The Role of Rituals in Lahiri’s Lonely Characters

In Jhumpha Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, ritual plays important roles in both perpetuating and alleviating the loneliness of her characters. Many characters such as Mrs. Sen, Mr. Pirzada, Boori Ma, and Mrs. Croft maintain their rituals in order to connect to the society they miss. However, characters who stick too rigidly to rituals, such as Mrs. Sen and Sanjeev, find themselves even more isolated. On the other hand, Lilia, Twinkle, the narrator, and other characters create rituals as a way to conquer loneliness.Mrs. Sen maintains rituals that resemble her lifestyles in India because she misses her home. Despite being in America, “when Mrs. Sen said home, she meant India, not the apartment where she sat chopping vegetables” (116). While Noelle Brada-Williams suggested that Mrs. Sen’s “daily ritual or routine connects Mrs. Sen with India” (459), her ritual also emphasizes her loneliness from being distant from home and from her isolation in America.Mrs. Sen first appears wearing “a shimmering white sari patterned with orange paisleys” (112), which she ‘neatened’ upon hearing the word ‘India’. Her eloquent and formal manner of wearing her sari with a different pattern but “all identical, embedded in a communal expanse of log chips” (119) emphasize her longing for a sense of unity and community she finds in her hometown. Furthermore, Mrs. Sen occupies herself with ‘chopping’ abundant ingredients with her bonti. The bonti brought from India is a recurrent motif of the community she lost (Mitra 185). As Mrs. Sen chops the spinach, she recalls the evenings when “all the neighborhood women…bring blades just like this one, and then they sit in an enormous circle…laughing and gossiping and slicing fifty kilos of vegetables through the night” (115). Lahiri emphasizes Mrs. Sen’s longing for those nights when ‘it is impossible to fall asleep…listening to their chatter” by contrasting them to Mrs. Sen isolated life in America where “she cannot sometimes sleep in so much silence” (115). Moreover, Mrs. Sen’s focus on the ritual process of chopping more than the meal itself and her persistence of chopping despite the fact that it “was never [for] a special occasion, nor was she ever expecting company”(117) convey her elaborate desire to connect to India. Lahiri depicts an imagery of Mrs. Sen chopping one of the rare fresh fish she finds in a flamboyant manner:“She pulled the blade out of the cupboard, spread newspaper across the carpet, and inspected her treasures. One by one she drew them form the paper wrapping, wrinkled and tinged with blood. She stroked the tails, prodded the bellies, pried apart the gutted flesh. With a pair of scissors she clips the fins. She tucked a ginger under the gills, a red so bright they made her vermilion seem pale. She grasped the body, lined with inky streaks, at either end, and notched it at intervals against the blade.” (127) Mrs. Sen sees the fresh fish as a ‘treasure’ that connects her to her life in Calcutta, where she eats fish ‘twice a day’, and thus her lengthy manner of preparing the fish serves to dramatize this connection.However, the rituals that connect Mrs. Sen to India also prevents her from feeling at ‘home’. Laura Anh Williams suggests a ‘lack of correct ingredients’ in Mrs. Sen’s Indian food. The tuna croquette is supposed to be made with bheki fish and the fish and green banana stew lacks the green banana (73). This suggests the impossibility for Mrs. Sen to feel like being in India despite maintaining her chopping rituals chopping with the same bonti she uses in India. In addition to not being able to fully connect with India, by maintaining her Indian rituals Mrs. Sen is also further alienated from American society. Madhuparna Mitra commented on Mrs. Sen’s ritual of cooking only fresh, whole fish: “if the fish is the tool of nostalgia, it is also the symbol of Mrs. Sen’s alienation” (185). Her desire for a fresh fish does not make sense in American society: Eliot’s mother broiled ‘shell fish, or the fillets’ (123) not whole fish, the clerk does not understand why Mrs. Sen wants the head despite it being the most valuable part in Mrs. Sen’s culture (127), and the old lady on the bus is bothered by the smells of Mrs. Sen’s fish (132). Furthermore, Eliot also notices that