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
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
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
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
“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
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.
Garcia, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban. New York: Ballantine, 1992. Print.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. interpreter of maladies. Boston: Mariner, 1999. Print.