Beyond Cultural Identity in Jhumpa Lahiri's 'When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine.'

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Author: Judith Caesar
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,617 words

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[(essay date winter 2003) In the following essay, Caesar utilizes "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" to illuminate Lahiri's ability to transcend the boundaries of postcolonial, Asian American, and American fiction.]

Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies is informed by at least three types of contemporary fiction while remaining just outside all of these categories. It is not post-colonial literature, or even what Salman Rushdie termed "Indo-Anglian literature" (50), because most of the stories take place in the United States, not in post-colonial India, and they concern the psychic development, or the failure to develop, of cosmopolitan and multicultural characters, not Indians struggling to understand the meaning of their personal and national past. It is unlike most previous Asian-American literature in that few of the characters are American-born Asians trying to understand their ancestral culture and make it part of their American identities, as Amy Tan's and Maxine Hong Kingston's characters do, nor, for the most part, do the stories focus on the rigidity of the ancestral culture and the protagonist's attempts to rebel and redefine herself in opposition to those strictures, as some of Bharati Mukherjee's stories do. However, the stories are not simply American fiction, although they are written to an American audience and often concern American problems. What makes Lahiri's work unique is that the American problems that it identifies are ones that most Americans wouldn't be able to see unless they had examined America through eyes that have seen and minds that have understood other places. Moreover the stories expand the definition not only of what it can mean to be bicultural, but of post-colonial, Asian American, and American literatures. This transcendence of the boundaries of what have been rather insulated subcategories of contemporary fiction is particularly evident in the second story of the collection, "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine."

The story takes place in 1971, in a small American college town in New England where ten-year-old Lilia lives with her Indian-born parents and tries to learn how to live in multiple worlds. Lilia's home is a version of the best her parents remember of India--the food, the customs, the warm family life--without the sexism or the meddlesome extended family that plague the protagonists of so much Indo-Anglian fiction. And yet her parents apparently feel isolated and lonely, for every year they go through the father's university faculty directory looking for Indian names and inviting these people home. Mr. Pirzada, a visiting scholar from what is then East Pakistan, thus becomes a temporary part of this family world, having dinner and spending the evening with the family almost every night, bringing Lilia more candy than she knows what to do with, and calling her "the lady of the house." And he also shares another world with Lilia's parents, the world of what is going on outside the United States, on the subcontinent, where East and West Pakistan are fighting a particularly cruel and bloody war, where refugees from East Pakistan...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100096950