Andrew Giambrone: Food, Hunger, and Memory in Jhumpa Lahiri

ENGL 447: American Literature in the World

Professor Wai Chee Dimock

 

Hunger of Memory: Food, Family, and Identity in Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”

            In Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust, the unnamed narrator eats a madeleine cake dipped in tea, which unlocks for him a treasure trove of memories. “But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake-crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening in me,” the narrator writes. “A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause.”[1] For Proust, food is associated with involuntary memory; his narrator cannot help but recall having a similar snack as a child, in the town of Combray where he grew up. As soon as the narrator tastes the pastry, an image of “the old grey house” where his aunt once lived flashes in his mind, “and with the house the town, the square where [he] used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which [he] used to run, [and] the country roads [his family] took when it was a beautiful day.” All these memories emerge from a simple cake and a cup of tea.

One hundred years after In Search of Lost Time was first published, Proust’s famous episode of the madeleine has become a literary trope.[2] And yet, the episode still speaks powerfully to the phenomenon of unconscious memory — to how we, as beings who experience the world through sense perception, often remember previous occasions most vividly when prompted by exterior stimuli. Food is one such trigger, forcing us to exercise each of our senses in our interactions with it: taste, smell, sight, touch, and even hearing.[3] Nevertheless, across seven volumes of his novel, Proust only portrays instances where food serves as an unexpected key to the past; he never demonstrates how food can also play a role in our active attempts to reconnect with times gone by, or in our conscious efforts to create present communities.

By contrast, Indian American author Jhumpa Lahiri seems eminently aware of food’s ability to link individuals with both history and each other. In her 2009 autobiographical piece “Rice,” written for The New Yorker’s annual Food Issue, Lahiri describes her father’s routine of cooking pulao, “a baked, buttery, sophisticated indulgence, served at festive occasions,” including annaprasan, “a rite of passage in which Bengali children are given solid food for the first time.”[4] The author recalls her own annaprasan, when her father first made pulao, as well as subsequent occasions on which the dish was served: “the annaprasans of friends’ children, for birthday parties and anniversaries, for bridal and baby showers, for wedding receptions, for [her] sister’s Ph.D. party,” and eventually for her own children’s annaprasans. “Despite having a superficial knowledge of the ingredients and the technique, I have no idea how to make my father’s pulao, nor would I ever dare attempt it,” Lahiri writes. “It is a dish that has become an extension of himself, that he has perfected, and to which he has earned the copyright.”

For Lahiri, food is inextricably bound with identity, at both the individual and social levels. In her father’s case, making pulao constitutes a personal ritual, while the consumption of it signals a communal tradition. There are two main differences from Proust in this regard: first, Lahiri often portrays food as the result of a creative process rather than as a something merely to be consumed; second, cooking in Lahiri’s work is depicted as a conscious, performative act that at once recalls past memories and makes current realities memorable. Three stories from Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s 1999 collection of short stories, illustrate these food-related phenomena: “A Temporary Matter,” “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” and “Mrs. Sen’s.”[5] Although each story contains particular nuances in terms of food’s ability to bring people together and to recall the past, all three depict food and cooking as imperfect and limited phenomenon — they alone cannot solve characters’ psychic, interpersonal, and social conflicts.

“A Temporary Matter” begins in unusual circumstances; as the narrator informs us, Shoba and Shukumar — a young, Indian-American couple in their third year of marriage living near Boston — must face five days without electricity because a recent snowstorm has downed a power line in their neighborhood. Ironically, the literal darkness that befalls the couple allows them to see all too clearly what in their relationship has gone awry. As elsewhere in Lahiri’s work, small narrative details key the reader into her characters’ psychological states. “‘It’s good of them to warn us,’ Shoba conceded after reading the notice [announcing the blackout] aloud, more for her own benefit than Shukumar’s.” (p. 1) Hence, one knows from the beginning of the story that the married couple is dissatisfied with their life circumstances, and not just because of the temporary power outage — they are dissatisfied on a deeper level with each other. The narrator indicates that Shukumar is equally estranged from Shoba: “He hadn’t left the house at all that day, or the day before. The more Shoba stayed out, the more she began putting in extra hours at work and taking on additional projects, the more he wanted to stay in, not even leaving to get the mail, or to buy fruit or wine at the stores by the trolley stop.” (p. 2) By all appearances, Shoba and Shukumar’s relationship has degenerated into a vicious cycle, in which both have “become experts a avoiding each other in their three-bedroom house, spending as much time on separate floors as possible…no longer look[ing] forward to weekends” or even “look[ing] into [each other’s] eyes and smi[ling].” (p. 4-5)

