Lilia reflects on the autumn of 1971, when she was 10 years old and living with her parents in a small suburb of Boston. During this time, a man named Mr. Pirzada would come to her family’s home every night for dinner. Mr. Pirzada, a botany professor, came to New England for work, but he was originally from Dacca, the capital city of Bangladesh. At the time, however, Bangladesh was not yet its own country but was under Pakistani rule (where it was known as East Pakistan). Lilia explains that in 1971, East Pakistanis in Dacca were fighting an increasingly brutal conflict for their independence from the Pakistani government.
Around the time Mr. Pirzada starts to come over, the Pakistani army violently invades Dacca—rendering him unable to contact his wife and seven daughters back at home. Because Mr. Pirzada’s rental place does not have a TV, Lilia’s parents invite him over to eat and watch the news; her parents are also grateful to have another South Asian friend, as they often miss Calcutta. One night, however, Lilia learns that even though Mr. Pirzada shares the same language, taste in food and sense of humor as her parents, he is not technically considered “Indian.” Lilia’s father explains Partition: in 1947, soon after India gained independence from the British, the nation split into two countries, India and Pakistan, along religious lines. Even decades later, many Muslims and Hindus still find sharing a meal together “unthinkable”—but Lilia’s Hindu parents continue to dine with Muslim Mr. Pirzada.
Lilia’s father realizes that Lilia has not learned anything about the conflict in East Pakistan, and he worries that her school is failing her; in fact, Lilia explains, all she ever seems to learn about is the American Revolution. Lilia’s mother, however, is haunted by her own memories of a violent childhood in Calcutta, so she’s happy that Lilia has been born and educated in the U.S., where they can live free from conflict.
The next evening, Mr. Pirzada comes over as usual—and as is their “ritual,” he presents Lilia with an extravagant candy. Lilia loves these gifts of candy, but sometimes they make her feel strangely alienated too. Still, she saves every piece of candy Mr. Pirzada brings her in a box that once belonged her grandmother.
As Lilia’s mother serves a variety of homecooked South Asian dishes, Mr. Pirzada takes out a watch that is set to Dacca time, 11 hours ahead, and sets it next to him as he eats. Lilia realizes that even when he is with her family, Mr. Pirzada is imagining his own daughters’ lives—their lives in Boston are “only a shadow of what had already happened” in Dacca. Lilia watches the news from Dacca with her family, and she sees children her own age on the screen, struggling to survive. Before she goes to bed, Lilia eats a piece of candy and says a prayer for Mr. Pirzada’s family.
At school, Lilia and her friend Dora are assigned a project about the American Revolution. When they go to the library for research, Lilia gets distracted by a book on Pakistan, but her teacher Mrs. Kenyon takes the book from her and scolds her.
The violence escalates in Dacca, but Mr. Pirzada continues to share “long, leisurely meals” with Lilia’s parents. Just before Halloween, Mr. Pirzada comes over to help Lilia carve a jack-o’-lantern. As he is cutting out the mouth, he sees on the news that India is threatening to enter the conflict. He drops the knife, ruining the jack-o’-lantern.
On Halloween, Lilia and Dora dress as witches. Mr. Pirzada is terrified that trick-or-treating is dangerous, and he tries to come with the girls. Lilia tells him not to worry, but she is ashamed that she can only assure him of her own safety, and not of the safety of his daughters back home. Lilia and Dora collect candy from their neighbors, and several people tell Lilia that they have “never seen an Indian witch before.” Lilia returns home to find that the jack-o’-lantern Mr. Pirzada carved has been smashed. But her parents barely notice, too distraught about the news they have seen on TV. The Bangladesh Liberation War is officially declared on December 4th, with India joining on the side of East Pakistan. For the next 12 days, Lilia’s mother refuses to cook, and Mr. Pirzada stays at their house. Lilia’s parents and Mr. Pirzada lean on one another for emotional support and glean whatever news they can from Lilia’s relatives in Calcutta.
The war ends on December 16th: West Pakistan surrenders, and Bangladesh becomes an independent nation. Soon after, Mr. Pirzada returns home and finds that his wife and daughters survived. Months later, Lilia’s family receives a card from Mr. Pirzada, in which he tries to express his deep gratitude for their meals together. Lilia realizes she will never see Mr. Pirzada again and struggles to accept his absence. For the first time, she does not eat a piece of candy at night; eventually, she throws all the candy away.