Edward Columbia, The Illusion of Change

Edward Columbia  27 April 2015

Final Paper for American Literature in the World

Professor Wai Chee Dimock

The Illusion of Change

Reflections on the Formation and Abandonment of Ritual in Jhumpa Lahiri’s

interpreter of maladies and Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban

People form habits and routines for many reasons. Some routines develop to cope

with drastic change—in instances of displacement, we amplify our power over those

things we can still control and perform the small tasks over and over again, to create a

semblance of stability. Some routines stem from want and necessity—we fall into habit

and custom when constrained by our circumstances to act within limited dimensions.

Some routines are sources of comfort, particularly those that perpetuate memories of

treasured moments in time no longer in grasp. We value the fortitude consistency lends.

We swear that we will never break the patterns we use to honor loved ones, or to pursue

our principles, or to continue on the path we have set. We repeat, in the interest of

crystalizing the past and creating solace in the present. Yet, few habits are life-long, few

traditions eternal. As we are creatures of habit, we are creatures of change more forgetful

than we promise, less committed than we pledge. Time passes, and we shed that which

we swore to keep forever. We take on the new. Our habitat changes, and our habits

change with it. With relief, or dispassion, we slip out of the grooves we have formed as

abruptly as we sunk into them.

Throughout her collection of short stories the interpreter of maladies, Jhumpa

Lahiri describes the formation of routines and the subsequent derailment of these routines

on account of different impetuses—be they pebbles on the track or a blown up trestle

bridge. Lahiri paints characters that are struggling to cope with a painful shift in course,

most often in the form of the geographic displacement that is not entirely (and in some

cases not remotely) voluntary. Outside of the formation of habit that accompanies

narratives of emigration and immigration, there are characters in Lahiri’s stories that fall

into routines because a new way of life appeals to them at a given moment. In these

instances, the routines are chosen and constructed not out of the desire to fill with

comfort a gaping hole hewn by loss—as in the cases of unsettled immigrants—but in the

interest of pleasure. In two stories in particular, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” and

“Sexy,” the ending of routine is even more striking than routine itself, for it demonstrates

that characters whose lives revolve around constancy can suddenly reshape their lives

according to new rhythms, when the old become either unsustainable or undesirable.

In a similar fashion, the characters of Cristina Garcia’s novel Dreaming in Cuban

make and break routines according to their needs and desires. Celia de Pino, the

matriarch of the family, is from the novel’s outset a figure set in her ways. She has

maintained certain habits for much of her life, and has carved out a distinct routine for

herself since her husband Jorge’s death. Yet, at the end of the novel Celia, too, abandons

some of her timeworn mores. Both authors leave their reader with the queries: What does

it mean when the routine comes to an end? Must that from which it distracted be met

head-on? Is the sloughing off routine a path to reinvention, or only a release of long-held

pain?

Lahiri’s “Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” is a story of routine formed out of the need

for consistency in the midst of dire uncertainty. Mr. Pirzada, a botanist, is studying the

foliage New England on a grant from the Pakistani government when the Pakistan army

invades Pirzada’s home city of Dacca. A series of attacks devastate Eastern Pakistan.

Intellectuals are purged, women raped. Mr. Pirzada cannot return home and lives with no

knowledge of the fate of his wife and seven daughters, as the fighting severs all

communication between Dacca and the outside world. Stranded in the United States, Mr.

Pirzada is bound to the confines of a bare dormitory, far from the luxury of his past life in

Pakistan, far from the present horrors that threaten to tear the eastern region apart.

We learn of Mr. Pirzada’s situation from the story’s speaker, Lilia, an

impressionable child whose parents locate Mr. Pirzada’s name in the university directory

one day and invite him to dinner. This in and of itself is a formation of habit to assuage

the difficulties of changes in environment: Lilia’s parents, who are from India, pore over

the directory at the beginning of each semester and circle the surnames they believe to be

from their part of the world, so that they might connect with people who share common

cultural ground. Mr. Pirzada accepts the invitation and comes to dine. A routine quickly

falls into place—Mr. Pirzada joins Lilia’s family for dinner nearly every night at six

o’clock. They go through the same motions each time before setting down in front of the

television to eat and watch the news. The pattern becomes so ingrained that soon Lilia

anticipates Mr. Pirzada’s arrival and prepares a place for him as she would for either

parent.

