Jhumpa Lahiri’s “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”: The Process of Setting and Character Arc
In her short story, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”, Juhmpa Lahiri uses three techniques: i) time linearity, ii) settings contrast, and iii) a reminiscing point of view, to illustrate three changes (arc) in the story’s main character and narrator: i) socio-political awareness, ii) compassion wakefulness, and iii) identity discovery.
Since the beginning the first person narrator situates the reader “In the Autumn of 1971”. The narrator, Lilia, a 10-year-old child at the time, reminisces years later (we don’t know exactly when) on the events and dates and relates her perceptions of Mr. Pirzada’s predicament and her own realization on several subjects. This indicates that her awareness, wakefulness, and discovery was completed only years later. The technique of process is manifested by the constant reminders from the narrator of the dates of when things occurred: March of 1971. Dacca is invaded by West Pakistan and horrible things happen to its population, which awakens Lilia to socio-political themes. She also sees her parents looking for surnames similar to theirs in the university directory to invite the person to dine, in this year, Mr. Pirzada. Autumn of 1971. Pakistan is engaged in civil war. Lilia’s parents complain that in the US at large and Boston in particular, there is no mustard oil in the supermarket, physicians make no house calls, and neighbors make no visits un-announced, as it happens in India.
End of Summer 1971. The death toll mounts to 300,000 and, after several visits, Lilia learns that Mr. Pirzada is a regular at dinner time, asking her mother for a fourth glass for “the Indian man”, who is visiting Boston on a grant. Her father gives Lilia a geo-political lesson on India, Pakistan, and the new republic to come, Bangladhesh, explaining about the Partition by the British and the separation based on religion (Muslim and Hindu). Lilia becomes aware of the contrast between the perils taking place thousands of miles away and the safety she enjoys at home, the ignorance of the ongoing war at her school (“no one in school talked about the war”). She becomes aware of the cultural affinities between her family and Mr. Pirzada (the separation “made no sense” to her), and her nous of compassion flourishes (“I had never prayed for anything before”, “above all I wanted to console Mr. Pirzada”). The visitor becomes the embodiment of the suffering of many families. She probably projects her own image into that of the visitor’s daughters and the image of her father into that of Mr. Pirzada. Lilia also acquires a deeper sense of identity by hearing her parents and the visitor comment –rather sarcastically- on the local customs (“what is this thank you?”, “figure out what made him different”, and “the peculiar eating habits”).
In October Lilia becomes aware of the temporariness of US news media (“more and more rare to see any footage from Dacca”), the structure of international politics (USSR versus the USA), the perils of war versus the safety of home, and continues her own identity definition process, when Mr. Pirzada questions about “large orange vegetables”. Her sense of community is heightened when the sit at the table “for the first time” and her self-definition is expressed, I think, when she compromises a frown or a smile with a non-expression face on the pumpkin. This non expression could also mean that even though this is a time of celebration (within the scare) there should not be much celebration in the face of the war and Mr. Pirzada’s suffering. The 12 days of the war after December 4 are spent in Lilia’s house with no TV, customary candy or large meals with Mr. Pirzada staying in “sharing a single meal, a single body, a single silence, and a single fear”. Finally in January 72 the war is over and Mr. Pirzada goes back to Dacca. Only several months later Lilia and her parent receive a post card from Mr. Pirzada celebrating the Muslim New Year and communicating that his family spent the war safe in the mountains of Shillong. They are reunited.
Lilia’s arc was probably completed only several years later, when the narrator writes the story, but the continued setting contrasts of war in Pakistan versus safety in the USA, the simple geo-political lessons at school versus the live TV news and conversations at home, and the home environment versus the outer relationships, brought Lilia through a coming of age process a=that is well narrated and depicted in a clear timeline in this story.
See Appendix 1 for a depiction of the above analysis in chart form.
APPENDIX 1: CHART FORM ANALYSIS OF THE PROCESS OF SETTING AND CHARACTER ARC
time socio-political compassion identity
March of 1971 Dacca invaded (only flashback) torching, shelling, shooting, rape.
Boston folliage parents looking for Indian surnames in university directory
Autum 1971 Pakistan engaged in civil war no mustard oil, no house calls, no neighbor visits
End of Summer 1971 300,000 deaths Mr. Pirzada family left behind
End of September 1947 Partition by Britain based on religion Hindus and Muslims.
safe and easy life and opportunity in US. , but no knowledge of world affairs.
no knowledge of world affairs: every year the revolutionary war in a superficial manner
history lessons thru TV, "no one in school talked about the war", doing her own research in the library "hand me a fourth glass" for the visitor, not an Indian man
Perception of time and place: a father with a family in Dacca
Pirzada as the embodiment of the pain seen on TV, "I had never prayed for anything before"
"above all I wanted to console Mr. Pirzada" Separation by religion "made no sense"for they shared the same customs (food and manners)
"What is this thank you?"
"figure out what made him different"
"peculiar eating habits"
October temporariness of US news "more and more rare to see any footage from Dacca",
the safety of Halloween for Lilia and Dora
vs the perils of war
The US-W Pak vs the E Pak-India-USSR "large orange vegetables"
"for the first time we all gathered around the dining table"
"a compromise" smile or frown also for identity? Or pity? Custome and basmati rice box? "never saw an Indian witch"
On December 4 12 days of war: Pakistan army surrendered, No TV, no candy No TV, no candy, no large foods, Mr. Pirzada staying in and "sharing a single meal, a single body, a sngle silence, and a single fear"
In January Reconstruction Mr. Pirzada back to Dacca
Several months later Reunited with his family they were safe in Shillong all the time card from Mr. P celebrating Muslim New year