Monday, January 26, 2009

Short Story Mondays: Jhumpa Lahiri's When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine

Last Monday I promised to share with you my favorite story from Interpreter of Maladies, so here it is:
Source: Interpreter of Maladies (1999) by Jhumpa Lahiri
Date Read: January, 2009
Briefly: An American girl with Indian parents finds her view of the world impacted by a friendship with a Pakistani man.
Afterthoughts: I like the way Lahiri gives the reader a little girl's perspective while offering enough information to impart an adult view as well. Protagonist Lilia is vaguely aware of Mr. Pirzada's worry and grief, as he comes to her house every night to watch the news for any word from Pakistan, which in 1971 is drawing towards war with India while he is spending a year in the U.S. The fact that he can't get in touch with his wife and children makes his situation hit home for her. At the end of the story she realizes how much his friendship has meant to her, which I found very touching.
I loved that this story illustrates how displacement can bring people together. Lilia's father makes a point of telling her that Mr. Pirzada is different from them--while their family is Hindu, he is Muslim, and therefore Pakistani and not Indian. She describes how, from her vantage point, this made no sense: "Mr. Pirzada and my parents spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes, looked more or less the same. They ate pickled mangoes with their meals, ate rice every night for supper with their hands. Like my parents, Mr. Pirzada took off his shoes before entering a room, chewed fennel seeds after meals as a digestive, drank no alcohol, for dessert dipped austere biscuits into successive cups of tea."
In mid-story, Lahiri distills her theme down to one 621-word pumpkin-carving scene. The scene illustrates Mr. Pirzada's relationship with Lilia and her family, how it interacts with his feelings about his own family, and what he teaches Lilia about enjoying life in spite of worry and sorrow. I've now reread it half a dozen times, and each time I see something new.
Available online at

Notable quotes: What I remember during those twelve days of the war [in Pakistan] was that my father no longer asked me to watch the news with them, and that Mr. Pirzada stopped bringing me candy, and that my mother refused to serve anything other than boiled eggs with rice for dinner. I remember some nights helping my mother spread a sheet and blankets on the couch so that Mr. Pirzada could sleep there, and high-pitched voices hollering in the middle of the night when my parents called our relatives in Calcutta to learn more details about the situation. Most of all I remember the three of them operating during that time as if they were a single person, sharing a single meal, a single body, a single silence, and a single fear.


  1. Excellent review! I loved this story too.

  2. Hey Ali,

    I tagged you today for a short meme because you write a wonderful blog!!

  3. I think I'm really going to like this story! I keep hearing how depressing her short story collections are but I'll definitely be looking forward to this story in particular!

  4. Oh good. I'm glad you are liking the stories - I was afraid that when you didn't warm to the first one, you might give up! but then, you're not that kind to give up that quickly, are you?

  5. Thanks Nymeth!

    Rebecca, I'll probably get the meme done tomorrow or Wednesday. Thanks!

    Alea, I don't think these are too depressing for you to enjoy. I only hated one of them. (For anyone who's read them: it was the one about the homeless woman)

    Care, nope, I didn't give up. I'd read most of them even before posting last week's review, actually. I had to return the book to the library, before I finished the last two, though.

  6. I just checked this book out from the library...looking forward to reading this story!!

  7. I hope you'll like it, Staci!

  8. Wow. You just made me exceedingly happy that I just bought this book!

  9. I loved Interpreter of Maladies, and this story was one of the most memorable selections for me. I really need to get my butt in gear and read Unaccustomed Earth now!

  10. Thanks for coming by Short Story Sunday. I read these stories a few years ago and loved them. They are the only short story collection my book club has enjoyed reading.

    I don't remember finding them depressing. There were several very funny ones as I recall.

  11. The pumpkin scene sounds very cool. I'll have to check it out.