Lilia, the narrator of “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” grows up in a suburb of Boston. At school, she is taught exclusively American history and traditions, but at home, Lilia’s parents—who emigrated from Calcutta—try to educate her about the food, neighborly traditions, and family members they left behind in India. Lilia’s curiosity about her cultural roots increases when she meets Mr. Pirzada, a man from East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh) who begins coming to Lilia’s home most nights for dinner. And when the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 breaks out, causing Mr. Pirzada to fear for his wife and daughters’ lives, Lilia starts to realize how painful it is to be disconnected from one’s homeland and to be caught between two cultures. As Lilia and Mr. Pirzada each struggle with the distance between the U.S. and South Asia, the story suggests that although living in diaspora might bring new opportunities and exciting cultural exchange, it also means accepting feelings of alienation as well as a certain measure of cultural and personal loss.
Unlike most of the people she knows, Lilia has dual cultural knowledge: at school she learns about the country she lives in, and at home she learns about the region her parents left behind. At school, Lilia is given map quizzes on the Thirteen Colonies that would become the first U.S. states. At home, on the other hand, she has “a map of the world taped to the wall,” with lines drawn on it to mark her parents’ travels in South Asia. These two types of maps signify the difference between Lilia’s two worlds: her world at school focuses on only a narrow sliver of the U.S., while her world at home is more global, with a focus on the Indian subcontinent. The difference between these two maps emphasizes the fact that Lilia inhabits two distinct cultures, giving her a more diverse perspective of the world than her peers. And because of her dual worlds, Lilia understands things that the other people in her life do not. For example, when Mr. Pirzada sees pumpkins on stoops around Halloween, he does not know what to make of it. So, Lilia explains jack-o’-lanterns to him, and she even shows him how to carve one, “like others [she] had noticed in the neighborhood.” Because she has been raised in this American suburb, Lilia is able to pick up on “neighborhood” knowledge and customs that her parents and Mr. Pirzada sometimes struggle to make sense of. Similarly, while the TV news is always on at Lilia’s house, Lilia is surprised to find that this is not the case for many of her classmates—her friend Dora’s family, for instance, keeps their television turned off. Since TV is how Lilia and her family learn about what is happening in other parts of the world, the lack of TV playing at Dora’s house signals that Lilia has a deeper understanding of global events than her peers do.
However, as Lilia becomes increasingly close to Mr. Pirzada—and as the violence in East Pakistan escalates—she begins to feel that she does not fully belong either among white Americans or among South Asian immigrants. One example of Lilia feeling alienated in her predominately white community is when she and Dora go trick-or-treating, and they both dress as witches—prompting many of Lilia’s neighbors to comment that “they had never seen an Indian witch before.” Lilia is excited to participate in Halloween traditions, but the people in her suburb make her feel that she is somehow abnormal because of her ethnicity, even though she and Dora are dressed the same and doing the exact same thing. Lilia sometimes feels alienated in her family, too. Though Lilia adores Mr. Pirzada, his “ease” with her parents makes her feel like “a stranger in [her] own home.” Lilia’s parents and Mr. Pirzada have a firsthand understanding of South Asian culture, geography, and politics that Lilia, by virtue of growing up in the United States, does not possess. In fact, Lilia’s father often worries that she is not getting the education she needs. “What does she learn about the world?” he presses. And as the conflict in East Pakistan worsens, Lilia increasingly feels her lack of knowledge, as she is unable to participate in the adults’ conversations—or to understand the “single fear” that they all seem to share for their loved ones on the other side of the world.