Food does little to unite Shoba and Shukumar on any meaningful level in “A Temporary Matter,” other than at the beginning of their marriage. In a reversal of traditional gender roles, Shukumar now prepares dinner, whereas before Shoba had been the one to gather ingredients and cook:

[Shukumar used to] watch in disbelief as [Shoba] bought more food, trailing behind her with canvas bags as she pushed through the crowd…It never went to waste. Shoba would throw together meals that appeared to have taken half a day to prepare, from things she had frozen and bottled, not cheap things in tins but peppers she had marinated herself with rosemary, and chutneys that she cooked on Sundays, stirring boiling pots of tomatoes and prunes. Her labeled mason jars lined the shelves of the kitchen, in endless sealed pyramids, enough, they’d agreed, to last for their grandchildren to taste. (p. 7)

 

In the nascent days of the couple’s marriage, food served as both an art form (evinced by Shoba’s “throw[ing] together” of elaborate meals — a kind of bricolage[6]) and a symbol of familial security (represented by the rows of mason jars, neatly arranged “in endless sealed pyramids” in the kitchen.) But food itself could never guarantee the “grandchildren” who were expected “to taste” Shoba’s cooking, or “the baby [that] had been born dead” (p. 3) just a few months into the two’s marriage. It could not even guarantee their own happiness when Shukumar became the de facto chef of the house. “They’d eaten all [the food] by now,” the narrator tells us. “Shukumar had been going through their supplies steadily…He had no memory of eating those meals, and yet there they were, recorded in [Shoba’s] neat proofreader’s hand [in the cookbooks Shukumar read for recipes.]” (p. 7) Something fundamental has changed in the couple’s relationship, with the result that Shoba and Shukumar have developed the habit of not eating together and are each preoccupied with their own affairs. Although Shukumar enjoys cooking as a productive activity, the sad portrait of the two eating alone that follows this fact immediately qualifies his individual happiness: “For months now they’d served themselves from the stove, and he’d taken his plate into his study, letting the meal grow cold on his desk before shoving it into his mouth without pause, while Shoba took her plate to the living room and watched game shows, or proofread files with her arsenal of colored pencils at hand.” (p. 8) They live under the same roof — they even eat the same food — but they’re completely missing each other.

The ‘temporary matter’ of the power outage changes this dynamic, forcing Shoba and Shukumar to dine together over candlelight. While preparing dinner, Shukumar nostalgically remembers the couple’s first meals as newlyweds, “when they were so thrilled to be married, to be living together in the same house at last, that they would just reach for each other foolishly, more eager to make love than to eat.” (p. 10) In the darkness caused by the snowstorm, Shoba and Shukumar seem poised to rekindle their old romance, and with it their yet unfilled nuptial potential. “What’s all this?” Shoba asks with genuine surprise, observing the spread Shukumar has prepared for dinner. “You made rogan josh…It looks lovely.” (p. 10-1) The dining table becomes the focal point of the couple’s relationship, laid out before them like a freshly made wedding bed. Still, neither the table nor the food it offers can erase Shoba and Shukumar’s rocky history — in fact, the birthday candles Shukumar uses as lighting cause Shoba to recall a rice ceremony she once attended in the dark, where the baby being celebrated “just cried and cried.” (ibid.) In turn, Shukumar laments what the rice ceremony of their own child — a stillborn — would have been like, and whether the child would have been a boy or a girl. (One might say Shoba lives in the past and Shukumar the perfect conditional. One also wonders whether Lahiri or someone close to her was ever denied a celebratory annaprasan due to the death of a child.) This thought irritates Shukumar to the point that he wishes he could “go upstairs and sit in front of [his] computer,” (p. 11) as he does every night. Thus, although food prepared under abnormal circumstances momentarily unites the couple around a shared table, it cannot resolve deeper conflicts in their relationship, or even get them to speak openly with each other. “They weren’t like this before,” the narrator says. “Now [Shukumar] had to struggle to say something that interested [Shoba], something that made her look up from her plate, or from her proofreading files. Eventually he gave up trying to amuse her. He learned not to mind the silences.” (p. 12)