Mr. Pirzada and Lilia build their own special “ritual” over several weeks of his

visits (29). Each time he comes for dinner, Mr. Pirzada brings Lilia a gift of candy, which

she treats with utmost reverence. With solemnity she places each candy in a sandalwood

box passed down to her from her grandmother. “I coveted each evening’s treasure as I

would a jewel,” she tells us (29). As Lilia’s admiration for Mr. Pirzada grows, and as her

father makes a point of educating her on the distinction between India and Pakistan, she

observes closely Mr. Pirzada’s routines, especially that of the pocket watch. Each night

before dinner Mr. Pirzada holds the watch to his ear and winds it. He performs this act as

one might say a pre-meal grace, and it holds a like significance. The pocket watch is set

to Dacca time, and in keeping it running Mr. Pirzada takes his meal in the presence and

awareness of the family waiting for him thousands of miles away. The winding of the

watch is a rare outward gesture of Mr. Pirzada’s concern for those at home, and of his

eagerness to return to them.

Because he is separated from his own daughters, Mr. Pirzada dotes on, and frets

over, Lilia. She, in turn, grows more and more fascinated by him. Mr. Pirzada becomes

more than a nightly visitor, as Lilia’s interest in Dacca and the history of the rift between

India and Pakistan permeates her life outside of the house. Mr. Pirzada is now an integral

part of her life: at school she seeks out books on Pakistan, and in her free time she

imagines what it is like for Mr. Pirzada to be so far removed from his family. When, one

night, Lilia watches the news coverage of the situation in Eastern Pakistan with her

parents and Mr. Pirzada, she cannot cast the conflict out of her mind and adopts a new

routine for eating Pirzada’s sweets. Before going to bed, Lilia says, “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 mishap with the Hallowe’en pumpkin is a harbinger of the breaking of the

routine. Mr. Pirzada arrives and declares that instead of watching the news as usual he

and Lilia will carve a jack-o’-lantern. As he is cutting the pumpkin he overhears the

announcement on the national news that India is considering going to war with Pakistan.

Some nights later, Lilia discovers Mr. Pirzada sitting beside her father with his head in

his hands as the news rolls, as the two countries get closer and closer to all-out fighting.

The war lasts for twelve days, and during that time the pleasantries of the routine

cease—Lilia’s father does not exhort her to watch the news, nor does Mr. Pirzada

continue to bring her candy. Rather, Mr. Pirzada’s visits are fraught with angst, and he

and Lilia’s parents operate subject to “a single fear” (41).

The way in which Lahiri frames Mr. Pirzada’s fading from Lilia’s life is an

indication of how one’s dedication to a cause, or to the upkeep of a custom, can die out as

urgency ebbs. Soon after the war ends Mr. Pirzada flies back to Dacca. Lilia continues to

say a prayer for Mr. Pirzada and his family while the candy melts on her tongue each

night. But, once they receive word from Pirzada that all is well with his loved ones, Lilia

ends her ritual and eventually discards the candies he gave her. For all the intense

curiosity and dedication that Mr. Pirzada attracted from the child, she lets go of the

“treasures” with the surety that she will never see Mr. Pirzada again and the belief that

her prayers have been answered. In this case, the routine ends because those involved rest

with the knowledge the it served its purpose.

In the story “Sexy” the formation of routine has none of the nobility of cause as

that in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine.” The story’s opening lines introduce us

immediately to the breaking of a marriage, which is, in some ways, the ultimate

commitment to routine. The impetus for the infidelity Laxmi describes to Miranda is a

chance encounter on an airplane. This catapults the reader into a reality in which

something carefully built and nurtured over a long period can be uprooted in a matter of

hours.

This abrupt shattering of a marriage sets the tone for Miranda’s affair with Dev.

Because their relationship is an affair, despite its spontaneity it immediately follows

patterns of behavior because there is a third part of the equation to consider—Dev’s wife.

While she is away, the two of them need not be overly discreet. But, Dev must return

home early each morning to call his wife. When his wife returns, the affair becomes a

routine of Sundays. It is now a regular, weekly deception.

Still, “Miranda [knows] how to wait” (97). She takes the new routine of seeing

Dev only once a week in stride and begins to “study” him with a curiosity akin to Lilia’s

for Mr. Pirzada. While in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” the impetus for the

formation of routine is a massive attack on the part of the Pakistan army, and the reason

behind the abandonment of the routine is the reunion of Mr. Pirzada with his family, in

“Sexy” Miranda and Dev’s affair hatches from a desire in the moment and ends just as

suddenly, with an unforeseen visit from Rohin, the little boy whose father betrayed his

mother some months earlier by falling for a woman on an airplane.