Even more painfully, Lilia comes to realize that living in diaspora often means being separated from loved ones and cultural heritage. Lilia sees that Mr. Pirzada, though he comes over every night, is never fully present with her family: “our meals, our actions, [are] only a shadow of what had already happened [in Dacca], a lagging ghost of where Mr. Pirzada really belonged.” Separated from his wife and daughters—and unable even to contact them—his real life is happening thousands of miles away, without him. Just as Lilia feels caught between worlds, then, Mr. Pirzada also struggles to “belong”—suggesting that there is a measure of isolation inherent in the experience of diaspora. When Mr. Pirzada leaves, Lilia is then forced to experience the pain of separation firsthand—only then does she know “what it mean[s] to miss someone who [is] so many miles and hours away, just as he had missed his wife and daughters for so many months.” Lilia realizes here that her feelings of loss are not unique, as they are shared by anyone who has loved ones a great “many miles” away. Moreover, Lilia’s use of the phrase “hours away” suggests that the challenge of diaspora is not just spatial but temporal—she is also separated from her family’s ancestors and history (she mentions, for example, a grandmother she never knew). Thus, even as Lilia’s experience of diaspora is largely an exciting and educational one, she comes to understand that living between two worlds also entails feelings of isolation and loss.
Diaspora, Alienation, and Loss ThemeTracker
Diaspora, Alienation, and Loss Quotes in When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine
It was a small campus, with narrow brick walkways and white pillared buildings, located on the fringes of what seemed to be an even smaller town. The supermarket did not carry mustard oil, doctors did not make house calls, neighbors never dropped by without an invitation, and of these things, every so often, my parents complained. In search of compatriots, they used to trail their fingers, at the start of each new semester, through the columns of the university directory, circling surnames familiar to their part of the world.
[My father] led me to a map of the world taped to the wall over his desk […] his finger trailed across the Atlantic, through Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and finally to the sprawling orange diamond that my mother once told me resembled a woman wearing a sari with her left arm extended. Various cities had been circled with lines drawn between them to indicate my parents’ travels, and the place of their birth, Calcutta, was signified by a small silver star. I had been there only once and had no memory of the trip.
We learned American history, of course, and American geography. That year, and every year, it seemed, we began by studying the Revolutionary War. We were taken in school buses on field trips to visit Plymouth Rock, and to walk the Freedom Trail, and to climb to the top of the Bunker Hill Monument. We made dioramas out of colored construction paper depicting George Washington crossing the choppy waters of the Delaware River, and we made puppets of King George wearing white tights and a black bow in his hair. During tests we were given blank maps of the thirteen colonies, and asked to fill in names, dates, capitals. I could do it with my eyes closed.
It was an awkward moment for me, one which I awaited in part with dread, in part with delight. I was charmed by the presence of Mr. Pirzada’s rotund elegance, and flattered by the faint theatricality of his attentions, yet unsettled by the superb ease of his gestures, which made me feel, for an instant, like a stranger in my own home. It had become our ritual, and for several weeks, before we grew more comfortable with one another, it was the only time he spoke to me directly.
I coveted each evening’s treasure as I would a jewel, or a coin from a buried kingdom, and I would place it in a small keepsake box made of carved sandalwood beside my bed, in which, long ago in India, my father’s mother used to store the ground areca nuts she ate after her morning bath. It was my only memento of a grandmother I had never known, and until Mr. Pirzada came to our lives I could find nothing to put inside it.
Unlike the watch on his wrist, the pocket watch, he had explained to me, was set to the local time in Dacca, 11 hours ahead. For the duration of the meal the watch rested on his folded paper napkin on the coffee table […] Life, I realized, was being lived in Dacca first. I imagined Mr. Pirzada’s daughters rising from sleep, tying ribbons in their hair, anticipating breakfast, preparing for school. Our meals, our actions, were only a shadow of what had already happened there, a lagging ghost of where Mr. Pirzada really belonged.
“See, children your age, what they do to survive,” my father said as he served me another piece of fish. But I could no longer eat. I could only steal glances at Mr. Pirzada, sitting beside me in his olive green jacket, calmly creating a well in his rice to make room for a second helping of lentils. He was not my notion of a man burdened by such grave concerns.
“Don’t worry,” I said. It was the first time I had uttered those words to Mr. Pirzada, two simple words I had tried but failed to tell him for weeks, had said only in my prayers. It shamed me now that I had said them for my own sake.
It was only then that I felt Mr. Pirzada’s absence. 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.