Food and Dining in Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies"

By Tori E. Godfree
2010, Vol. 2 No. 04 | pg. 1/2 |
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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 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 ap, 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 , 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).

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