Whereas Lilia intends to see Mr. Pirzada’s story through to the end and comes

late to the realization that she will never meet him again after he departs the United

States, Rohin displays a slightly different characteristic of childhood: the unadulterated

expression of truth. When Miranda babysits Rohin, he entreats her to help them both

memorize their day together, as he has memorized nations’ capitals, because, as Rohin

says, “…we are never going to see each other again” (104). Lahiri’s next line, The

precision of the phrase startled her, indicates that Rohin’s pronouncement of the

temporary nature of this day has done something to snap her out of the unsustainable

track she is on with Dev. This occurs to an even greater extent when Rohin tells Miranda

that she is “sexy,” the same word Dev used to describe her, and the word that Rohin’s

father used to describe the woman whom he met on the fateful airplane journey.

The sudden introduction of Rohin into Miranda’s life completely unsettles the

already precarious routine she has established with Dev. She decides, because of Rohin’s

prescient words, that her relationship is but an affair among affairs, with as little to

distinguish it as distinguishes one “sexy” from another. The power of the initial attraction

that sparked the affair is put into perspective, and it dawns on her that the power is

fading. Her time with Dev ends as abruptly as it began, as Miranda finds excuses to call

off their planned days together, until Dev retreats fully from her life, but for the

memories of him that linger as she proceeds.

Just as we are thrust into the reality of broken promises and broken routines from

the outset of “Sexy,” in Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban the reader immediately

enters into the routine of Celia del Pino, as the book opens with Celia’s “guarding” of the

Cuban shore against the threat of attack from los yanquis (3). “She had lived all those

years by the sea,” we are told (7). This is a tradition that dates back years. Celia dresses

in her best clothes for the duty and wears that have only left her earlobes on nine

occasions. Her dress and earrings are part of the ritual.

Celia is a woman of many habits. She forms routines in order to find comfort and

release in a reality at times painful and stifling. For decades Celia writes, but never posts,

letters to a Spaniard whom she met briefly in her youth. She writes Gustavo with

yearning and many promises of what their life together might hold. But, Celia marries

Jorge and pens the letters to Gustavo only as a way to channel secret desires and

frustrations out of her body, not unlike Pilar with her diary. There is a point in her letters

when Celia admits, “I still love you, Gustavo, but it’s a habitual love” (99). Her practice

of writing un-mailed letters to Gustavo resembles her habit of visiting the ceiba tree in

the Plaza de las Armas (90). That tradition, too, is one of habitual love, for the Cuba she

knew when both Celia and the tree were younger is far-flung from the country’s present

condition.

“Since her husband’s death,” we read, “Celia has devoted herself completely to

the revolution” (111). She patrols the beach, judges disputes in the local court, and

pledges her allegiance to El Líder. Celia has always had a measure of dedication to the

revolution, but after Jorge’s passing she seizes upon routine and forms new habits as

coping mechanisms. Yet, despite these efforts, “she sometimes feels lonely” (119). The

way in which Celia and Pilar’s telepathy is describes serves as a good representative of

the shift into and out of routines: “A cycle between them had ended, and a new one had

not yet begun” (119).

At the novel’s conclusion, Celia has just wept over the body of her daughter

Felicia and learned that her beloved grandson Ivanito is gone, bound for Lima and

beyond that for the United States. Those whom Celia reared and presided over for so long

have, each in his or her own way, left her hands. She walks to the beach clad in her

earrings, as she has on countless occasions. But, this time, Celia wades into the water and

removes the earrings, one by one, and releases them into the water. The sensation of

absence is immediate, but so is the sensation of relief. She drops a great burden of pain

into the water with those earrings and recuses herself from the role she has played for so

long in banding her family together. Thus, we end with the final letter to Gustavo, written

on the day of Pilar’s birth: “I will no longer write to you, mi amor. She will remember

everything” (245).

Each instance of routine in these stories, from Mr. Pirzada’s regular visits to

Miranda’s Sunday trysts to Celia’s rounds on the beach, carries its own unique

motivation. Mr. Pirzada requires a stable refuge in an unfamiliar land. Miranda is fueled

by the pleasure of exploring her unknown through the affair with Dev, and by the desire

to postpone the inevitability of time’s passage. Celia goes through her routines because

she requires solitary outlets into which to pour the energy, frustration, and passion that

would otherwise calcify into debilitating sadness.

Every routine comes to an end, even those which children and adults alike claim

will persist eternally. Sometimes the routine is gradually left behind, abandoned piece by

piece. Sometimes it is done away with as rapidly and unflinchingly as it was taken up.

As Celia says, “Most people aspire to little more than comfort…At least I have

the illusion of change” (98-99). Among the main reasons these characters are dynamic is

that they move away from the habits they have shaped, slipping out of ruts dug shallow

or deep, wrought of desire or pain, and onto fresh road.

Works Cited

Garcia, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban. New York: Ballantine, 1992. Print.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. interpreter of maladies. Boston: Mariner, 1999. Print.

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