Mrs. Sen’s formal sari, “more suitable for an evening affair” (112), contrasts with his mother’s “shaved knees and thighs too exposed” (113). If Eliot’s mother represents a typical American, then the contrast represents Mrs. Sen’s isolation from American culture. Thus, Mrs. Sen’s inability to belong to either India or America further intensifies her loneliness from being far away from home.Alternatively, Eliot’s family’s lack of rituals also causes Eliot’s loneliness. As Mitra suggested, “’Mrs. Sen’s’ is not only a study of Mrs. Sen’s loneliness, but also that of Eliot and his mother who lived in a tiny beach housing having little relationship with the neighbors” (187). In contrast to Mrs Sen whose life revolve around sentimental rituals of preparing ingredients in elegant meals, Eliot’s mother does not “eat lunch at work” and would “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” (118). During dinner, Eliot would be left “to wrap up the leftovers” while his mother goes “to the deck to smoke cigarette” (118). The sense of isolation that Eliot associates with dining juxtaposes with the sense of community that Mrs. Sen tries to get through dining. Yet, dining for both Eliot and Mrs. Sen reminds them of their loneliness. Although Eliot has no awareness of missing someone from home because his house is “just five miles away” (116), he shares with Mrs. Sen the loneliness of not having a ‘home’.Together Mrs. Sen and Eliot construct rituals that enable them to alleviate each other’s loneliness. Mrs. Sen and Eliot who otherwise would be alone in their houses are able to keep each other company during Eliot’s daily visit. Each afternoon, Mrs. Sen would wait for Eliot at the bus stop “as if eager to greet a person she hadn’t seen in years” (119). Eliot “especially enjoyed watching Mrs. Sen as she chopped things” (115). While seeming an ordinary activity, the two shares intimate connection as Eliot sits still upon Mrs. Sen’s order and watches her use the bonti and share stories about nights spent chopping vegetables with her neighbors in India. Eliot whose parents have always been away feels protected and cared for as Mrs. Sen worries about his safety. Mrs. Sen who has always been left alone in her apartment now has someone to express her homesickness to. Mrs. Sen gains the courage to practice driving with Eliot because he understands that “she wanted him sitting beside her” (119). Thus, her rituals with Eliot not only build her first human relationship in America but also enable her to reach out to her new life.Nevertheless, Mrs. Sen crashes while trying to drive to get her fish. Her life still only revolves around her Indian rituals and so is not ready to adapt into American lifestyles. Thus, she becomes “startled by the horn” of other cars (134). If the car is a motif of her connection to America and the bonti, her connection to India, the fact that Mrs. Sen gets ‘out of the car’ and ‘put away the blade’ marks her failure to belong to any community. The car accident ends Mrs. Sen and Eliot’s hopeful relationship. Lahiri suggests an unresolved loneliness as Eliot is left alone in his house watching the ‘gray waves’ while Mrs. Sen runs to her bedroom and ‘shut the door’.Like Mrs. Sen, Mr. Pirzada also maintains his rituals because he misses his home. The story ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came of Dine’ is also told through a child’s perspective about the rituals in Mr. Pirzada’s visit. Every evening at six o’clock, Mr. Pirzada would come to dine with Lilia’s family because they resemble the family he misses. In contrast, in ‘The Temporary Matter’ Shukumar and Shoba establish their separate dining rituals (Shukumar eating in the room prepared for their dead child and Shoba in the living room) so that they could avoid each other. Note, however, that these opposite dining rituals both suggest the loneliness of Mr. Pirzada as well as that of Shukuma and Soba. In fact, Lahiri often use dining rituals to portray the loneliness of many of her characters such as Mrs. Sen, Eliot, Eliot’s mother, or even the narrator in ‘The Third and Final Continent’ who eats cereal every day before Mala comes to America.During dinner, Lilia becomes aware of Mr. Pirzada’s loneliness as she observes his rituals in order to make sense of why Mr. Pirzada and her parents who “spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes, looked more or less the same” (25) are presumably ‘different’.He took out a plain silver watch without a band, which he kept in his breast pocket, held it briefly to one of his tufted ears, and wound it with three swift flicks of his thumb and forefinger. Unlike the watch on his wrist, the pocket watch, he had explained to me, was set to local time in Dacca, eleven hours ahead. For the duration of the meal the watch rested on his folded paper napkin on the coffee table. He never seemed to consult it.” (30)Through observing Mr. Pirzada’s eloquent yet anxious manner of looking at Dacca’s time, Lilia comes to understand that Mr. Pirzada is different not because of the different map color of his country or his different religion, but because he is lonely. He belongs to Dacca and is living there despite being in America. Lilia realizes that ‘life’ for Mr. Pirzada, “was being lived in Dacca first” and his life in America is only “a shadow of what had already happened [in Dacca], a lagging ghost of where Mr. Pirzada really belonged” (31). As Basudeb and Angana Chakrabarti pointed out, “this sense of belonging to a particular place and culture and yet at the same time being an outsider to another creates a tension in individuals which happens to be a distinguishing feature of Lahiri’s characters”(qtd. in Brada-Williams 454). Lilia observes how Mr. Pirzara always maintains a posture “as if balancing in either hand two suit cases of equal weight” (28), one suit case symbolizing his current life in America, another being his life back home.Similar to Eliot and Mrs. Sen, Lilia also connects with Mr. Pirzada through their shared loneliness although she does not understand the feeling of missing someone far away from home. Despite being loved by her parents and being “assured a safe life, an easy life, a fine education, every opportunity” (26), Lilia does not receive much attention from her parents. Before Mr. Pirzada’s visit, her father does not know what she learns in school (27) and she would be left with her book when the adults are watching the news (31). Lilia is always “sent upstairs to do [her] homework” (34) alone as she listens ‘through the carpet’ about the adult’s conversations. The fact that Lilia is an only child further emphasizes her loneliness.Mr. Pirzada and Lilia exchange their understandings of each other’s loneliness through their own little rituals. As Mr. Pirzada calls Lilia “the lady of the house” (29) and gives her candies with ‘rotund elegance’, Lilia who do not usually receive this much attention is “flattered by the faint theatricality of his attentions” (29). Moreover, Mr. Pirzada has been sending comic books to his seven daughters but has not heard from them for over six months (24). Hence, being able to give Lilia her candies and seeing her joy of receiving them resembles the joy he wants to see from his daughters. Despite not being able to utter her worries about Mr. Pirzada’s family or her thankfulness of his attention, Lilia keeps “each evening’s treasure as [she] would a jewel [and]…place it in a small keepsake box”(29) because she knows how important these candies are for Mr. Pirzada as they are for her.In attempt to do something to help alleviate Mr. Pirzada’s loneliness, Lilia innocently makes up her own praying rituals for his family’s safety: “I did something I had never done before. I put the chocolate in my mouth, letting it soften until the last possible moment, and then as I chewed it slowly, I prayed that Mr. Pirzada’s family was safe and sound” (32). The fact that a little girl decides that she ought to dedicate every night a piece of her ‘treasure’ to do something she has never been taught to do shows her profound connection and understanding of Mr. Pirzada’s feelings.Similar to the little Lilia, Twinkle in ‘This Blessed House’ improvises her own rituals. Twinkle does not have nostalgic rituals that alleviate loneliness like Mrs. Sen or Mr. Pirzada, but she is not a lonely character. She is always ‘content yet curious’ as she constructs her own meaning out of her simultaneous discoveries. As Williams suggested: “the scavenger hunts allows for the emergence of Twinkle’s identity” (76). Twinkle does know the cooking rituals that Mrs. Sen does, but she is able to construct dishes that are “unusually tasty, attractive