In “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” the adult narrator, Lilia, looks back on her childhood and remembers being fascinated by her parents’ dinner guest, the kindly Mr. Pirzada. Back in East Pakistan (what is now known as Bangladesh), Mr. Pirzada has a wife and seven daughters of his own—but he has been separated from them, first by moving to the U.S. for work and then by the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War that prevents him from communicating with his family. As the situation in East Pakistan gets more and more dangerous, Lilia and Mr. Pirzada become increasingly attached to each other, with Mr. Pirzada giving Lilia delicious candy and Lilia praying for him in secret. At the same time, however, Mr. Pirzada’s mind is always with his wife and daughters; during meals, he even sets a watch to his family’s time zone, picturing their morning rituals as he goes about his evening one. It is only after the war, when Mr. Pirzada leaves the U.S. to return to his family, that Lilia realizes how important he is to her—suggesting that in sharing so many dinners with Mr. Pirzada, he has also become a kind of family member. Throughout the story, then, family is created through shared time and traditions; communal rituals both unite blood relatives across vast distances (as with Mr. Pirzada and his daughters) and turn strangers into loved ones (as with Mr. Pirzada and Lilia).
Through a series of shared rituals, Lilia and Mr. Pirzada develop an almost familial bond. As soon as Mr. Pirzada enters the house, he and Lilia have a routine: she takes his coat for him, and once he’s “relieved of his trappings,” he gently touches her throat as though “feeling for solidity behind a wall before driving in a nail.” The repetition and reliability of this ritual allows Mr. Pirzada to find a sense of “solidity” or stability in Lilia, as each night she helps him feel comforted and temporarily “relieved” from his worries about his wife and daughters. Even more importantly, Mr. Pirzada gives Lilia candy each night, doing so with great flair in order to make the routine special: “it had become our ritual,” Lilia reflects. This “ritual”—and the process that follows it, in which Lilia stores the candy in a wooden box she inherited from her grandmother—allows Lilia and Mr. Pirzada, separated by age and background, to become “comfortable” with each other in only a few months’ time. It is also worth noting that Mr. Pirzada asks Lilia not to thank him for these gifts, because strangers constantly thank him for things, an American custom that he seems to find insincere. Unlike his interactions at the bank or the grocery store, therefore, Mr. Pirzada seems to view this ritual as an expected, familial kindness, not one Lilia needs to say “thank you” for.
At the same time, however, Mr. Pirzada works to continue rituals with his family back in East Pakistan, even across thousands of miles and in a different time zone. Though the conflict in East Pakistan has made it impossible for people there to receive mail, Mr. Pirzada continues to send comic books to his seven daughters. It is telling that although Mr. Pirzada knows that his children will not receive these gifts, he continues to send them—suggesting that to Mr. Pirzada, continued rituals are essential to maintaining family relationships, even when they have little practical impact. Every night at dinner with Lilia, Mr. Pirzada takes out a watch set to the current time in Dacca (the city in East Pakistan where his family lives). “Life,” Lilia realizes, is “being lived in Dacca first”—she understands that Mr. Pirzada is picturing “his daughters rising from sleep, anticipating breakfast, preparing for school.” Even as Mr. Pirzada engages in his rituals with Lilia and her family, then, he is also trying to envision his daughters’ routines, 11 hours ahead. In doing so, he is able to feel that his mind is with his wife and daughter in Dacca, even as his body remains in suburban Boston. This suggests that shared time can create a sense of closeness even from thousands of miles away, and that rituals (even ones as ordinary as “rising from sleep”) are powerful in their ability to preserve family connections.
Just as ritual helps to create and maintain family relationships, the loss of ritual marks the end of these relationships—which is what ultimately happens between Lilia and Mr. Pirzada. After the Bangladesh Liberation War ends, Mr. Pirzada returns home to the newly independent Bangladesh and finds that his wife and daughters survived the conflict. When he writes to Lilia’s family, he tries to express his gratitude: “at the end of the letter he thanked us for our hospitality,” Lilia recalls, “adding that although he now understood the meaning of the words ‘thank you’ they were still not adequate.” Though Lilia’s parents celebrate Mr. Pirzada’s happiness, Lilia “[does] not feel like celebrating”—perhaps because in saying “thank you,” which he never did before, Mr. Pirzada is breaking with a crucial part of their shared ritual and therefore disrupting an essential part of their relationship. Lilia throws away all the of the candy he gave her after this, ceasing her own private ritual of eating a piece of candy “each night before bed” and further signaling the end of their close bond. In Mr. Pirzada’s absence, Lilia now knows “what it mean[s] to miss someone who [is] so many miles and hours away, just as he had missed his wife and daughters.” In addition to affirming that her love for Mr. Pirzada is deeply familial—she feels about him as he feels about his own “wife and daughters”—Lilia laments their physical and emotional distance. Mr. Pirzada is “hours away” in addition to “miles away,” no longer sharing time with Lilia and her parents. Since time and ritual have been the building blocks of Lilia’s familial bond with Mr. Pirzada, that bond collapses in the absence of those two things.
Family, Ritual, and Shared Time ThemeTracker
Family, Ritual, and Shared Time Quotes in When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine
In the autumn of 1971 a man used to come to our house, bearing confections in his pocket and hopes of ascertaining the life or death of his family.
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.
“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.