The ensuing conversations between the couple seem forced, more like memory games meant for their own amusement than genuine attempts to heal their relationship. While Shoba and Shukumar’s “exchange of confessions — the little ways they’d hurt or disappointed each other, and themselves” (p. 18) — occurs over food, the food itself drops into the background as the story progresses. When the electricity is eventually restored, Shukumar notes that “he [doesn’t] feel like cooking anymore [since] it [wouldn’t be] the same, knowing that the lights wouldn’t go out.” (p. 20) From this narrative detail, it is obvious that the couple’s interactions during the power outage have been a kind of hoax. “I suppose this is the end of our game,” Shukumar says, when he sees Shoba reading the notice announcing the restoration of electricity. (ibid.) Food and cooking are no longer pleasurable for the two, being pushed to the side as Shoba confesses that she needs time alone and will soon move out. All they can do is weep for the things they have lost.

In “When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine,” the second story of Lahiri’s collection, food also plays an important role in constructing a small community, but fails to restrain larger geopolitical and national forces from breaking people apart. The narrator describes how the eponymous Mr. Pirzada, a Bangladeshi researcher studying botany in the United States and a family friend, used to “come to her house to eat dinner and watch the evening news” (p. 24) when she was a child. Importantly, Mr. Pirzada’s wife and children are home in Dacca, during a year when Pakistan is engaged in civil war. “Teachers were dragged onto streets and shot, women dragged into barracks and raped,” the narrator informs us matter-of-factly. “By the end of the summer, three hundred thousand people were said to have died.” (p. 23) Against this backdrop, the narrator’s mother prepares simple but ostensibly delicious meals of “fried spinach with radishes” (p. 25) and “mincemeat kebabs with coriander chutney” (p. 28) as signs of hospitality and affection for the family’s anxious guest:

From the kitchen my mother brought forth the succession of dishes: lentils with fried onions, green beans with coconut, fish cooked with raisins in a yogurt sauce. I followed with the water glasses, and the plate of lemon wedges, and the chili peppers, purchased on monthly trips to Chinatown and stored by the pound in the freezer, which they liked to snap open and crush into their food. (p. 30)

 

In this way, the narrator’s family becomes a nurturing surrogate family for Mr. Pirzada, since he cannot be with his own in Dacca. But Mr. Pirzada shows generosity towards the narrator and her family through food as well, arriving each evening with a stash of sweets for the young girl: “Small plastic egg[s] filled with cinnamon hearts…honey-filled lozenges, raspberry truffles, slender rolls of sour pastilles,” which the narrator “treasures as she would a jewel, or a coin from a buried kingdom, in a small keepsake box of carved sandalwood beside [her bed].” (p. 29) Here, food takes on a deeper metaphorical meaning imbued upon it through the act of giving — the candy Mr. Pirzada provides is both commoditized as in an economic exchange (“coin”) and transformed into an object of nostalgia. It also becomes a highly subjective experience for the narrator, who looks back on the gift-giving years later as a kind of “ritual” (p. 29) between herself and the family’s guest. Even Mr. Pirzada’s physical appearance reflects his jolly nature in the narrator’s retrospection, as he used to show up each evening “in ensembles of plums, olives, and chocolate browns.” (p. 27) Thus, the mutual overflow of food as a marker of kindness between Mr. Pirzada and the narrator’s family demonstrates the great value of the communities such a transaction creates. As the story shows, this can happen even when the members of that community are not biologically related.

At the same time, however, Lahiri depicts food as a limited good in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” since food cannot summon loved ones from afar or prevent the breakup of communities in the face of political struggle. Although he is fed well by the narrator’s family, Mr. Pirzada cannot escape the fact that his wife and children are stuck in the midst of a civil war back at home. He appears perfectly “charm[ing]” and “theatrical” (p. 29) at first, but even the young narrator notices some anxiety beneath the surface when Mr. Pirzada, before eating each night, curiously winds a pocket watch that is “set to the local time in Dacca” (p. 30):

