uses the food customs and dining traditions of her Indian-American characters to illuminate the importance of family and community. Ray quotes Alice Waters, a chef and culinarian in The Migrant’s Table: ‘“If you see the same ingredients every place you go you lose a sense of time and place. Then nothing is special’” (Ray 132). He explains, “that is exactly why immigrants crave some of the distinctive products of their homeland, notwithstanding time or place” (Ray 132). Lahiri shows how immigrants’ assimilation into the fast-paced, time-consuming, and generally demanding American society can create a struggle to retain a sense of culture and identity— a sense strongly reinforced by the presence of traditional foods and dining customs.
Khare, R.S., and M.S.A Rao, eds. Food, society, and culture: aspects in South Asian food systems. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic P, 1986.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.
Ray, Krishnendu. The migrant's table: meals and memories in Bengali-American households. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2004.
Visser, Margaret. Much Depends on Dinner. New York: Grove P, Inc., 1986.