Reflective Food in Lahiri’s Short Stories
Humankind has a tendency to inject their values and cultural beliefs into whatever they create or come into contact with; this explains partially why America left the flag on the moon and why there is such a conflict between western democracies and Arab nations. The desire to spread culture is a common trait within societies. However, what most do not realize is that often times, the creation is a mere reflection of the individual who created it, not the whole culture. For example, instead of a hamburger being reflective of European culture, it is instead reflective of the fact that there was someone lazy enough to use bread as an edible napkin. In “Interpreter of Maladies,” “This Blessed House,” and “A Temporary Matter,” the food that the characters create or consume are reflective of who they are as people, and in turn uncover what humanity holds as valuable.
Mrs. Das in “Interpreter of Maladies” is not very likable. Although she is pretty and looks fulfilling on the outside, she is a bland, empty shell on the inside; this is evidenced by the fact that she is disinterested in having any real quality time with her family even though they are on a trip together. It is no coincidence, therefore, that she is associated with puffed rice. This bland, nearly nutritionless food is indicative of how she is on the inside: bland and lacking any real substance. Not only does it describe her as a person, but it also illustrates her interactions with others. She carelessly tosses the rice around, which symbolizes her careless interactions with those around her. During a family trip, she is too preoccupied with doing her nails to interact with those who want to form a connection with her. For Mrs. Das, forming a real bond with her children would be inconsistent with her association with the puffed rice, as it would be the same thing as adding a spice to it. Thus, an emotional bond would break through her static relationship with her kids and create more depth. Any connection that she forms would indicate a three dimensionality with her family which she lacks; she remains a reflection of the unspiced rice. Just as rice can be flavored in a variety of ways, a variety of emotions can be felt by a person; however, there can also be an absence of emotion, also known as indifference. This also uncovers a human truth about the spectrum of human emotions. The opposite of love is not hate, but rather indifference. This is precisely what Mrs. Das demonstrates: her indifference to her family shows the reader that not caring can be worse than simply hating, as if she hated them, she would not have come on the trip, which would have been better; the problems that she caused would not have happened then.
Mrs. Das’s carelessness with the rice also causes another problem; the monkeys have swarmed the hotel area due to the food lying around. Although they are usually tame, the food whips up a frenzy, and as a result poses hazards to the people. This further demonstrates how food is truly reflective of one’s nature. The monkeys’ normal demeanor is usually calm as Mr. Kapasi explains that “no need to worry…they are quite tame” (“Interpreter” 45). However, once they see food, their true nature explodes out, turning them from calm creatures to true wild animals. Thus, the food acts as a mirror to the true personality of those who have access to it, which is another way the reader can know Mrs. Das’s indifference is genuine, rather than a facade.
Although food describes the individual linked to it, it can also illustrate the relationship between two individuals as well. For instance, the first scene in “This Blessed House” is a discussion of vinegar between the married couple. Vinegar is symbolic of the status of their relationship; every time it is mentioned, Sanjeev is being dismissive of Twinkle or is rebuking her in some manner: “‘Throw it away…You’ve never cooked anything with vinegar…Check the expiration” (“Blessed” 136). Even when he is complimenting her on her cooking, he rebukes her by telling her she ought to write recipes down as she goes. These interactions make sense in reference to vinegar as it is an undesirably pungent liquid. Just as the cooking ingredient is sour, so is the relationship between the couple. The only time vinegar is truly valuable is when it is combined with a host of other foods, as it enhances and tenderizes whatever it is being cooked with. Similarly, Sanjeev makes the decision to stay with the enigmatic Twinkle when they are hosting the party; they are “combined” with a host of different people. Instead of separating, he instead grudgingly accepts Twinkle and her strange obsession with Christian paraphernalia. Furthermore, the boring party is spiced up by Twinkle, who leads everyone up into her attic to discover new items for her stash. Instead of the standard “eat and talk” most people host, Twinkle changes it into an adventure in which everyone is eager to participate in. Just as vinegar’s value is realized when combined with other ingredients, Twinkle and Sanjeev’s relationship’s value is realized in the midst of more people, and just as vinegar enhances the flavor of the dish, Twinkle enhances the mood of the party.
Although the food itself explains a lot about different characters, the way in which they are consumed also plays a role in demonstrating a character’s personality. When the men (look for the name in book) and Sanjeev briefly talk during the party, they are described as “plowing” through the food, creating an image of brutishness. Their discussion about Twinkle centers around her looks, as on of the men says (insert quote). Although it seems like light talk, in reality, this language almost commodifies Twinkle as a trophy wife; it seems to suggest that Sanjeev should be lucky to have such a pretty wife to flaunt. The way in which they consume their food symbolizes that the conversation they are having is an almost primitive one. Just like the way they eat is not a polite way to eat, the content of their conversation is also not politically correct. This message undermines the still common conception of gender relations; the woman is the commodity, and the man is the owner. This patriarchal mindset is thus quietly repudiated by a subtle detail in the way the men eat; they may feel as though what they are saying is acceptable, but the description of how they eat says otherwise.
In “A Temporary Matter,” food is used differently to illustrate the characters. Rather than the food itself or the way in which it is consumed, the way in which it is prepared defines Shoba and Shukumar. Before they lose their child, Shoba is always prepared to cook; everything she makes is kept in the freezer so she can create a full meal within a small time frame: “When she used to do the shopping, the pantry was always stocked with extra bottles of olive and corn oil…There were endless boxes of pasta in all shapes…”(“Temporary” 7). This symbolizes that she is always prepared, as she creates food beforehand in order to meet any need later on. This is why losing the baby is especially hard on her. The death of her child is something she could not have been prepared off, and therefore catches her completely off guard. Ergo, she does not know how to deal with the grief, and so finds a scapegoat in Shukumar, which culminates in her leaving him. Furthermore, she is always methodological in her cooking; she is very neat and organized. This further supports the idea that Shoba is the “prepared” one of the two, as she is focused and equipped to deal with what may come in life. Ironically, it is the more disorganized of the two who manages to cope better.
After the death of the child, Shukumar does more of the cooking, even stating that he is beginning to enjoy it. However, his culinary style is different than Shoba’s. He cooks in a disorganized fashion, creating everything on the spot. Although he has been cooking more often, he still does not take the preparation steps Shoba used to; in fact, it never seems to strike him that preparing beforehand could be a good idea The fact that he is cooking more and more symbolizes that Shoba has given up on her “preparation” lifestyle. It also symbolizes that Shukumar still has hope while Shoba does not. He still believes that the fire in the relationship can be reignited; if he did not, he would not bother playing chef. The irony is that although cooking is a way in which he attempts to stabilize his relationship with Shoba, she wants to separate with him regardless. The differences in their culinary styles foreshadow this: they are polar opposites in personality, and so a tragic event forces them to cope in different ways, pushing them to crossroads. This also unearths another human assumption: hope is what makes humans human. Shukumar is hopeful for a future with Shoba, while Shoba no longer cares enough to stay in the relationship. Her loss of hope takes away her personality, fundamentally changing her as a person. Without hope, Shoba is not the same woman Shukumar married.
Everything about food, from the cooking to the consumption, is used to describe or explain why a character acts the way they do. Food is crucial to everyone; there is not one person alive who does not need sustenance. Without it, one will wither away and eventually die. Lahiri may be trying to tell the readers that these relationships and personality traits reflected by the food may be just as important to the actual food itself. Food is a necessity, but it is also essential to recognize that relationships and personality traits are just as important to the value of life. Food keeps one alive; the emotional connections make that life valuable.
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