For the duration of the meal the watch rested on his folded paper napkin on the coffee table. He never seemed to consult it…When I saw [the pocket watch] that night, as he wound it and arranged it on the coffee table, an uneasiness possessed me; life, I realized, was being lived in Dacca first….Our meals, our actions, were only a shadow of what had already happened there, a lagging ghost of where Mr. Pirzada really belonged.” (p. 30-1)

 

The watch both symbolizes the passage of time and Mr. Pirzada’s particular case of double-consciousness; he is at once ‘at home’ with the narrator’s family but could not be farther from his real ‘home’ in Dacca, as images of civil war flash on the television. Ironically, this stirs anxiety (“uneasiness”) within the narrator, who has the impression that her own family’s life is just a “shadow” or “lagging ghost” of what has happened during Mr. Pirzada’s former life in Dacca. It becomes apparent that the narrator and Mr. Pirzada foil one another: The narrator has her own “ritual” of stowing the candy Mr. Pirzada gives her, while Mr. Pirzada winds his watch each night, seemingly as a reminder of his family in Bangladesh.

Food surrounds these rituals, yet stops short of fully easing the narrator’s and Mr. Pirzada’s psychic conflicts. All the narrator can do to distract herself from thinking Mr. Pirzada’s family is “in all likelihood dead” is to “put [a piece of] chocolate in [her] mouth, letting it soften until the last possible moment, and then as [she] chew[s] it slowly, [she] pray[s] that Mr. Pirzada’s family [is] safe and sound.” (p. 32) As the narrator notes, this is the first time she prays, because she feels it is “something [she] should do, given the circumstances.” (ibid.) Food thus serves as a source of comfort for the narrator, assuming a talismanic power that —in the mind of a child — might influence the unfolding of world events. However, since the narrative is told retrospectively, the reader knows to take such superstitions with a grain of salt; one even smiles at the young narrator “pretend[ing] to brush [her] teeth” after eating the chocolate Mr. Pirzadi gave her, “fear[ing] that [she] would somehow rinse the prayer out as well.” (ibid.)

As India and Pakistan finally go to war, the young narrator remains largely unaware of the geopolitical situation in Mr. Pirzada’s hometown of Dacca. Still, changes in the presence of food in the narrator’s house allow her to notice that something has changed in the dynamic between her family and their guest. “What I remember during those twelve days of the war 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,” the narrator writes. “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.” (p. 40-1) The dramatic reduction of food entering and being produced in the house — via Mr. Pirzada and the narrator’s mother, respectively — signals the growing anxiety each member of the household faces because of the war. The usual rituals of gift-giving by Mr. Pirzada and meal-preparation by the narrator’s mother come to a grinding halt; in ceasing their normal activities, they seem to acknowledge that there are more serious concerns in the world, which would render such rituals inappropriate. Food unites the group around a shared table, of course, but the narrator’s description of the scene indicates “fear” as the dominant emotion in the air rather than joy at dining together. Nor is food able to keep Mr. Pirzada with the narrator’s family in the United States; he soon flies back to Dacca, and they “do not hear from him for a long time.” (p. 41) For the narrator, “the only difference [is] that Mr. Pirzada and his extra watch [are] not there to accompany [them] for dinner.” (ibid.) She is so unaware of the situation in Bangladesh that she does not realize the map above her father’s desk is “outdated” (ibid.) since the borders between Indian and Pakistan have now changed. Only later does she learn of the “countless refugees return[ing] from India, greeted by unemployment and the threat of famine” (ibid.) at the time — a narrative detail which suggests that larger geopolitical forces have more power to fracture communities than food has power to create them.

The ending of the story demonstrates how quickly the subjective value of food can be lost when the communities that had previously given it meaning disappear. Even though Mr. Pirzada is reunited with his family and they all survive the civil war, the narrator does not feel like celebrating at the “special dinner” (p. 42) her mother prepares after receiving the good news. “Though I had not seen him for months, it was only then that I felt Mr. Pirzada’s absence,” she explains. “It was only then, raising my water glass in his name, that I knew what it meant to miss someone who was so many miles and hours away, just as he had missed his wife and daughters for so many months.” (ibid.) For the narrator, it is not the food that is important so much as the community of people surrounding it. In her experience, the absence of food in a famine is one tragedy but the absence of loved ones in both war and peace is a tragedy of a different sort. Accordingly, the story’s closing lines capture the narrator’s deep sense of loss over Mr. Pirzada returning to Dacca: “Since January, each night before bed, I had continued to eat, for the sake of Mr. Pirzada’s family, a piece of candy I had saved from Halloween. That night there was no need to. Eventually, I threw them away.” (ibid.) Because she now knows the Pirzadas are safe and sound, the narrator no longer finds meaning in the pieces of candy Mr. Pirzada used to give her as tokens of his affection; therefore, eating them no longer serves as a charm warding off danger to his family. Food has lost its metaphorical meaning and returned to the realm of the literal.

