Descriptions of food are everywhere in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine”—though the backdrop of the story is the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, the main action consists of a series of dinners in suburban Boston. Lilia, the story’s narrator, is looking back on her childhood as the daughter of Indian immigrants. The family’s frequent dinner guest, Mr. Pirzada, on the other hand, hails from the city of Dacca in East Pakistan (what is now known as Bangladesh). Yet despite their differences in nationality, all of the characters bond over a shared cuisine: Lilia’s mother delights Mr. Pirzada with a rotation of traditional South Asian dishes, and Mr. Pirzada never fails to give Lilia a delicious candy. Moreover, as the political situation abroad worsens—and as Mr. Pirzada begins to fear for the family he has left back in East Pakistan—South Asian food allows both Lilia and Mr. Pirzada to feel close to people and places on the other side of the world. In “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” therefore, the titular dining is not only a necessary routine but also an important source of cultural belonging and interpersonal connection.
Though initially Mr. Pirzada is a stranger to both Lilia and her parents, sharing food allows them to quickly grow close with one another. Lilia, upon learning that Mr. Pirzada is of a different nationality and religion than her family, draws her readers’ focus to how similar her parents’ eating habits are to Mr. Pirzada’s. All of them eat “pickled mangoes with their meals” and “rice every night with their hands.” Then, all three of them “chew fennel seeds after meals as a digestive, dr[ink] no alcohol, and for dessert dip austere biscuits into successive cups of tea.” To 10-year-old Lilia, this unity in eating habits suggests a deeper commonality than shared citizenship or religious belief—especially because, as she mentions earlier in the story, most other families in their small suburb have very different eating habits from her and her parents. Furthermore, Lilia and Mr. Pirzada’s bond begins with food: he gives her a fancy candy every night, and at first, this ritual is the only time Mr. Pirzada speaks directly to her. Here, food is even more useful than language in creating a connection—Lilia might not know what to say to this strange adult, but she is able to savor the edible gifts he gives her, suggesting an understanding that is based on taste instead of on talking.
Perhaps because food is such a sensory experience, it also allows Lilia and Mr. