Food Symbolism in Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”
Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short works that explore and examine issues of identity and assimilation between Indian and American cultures. Weaved into and between each story and each struggle is the presence of traditional Indian food and the nuances of its ritualized preparation. It serves as a metaphor for several things in interaction with the coping protagonists of her stories: community, normalcy, culture, love, and so on. The meaning of food, its implications and effects, is most prevalent in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” “Mrs. Sen’s,” and “A Temporary Matter.”
“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” exudes food symbolism from beginning to end, even in its title. “Coming to dine” is, in and of itself, a social event, a routinized gathering to share space and conversation over a meal. Sifting through phone books and university directories, Lilia’s parents search tirelessly for Indian surnames in an attempt to find dinner company – that is, until they find a Pakistani man named Mr. Pirzada. When he arrives at their home, he introduces a portrait of his daughters, “producing from his wallet a black-and-white picture of seven girls at a picnic… eating chicken curry off of banana leaves.” (23) Picnicking represents recreation and familial bonding, and his introduction of them through that particular snapshot of their lives frames them in a context that Lilia can relate to and empathize with. When Lilia’s father tries to explain that Mr. Pirzada “is no longer considered Indian,” Lilia finds it hard to recognize the differences between he and her parents, noting that they both “ate pickled mangoes with their meals, ate rice every night for supper with their hands… for dessert dipped austere biscuits into successive cups of tea” and interacted like any other Indians would. (25) Even at her young age, Lilia understands the meaning of food eaten between people of like-culture, the sense of security and the shared understanding that come with it. In several scenes, Lilia helps her mother prepare the table for dining or sets condiments and spices beside their plates, fully aware of the refined blend of tastes customary – even expected – of Indian meals. She describes her mother’s efforts in putting together a meal for her family, bringing forth a “succession of dishes” to the living room where they would sit across from the television and await news from Dacca. (30) The labor afforded by her mother is representative of Indian tradition and the women that spend hours in the kitchen concocting elaborate traditional meals for their guests on a nightly basis. By bringing the food out of the dining room and onto the couch, Lahiri signifies an informal scene; in this way, she uses food to break down the polite distance between family and invitee and creates a smaller, more special space.
In “Mrs. Sen’s,” Lahiri presents the significance of food in a much less communal setting, through the eyes of a young boy – Elliot – under the wary supervision of a lone professor’s wife. Separated by an ocean from her family, Mrs. Sen uses the ritualized practice of cutting vegetables, cooking stews, and hand-selecting fish to keep ties with her ideas of normalcy and sociality. Elliot observes that a great deal of Mrs. Sen’s day is occupied by her detailed preparation for grandiose meals she serves her husband when he returns from work. She lays out newspapers opposite the television and sits comfortably with a steel blade, peeling, slicing, and chopping an assortment of vegetables for nearly an hour every day. The procedure utilizes a cultural instrument and reflects, as Mrs. Sen explains to Elliot, a ritual of sorts in which neighborhood women celebrated an important event by “[sitting] in an enormous circle on the roof of [her] building, laughing and gossiping and slicing fifty kilos of vegetables through the night.” (115) Her recollection of the practice as a social event, a scaffold for bonding between women, juxtaposes her alternate practice, performed without need for occasion and with only the television to keep her company; it only emphasizes her estrangement from family and friends, and reiterates her day-to-day alienation. The lengths to which Mrs. Sen is willing to go to secure fresh fish for her dishes, and the precise care with which she portions and fillets each one, is extremely telling of how important cooking proper meals is for traditional Indian women. She pushes herself out of her comfort zone to travel to the fish market by the beach, even going as far as getting behind the wheel without a license when Mr. Sen is unavailable (or unwilling) to drive her all the way over. Lahiri also uses Mrs. Sen to draw a distinction between a traditional Indian woman and Elliot’s American mother and how their cooking, or the degree to which they do, signifies a pronounced difference in culture. Every evening, when Elliot’s mother comes to pick him up, Mrs. Sen extends the courtesy of inviting her into the living room and serves her something to eat; she always nibbles a bit on whatever she’s given, chalks up her small appetite to a late lunch, and then orders a pizza for she and Elliot when they arrive home. Mrs. Sen’s rigor toward preparing home-cooked meals is absolutely lost on Elliot’s mother. Correspondingly, Elliot feels much more involved and important when observing the effort by Mrs. Sen to prepare and cook dinner for her husband than when his mother orders takeout and leaves him to wrap leftovers on his own. The hours spent preparing traditional meals is indicative of a sense of appreciation and compassion by Indian mothers for their children, while fast food feels more indifferent, and speaks more to the weaker affections (or lack thereof) between an American mother and her child.
Lahiri explores the ideas of love and compassion as represented by food and cooking in “A Temporary Matter” through the experiences of a disjointed married couple, Shoba and Shukmar. Following the death of their newborn son, Shukmar witnesses a profound change in his wife – her intrinsic “capacity to think ahead,” her impulse to prepare and store ready-to-serve, home-cooked food for any possible visitor or occasion, suddenly disappears. (6) He recalls her ability to “throw together meals that appeared to have taken half a day to prepare… peppers she had marinated herself with rosemary, and chutneys that she cooked on Sundays, stirring boiling pots of tomatoes and prunes” and the gratification it provided her. (7) Shukmar’s testimony of the stark contrast of his wife before and after their son’s death is representative of the heart put into Shoba’s traditional home cooking; when her grief presides her efforts, she completely stops caring to even heat up meals from her prepared stock, leaving Shukmar to heat up what was left for the two of them and noting that, “if it weren’t for him, Shoba would eat a bowl of cereal for her dinner.” (8) He can just as easily purchase ready-made, microwaveable meals for Shoba to heat up, but his concern for her wellbeing and willingness – enthusiasm, even – to pore through her cookbooks and prepare full meals for their dinner indicates that he loves her, and still cares to extend the effort. Inversely, he notes that, “for their first anniversary, Shoba had cooked a ten-course dinner just for him,” but gifted him a lone sweater-vest for their third anniversary, and presently has stopped cooking for him altogether – a sequence symbolic of their depreciating relationship. (18) In this story, Lahiri uses cooking and preparation of food as a measure of sentiment and intimacy, comparing endeavors in the kitchen to the strength of the couple’s deteriorating marriage.
It holds true within any culture that a home-cooked meal brings people together and allows bridges to be built, but Lahiri takes the meaning of food to another level. Like many other things, traditional cooking and food tips the scales in the balancing act of maintaining a sense of both cultures and ties people to their roots. Through her characters, their meals possess a special symbolism and act as a means of grappling with the conflicting ideas of culture, identity, and emotion that come with being immigrants or first-generation members of a community.
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