Lahiri best illustrates both the power and limitations of food in “Mrs. Sen’s,” where food is portrayed as the last bridge connecting the titular character — an immigrant to the United States — with her home country of India. From the beginning of the story, Mrs. Sen is depicted as an Other living in a foreign land; the wife of a math professor, she does not know how to drive and wears flip-flops in a country where neither of those is the norm. (p. 111-2) Eliot’s mother (the boy whom Mrs. Sen is hired to babysit) underscores Mrs. Sen’s Otherness by questioning whether she has cared for children before, how long she has lived in the United States, and how she expects to provide for Eliot if she cannot drive. (p. 113) Although she is hired without any problems, Mrs. Sen’s reaction to the mother’s mention of “India” demonstrates her deep degree of nostalgia for her home country: “The mention of the word seemed to release something in her…She, too, looked around the room, as if she noticed in the lampshades, in the teapot, in the shadows frozen on the carpet, something the rest of them could not. ‘Everything is there,’ [she said.]” (p. 113) Because Mrs. Sen cannot return to India, she decides to bring India to her through rituals of food preparation and consumption. The first of these involves chopping vegetables with “a blade curved like the prow of a Viking ship, sailing to battle in distant seas.” (p. 114) As the narrator informs us, Mrs. Sen “had brought the blade from India, where apparently there was at least one in every household.” (p. 115) Through Eliot’s perspective, the reader witnesses the almost mythic power Mrs. Sen retains with this blade: “Each afternoon Mrs. Sen lifted the blade and locked it into place…she took whole vegetables between her hands and hacked them apart: cauliflower, cabbage, butternut squash. She split things in half, then quarters, speedily producing florets, cubes, slices, and shreds. She could peel a potato in seconds.” (p. 114) Chopping is second nature to Mrs. Sen, who tells Eliot she learned how to do so with other Indian women at weddings and large celebrations back home:

‘Whenever there is [such an event], my mother sends out word in the evening for all the neighborhood women to bring blades just like this one, and then they sit in an enormous circle on the roof of our building, laughing and gossiping and slicing fifty kilos of vegetables through the night,’ [Mrs. Sen said.] Her profile hovered protectively over her work, a confetti of cucumber, eggplant, and onion skins heaped around her. ‘It is impossible to fall asleep those nights, listening to their chatter…Here, in this place where Mr. Sen has brought me, I cannot sometimes sleep in so much silence.’ (p. 115)

 

In India, communities are structured around food preparation and conversation. Lacking the latter with her peers in the United States, Mrs. Sen attempts to keep the food traditions of India alive in her relationship with Eliot. From the narrator’s description of Mrs. Sen “hover[ing] protectively over her work,” it is clear that she considers food a valuable and even celebratory (“confetti”) form of production. But as elsewhere in Lahiri’s work, food here is depicted as an imperfect good; while there are various vegetables “heaped around” Mrs. Sen in an impressive pile, there is no longer an “enormous circle of neighborhood women” to offer her solidarity. Thus, when she waxes nostalgic to Eliot about the late nights she used to spend in community with other women, Mrs. Sen implicitly signals her dissatisfaction with her current life in the United States. Forced to immigrate to an unfamiliar “place Mr. Sen has brought [her],” food preparation and consumption constitute one of her last sources of autonomy. Her culinary power directly contrasts with her inability to drive — a kind of cultural currency in the United States giving individuals the autonomy to leave the home rather than the opportunity to nourish it. For all Mrs. Sen’s cooking, however, food cannot fill the vast “silence” that has overtaken her life.

Eliot’s mother represents the kind of American culture surrounding food and relationships which Mrs. Sen finds so disheartening. Instead of savoring food around a shared table as Mrs. Sen is used to, Eliot’s mother seems to avoid food and company for reasons unexplained by the narrator: “[She] didn’t eat lunch at work, because the first thing she did when [she and Eliot] were [home] was 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.” (p. 118) Whether Eliot’s mother suffers from some type of depression or eating disorder is left ambiguous (the reader also learns that she refuses to eat Mrs. Sen’s cooking when she returns home, “setting down [her] plate after a bite or two”). (ibid.) Still, it is obvious that her relationship with food structurally opposes Mrs. Sen’s, and that the two relationships cannot peaceably coexist. This explains why “Mrs. Sen always ma[kes] sure all evidence of her chopping [is] disposed of,” (p. 117) including her mythic blade, by the time Eliot’s mother arrives home. Although Mrs. Sen ultimately must hide her work, the narrator seems to valorize her as an artist as much as a cook:

Brimming bowls and colanders lined the countertop, spices and pastes were measured and blended, and eventually a collection of brothers simmered over periwinkle flames on the stove. It was never a special occasion, nor was she ever expecting company. It was merely a dinner for herself and Mr. Sen, as indicated by the two plates and two glasses she set, without napkins or silverware, on the square Formica table at one end of the living room. (ibid.)

 

For Mrs. Sen, food is something to orchestrate and to provide as a quotidian good — a daily ritual that, in her mind, requires minimal fuss. (In this sense, Mrs. Sen’s attitude towards food differs from the narrator’s in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” who looks forward to Mr. Pirzada’s gifts of candy as “treasures” to be stored for the future.) But the story also suggests that Mrs. Sen’s obsession with preparing food may be as extreme as Eliot’s mother’s efforts to avoid it. In the passage cited above, for example, Mrs. Sen “never expect[s] company” at dinner other than her husband. While this small detail certainly speaks to the strength of the Sens’ relationship, it also reveals just how lonely Mrs. Sen, in her husband’s absence, must be; she has not formed significant adult ties in a new country, including with Eliot’s mother.

Mrs. Sen articulates the depth of her loneliness in a conversation she has with Eliot about his mother. “When I think of you, only a boy, separated form your mother for so much of the day, I am ashamed,” Mrs. Sen says. “When I was your age I was without knowing that one day I would be so far. You are wiser than that, Eliot. You already taste the way things must be.” (p. 123) The implication of Mrs. Sen’s remarks is that the world is a lonely place, whether for a displaced immigrant like herself or a neglected child like Eliot. In Mrs. Sen’s case, India plays the role of an absent “mother,” with whom she has few prospects of reuniting. Her judgment that Eliot already sees the way “things must be” (italics added), furthermore, suggests that she has a fairly fatalistic worldview regarding human relationships: Everyone ends up alone. Nevertheless, in addition to cooking traditional Indian meals, Mrs. Sen seems to find solace in obtaining fresh fish from the seaside. Even though she thinks these fish “taste nothing like the fish in India,” (p. 123) Mrs. Sen greatly prefers them to the supermarket stock, from which she “can never find a single fish [she] like[s].” (ibid.) Her nostalgia for the fish of her former life is clear, given that she “had grown up eating fish twice a day [and] that in Calcutta people ate fish first thing in the morning, last thing before bed, [and even] as a snack after school if they were lucky.” (ibid.) But since such seafood is not easily “available in any market, at any hour, from dawn until midnight” (ibid.) in the United States, as it was in India, Mrs. Sen resolves to make the best of her present circumstances by patronizing the local fish market. Once again, Mrs. Sen connects to her home country through elaborate rituals of food preparation and consumption, using her mythic blade:

Later, in the apartment, she pulled the blade out of the cupboard, spread newspapers across the carpet, and inspected her treasures. One by one she drew [the fish] from 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 clipped the fins. She tucked a finger 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…‘If I cut properly, from this fish I will get three meals,’ [she said.] She sawed off the head and set it on a pie plate.” (p. 127)

 

