Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once said, “Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me” (www.goodreads.com). Being an immigrant himself, Fuentes understands the difficulties and challenges that an immigrant may face as a result of coming from a different culture. However, he implies that they are just like everyone else; suffering from personal problems and trying to adapt to what life throws at them. This idea of immigrant struggle is commonly found throughout literature, as portrayed in Jhumpa Lahiri’s book of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. The abundant portrayal of food serves as a medium to explore and examine the problems that Lahiri’s immigrant characters are facing.
As displayed in “A Temporary Matter,” food and dining are used to suggest intimacy, or the lack thereof, between characters in a relationship. Despite being married, the main characters of the story, Shoba and Shukumar, have become strangers to one another. The two have grown so distant that they no longer eat together and rarely have any verbal exchanges; that is until the electrical work on their street forces them to. Lahiri writes, “Tonight… they would have to eat together. 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… while Shoba took her plate to the living room and watched game shows, or proofread files with her arsenal of colored pencils at hand” (Lahiri 8). Lahiri contrasts a normal night in Shoba and Shukumar’s household with the situation they have just been forced into. When stating that the two had not eaten together for months, Lahiri hints that lack of family dinners could be a sign that their relationship became so distant. Additionally when Shukumar says, “have to eat together,” it is apparent that he is not looking forward to eating with Shoba. This use of the word “have” provides a negative connotation to their current marital situation and with this pessimistic view, prevents future endeavors in the renewal of their marriage. However, by having the couple reunite over this daily dinner, Lahiri creates the idea that food can be a means of connection between people. Comparably, following the death of their child, Shukumar notices intense behavioral changes in Shoba. He notes that, “[she used to] 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” (Lahiri 7). Shukumar’s testament of his wife before and after their child’s death is revealed by the time and effort Shoba put into cooking and food preparation, for when she is completely overwhelmed by grief, food is the last of her concerns. Shukumar is able to realize that, “if it weren’t for him… [she] would eat a bowl of cereal for her dinner” (Lahiri 8). Shukumar can easily purchase microwavable meals, but the fact that he takes the time to go through cookbooks in efforts to prepare full meals for Shoba shows that he still loves and cares for her. As a result, Lahiri is able to explore problems regarding love, compassion, and affection as a result of comparing efforts made in the kitchen to couple’s deteriorating marriage.
Similarly, in “Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” food is used as a way to create an intimate space between strangers, allowing for a sense of community to be established. After immigrating from India, Lilia’s parents longed for the communal relationship they once had in India. They would go through a university directory every semester in hopes that they would find last names familiar to them. Through this method, they were able to find a Pakistani man named Mr. Pirzada. When he arrives at their home, he presents Lilia’s family with a picture of his daughters, “producing from his wallet a black-and-white picture of seven girls at a picnic” (Lahiri 23). The picnic is a photographic representation of familial bonding. Lilia notices the food his family was eating and realizes that she has eaten those foods as well. Mr. Pirzada’s introduction of his family through that snapshot allows Lilia to relate to him, despite having just met him moments prior. Furthermore, through creating Mr. Pirzada as a guest, Lahiri is able to portray the deeper meaning behind Lilia’s mom’s preparation of traditional Indian dishes. Lilia describes a typical night when Mr. Pirzada is over: “we huddled around the coffee table, without conversing, our plates perched on our knees. 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” (Lahiri 30). The tremendous amount of effort that Lilia’s mom puts into making these dishes represents the typicality of women from India spending countless hours of their day in the kitchen cooking for guests, thus expressing a more formal side to a new relationship. However, by bringing the food into the living room, Lahiri is creating an informal and personal space between Lilia’s family and Mr. Pirzada. The word “huddling” when describing dinner exhibits this closeness created when food is brought out from the kitchen. As a result, a small, tightly-knit community is able to form between Lilia’s family and Mr. Pirzada, and thus giving Lilia’s parents a recollection of home.
Likewise, “Mrs. Sen’s” portrays food as a method of maintaining normalcy after the change from one culture to another. Throughout the story, Mrs. Sen persistently labors over cooking meals, and the child that she is babysitting, Eliot, is extremely observant of this activity. He even notes that she used the same blade to cook everyday. Wanting to show Eliot a part of her culture, Mrs. Sen explains, “She had brought the blade from India, where apparently there was at least one in every household. ‘Whenever there is a wedding in the family… or large celebration of any kind… all the neighborhood women… 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 50 kilos of vegetables through the night’” (Lahiri 115). Through the use of the words “gossiping” and “laughing,” Mrs. Sen clearly finds genuine joy in cooking and conversing with her friends. When she moves to America, Mrs. Sen no longer has those friends to converse with, but the one thing she still has is cooking. By spending so much time cutting vegetables and making stews, Mrs. Sen is reminded of a life she used to have; one that filled her life with happiness. She reminisces of those times to maintain that feeling of a normal life. Moreover, Mrs. Sen would also order fresh fish at a local fish market every day. However, Mr. Sen became too busy to retrieve the fish and, as a result, Mrs. Sen was forced to make chicken. Noticing that Mrs. Sen had not been to the fish market in awhile, “the man who ran the fish market called Mrs. Sen; he assumed she wanted the fish, and he said he would hold it until the end of the day under her name… she [then] called Mr. Sen at the university… [However, there was] a meeting Mr. Sen was required to attend… “‘Tell me, Eliot. Is it too much to ask?’” (Lahiri 125). In order to remain sane in this new culture, Mrs. Sen needs to be able to exercise the routine which she is accustomed to. By taking away the one thing that reminds her of India, and therefore her sense of normalcy, she starts to experience separation anxiety and is no longer able to hold herself together. Through food preparation, Lahiri is able to display the inner struggle of assimilating into a new culture while also maintaining some traditions of the previous one.
All things considered, Lahiri’s portrayal of food and dining throughout multiple short stories is able to reveal the struggles of culture, identity, and emotion that come with being an immigrant or first-generation member of a community. Just like the problems that Mrs. Sen, Lilia’s mom, and Shukumar face, many people deal with their exact problems: marriage difficulties and identity struggle. Yet, the immigrant’s struggle to fit in comes from the misconception that they are different from everyone else. This stereotype is solely based on the idea that they may not eat the same foods, practice the same religion, or wear the same clothes compared to the rest of society. Transitioning from one culture to another is hard enough as it is, but by continuing to endorse this stereotypical viewpoint, the alienation of immigrants will continue and ethnocentrism will persist, preventing the complete integration of immigrants into today’s society.