even” (144) out of the vinegar she finds. Yet, still after a successful improvisation, Twinkle refuses to write the recipe down as she refuses to stick to rituals but is ready to make endless new discoveries. Furthermore, although Sanjeev reminds her that they are not Christian and he “can’t have the people [he] work with see this statue on [his] lawn” (147), Twinkle refuses to rid her discovered statues of Christ because “it could be worth something” (136). The incident illustrates how Twinkle sees everything in her simultaneous discoveries as opportunities. In contrast, Sanjeev follows blindly to Hindi rituals not because he sees meaning in these rituals but because he is afraid of how others might think of him.By contrasting Sanjeev to Twinkle, Lahiri emphasizes the difference between not having rituals and not having meaning in life. Twinkle does not have rituals but the one who is lonely is Sanjeev because he sticks to the rituals meaninglessly. Sanjeev awkwardly reads about how the Fifth Symphony is supposed to be “music of love and happiness” (140) in attempt to impress people of his taste, while Twinkle simply feels the music. He is annoyed at how Twinkle lies carelessly “in bed in the middle of the day” while he mundanely unpack boxes, sweep the attic, or retouch the paint in preparation for the guests (141). Consequently, Sanjeev misses the opportunity to feel the excitement and contentment in Twinkle’s everyday discoveries. Despite all the rituals he tries to do to impress his guests, they are more impressed by Twinkle’s lack of rigid rituals. As all his guests disappear to join Twinkle’s discoveries, Sanjeev is left alone.Yet although Mrs. Sen, Mr. Pirazada, and Sanjeev are lonely characters, they are not hopeless. Mrs. Sen is isolated from both India and America but Lahiri leaves possibilities of Mrs. Sen’s future adjustment to her hyphenated life through the story’s unresolved ending. Moreover, Mr. Pirizada eventually reunites with his family in Dacca. Sanjeev, although rigid and mundane, has the hopeful and talented Twinkle by his side. Furthermore, even the lonely children in Lahiri’s stories are portrayed in positive and hopeful notes. Despite not receiving much attention from their parents, Eliot and Lilia still have their families and have a secured society that they belong to.Some of Lahiri’s characters, however, experience tragic loneliness to the point that rituals cannot alleviate their loneliness. Boori Ma in ‘Real Durwan’ and Mrs. Croft in ‘The Third and Final Continent’ are alone and estranged from society with very little hope of reconciliation. Their rituals only enable them to yearn for their long lost past. Every day for ‘twice a day’, Boori Ma would sweep the stairwell from top to bottom as she enumerates “the details of her plight and losses suffered…[being] separated her from a husband, four daughters, a two-story brick house, a rosewood almari, and a number of coffer boxes whose skeleton keys she still wore” (71). Her rituals of sweeping the stairs and wearing the skeleton keys emphasize her longing for the life she lost. At other times as Boori Ma sweeps, she would ‘chronicle’ the elegant life she used to have: “by the time she reached the second-floor landing, she had already drawn to the whole building’s attention the menu of her third daughter’s wedding night” (71). Like Mrs. Sen who recalls her time in Calcuatta to Eliot as she chops, Boori Ma also appears to be alleviating her loneliness as she sweeps and recalls her ‘easier times’ by gaining attention from the tenants. Yet, unlike Mrs. Sen and Eliot, the tenants do not share Boori Ma’s loneliness but simply like her ritual stories because they are entertaining and like her ritual sweeping because she keeps “their crooked stairwell spotlessly clean” (73). Thus, Boori Ma does not have any one who truly cares for her and she is literally alone in the world. Furthermore, in contrast to Mrs. Sen’s memory of her community, Boori Ma’s ritual story telling also seems illogical. This further suggests the futility of her rituals that makes her live in a past that may not even exist. (15) Similarly, Mrs. Croft lives alone in an irreversible past of the last century. Every day she sits “on the piano bench, on the same side as the previous evening (182) remembering how she used to teach piano and raise Helen up. She wears “the same black skirt, the same starched white blouse” (182) that reminds her of “a world in 1866…filled with women in long black skirts, and chaste conversation sin the parlor” (189). As she yearns for a society she lost, Mrs. Croft demands the door ‘locked’ as if she is locking herself out of reality. Like Boori Ma, Mrs. Croft does her rituals in order to live in her imagined world that can only be a distant past.Fortunately, however, Mrs. Croft has the narrator who empathizes with her loneliness. Although the narrator shows more capability of adjusting than Mrs. Croft because he has traveled across three continents and is still young and hopeful, he initially is alone and estranged from American society just like Mrs. Croft. Mrs. Croft is the narrator’s first friend in America. As Judith Caesar commented, “despite all their differences, [the narrator] and Mrs. Croft are equally distant from the societies in which they grew up” (54). Similarly to Mrs. Sen and Eliot, and Mr. Pirzada and Lilia, Mrs. Croft and the narrator construct their own rituals as their little way of comforting each other’s loneliness. Each evening Mrs. Croft “declared that there was a flag on the moon and declared that it was splendid” (183) and the narrator would cry out “Spendid!” too. Mohit Ray commented on how the narrator continues “keeping up the ritual even when he knew the flag no longer stood on the moon” (193), because he understands how important these ritual means for Mrs. Croft. Additionally, their rituals not only console Mrs. Croft from her loneliness during her last days of life, but also help the narrator adjust into his new life. His relationship with Mrs. Croft enables the narrator to see Mala as the ‘perfect lady’ as Mrs. Croft sees, thus marking the beginning of his happy marriage life in America.The narrator and Mala are able to successfully establish a happy life because they are able to adapt their rituals to suit their Indian-American lifestyles. The narrator understands Mala’s need of connecting to India through her rituals of wearing saris and preparing meals. Thus, instead of nudging Mala to become independent as Mr. Sen does to Mrs. Sen, the narrator helps Mala adapt her Indian rituals to suit American lifestyle: he intends to tell Mala to “wear her sari so that the free end did not drag the foot path” (190) and does not object her preparing breakfast for him but tells her to make cereal instead of lengthy rice preparations. Furthermore, in contrast to Mr. Sen who leaves Mrs. Sen alone knowing only that she is a ‘professor’s wife’, the narrator understands that Mala is homesick and needs emotional support. He tries to include Mala into his society by showing her where he works and taking her to Mrs. Croft. Similarly, Mala also shows her potential of adapting rituals. Like how Mrs. Sen, Boori Ma, and Mrs. Croft dress, Mala initially wears her sari to resemble the society she misses. However, she is prepared to adjust into American lifestyles that her sari does not drag the floor when she arrives. When the narrator “told her cereal would do” for breakfast, Mala immediately adjusts and “poured the cornflakes into [his] bowl” (192). Both characters are no longer lonely because they adapt their rituals for each other and for their new life in America.Unlike the other characters, the narrator and Mala construct rituals that not only alleviate the loneliness of missing the society they grow up in, but also enable them to make both India and America the society they belong to. They maintain good relationship with their relatives in India, but also establish a life and raise a son in United Sates: “Though [they] visit Calcutta every few years, and bring back more drawstring pajamas and Darjeeling tea, [they] have decided to grow old [in America]” (197). They reach out to find “fresh fish on Prospect Street” and send pictures of their new life to Mala’s parents (196), these being the things Mrs. Sen fails to get in America. By comparing their liveliness with the other characters’ loneliness, Lahiri emphasizes how this ritual construction is not an ‘ordinary’ adjustment but a notable accomplishment. Lahiri ends her collection with the couple’s perfect rituals, suggesting hopeful potential for her characters to conquer loneliness.

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