Here, Mrs. Sen is simultaneously depicted as a master chef, a warrior wielding a powerful blade, and a kind of priestess performing a ritual sacrifice. While this description of Mrs. Sen preparing the fish for consumption seems both microscopic and methodical (“one by one…she stroked… prodded…pried apart…the fins…the gills…the body”), the effect is to multiply the deeper metaphorical resonances which exist for her beneath the ritual; i.e., food as a means of connecting Mrs. Sen with her former life in India. That the narrator refers to the fish Mrs. Sen has gathered as “her treasures,” moreover, indicates that she values them much more than as mere foodstuff — they are surrogate objects recalling her past. (It also links Mrs. Sen’s personal history with that of the narrator in “When Mrs. Pirzada Came to Dine,” where the young narrator considers the candy Mr. Pirzada gives her as precious currency.) Finally, Mrs. Sen’s comment that she could “get three meals” from the fish if she cuts it properly suggests that she treats cooking as a time-honed skill, which she has garnered from years of experience in India. The sad truth of the matter, however, is that Mrs. Sen’s home country, unlike her cooking skills, cannot travel with her.

The ending of “Mrs. Sen” tragically illustrates the woman’s profound solitude in spite of the traditional food rituals she has performed throughout the story. Thus, food ultimately fails to create sustainable communities within which Mrs. Sen would not be considered an Other — a fact that is made worse by her lack of American cultural currency, including not being able to drive. After she and Eliot survive a near-fatal car accident due to her poor driving skills, Mrs. Sen even seems reluctant to cook as she once did. “Mrs. Sen put away the blade that was still on the living room floor and threw the eggplant pieces and the newspapers in the garbage pale,” the narrator tells us. “She prepared a plate of crackers with peanut butter, placed them on the coffee table, and turned on the television for Eliot’s benefit…Then she went into her bedroom and shut the door.” (p. 135) By the end of the story, Mrs. Sen has become completely alienated from the country she now inhabits, and no longer has the energy or motivation to prepare a full meal for herself, her husband, or Eliot. Her solitude is physically captured by the act of locking herself in her room and — as we learn through Eliot’s eyes — “crying.” (p. 136) One feels pity for Mrs. Sen, but one also questions her inability to adapt to her new home, and the extent to which she is responsible for not forming significant new relationships in the United States. Loneliness permeates this story and food seems powerless to overcome it; in fact, by making her nostalgic for a country that is no longer hers, food seems to make Mrs. Sen’s situation even worse.

From “A Temporary Matter,” to “When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine,” to “Mrs. Sen’s,” Lahiri depicts food in Interpreter of Maladies as an essential element of her characters’ lives and psychologies. Indeed, the way Shoba and Shukumar, the young narrator, and Mrs. Sen, respectively, all remember the past largely centers on food and associated rituals of preparation and consumption. In this sense, Lahiri and Proust resemble each other more than one might be inclined to think. For both authors, food is directly associated with identity via memory, and therefore seems to be a source of good. Thus, what Proust writes in Remembrance of Things Past when describing the narrator’s famous episode of the madeleine uncannily resonates with the positive aspects of food in Lahiri’s short stories: “It immediately made the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.”[7]

Still, while food helps construct communities in the stories discussed above, it cannot prevent those same communities from fracturing because of deeper psychic, interpersonal, and geopolitical conflicts — in Lahiri, these tend to outweigh the social good food performs. As a result, while Lahiri and Proust resemble each other in that food partially structures their characters’ experiences of the world, they differ in that only Lahiri seems to dramatize the limits of what food can do. For her, food certainly helps us remember things past, but it often fails to cure us of present and future maladies.


[1] Proust, Marcel, and Davis, Lydia. Swann’s Way. New York: Viking, 2003. Print.

[2] The centennial of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu was just celebrated this year, with a dramatic reading of the novel held at Yale, in November. See “More to Remember Than Just The Madeleine” by Jennifer Schuessler in The New York Times. Nov. 7, 2013. Accessed online Nov. 30, 2013 at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/08/books/celebrating-the-centennial-of-prousts-swanns-way.html

[3] e.g., The sound of popcorn in the microwave, or the sizzle of a steak when it hits the grill.

[4] Lahiri, Jhumpa. “Rice” in The New Yorker. Nov. 23, 2009 on NewYorker.com. Accessed Nov. 30, 2013 at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/11/23/091123fa_fact_lahiri

[5] Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies: Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Print.

[6] In the practical arts and the fine arts, bricolage (French for “tinkering”) is the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available, or a work created by such a process. For an anthropological explanation of bricolage, see Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind (La Pensée Sauvage). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966. Print.

[7] supra note 1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.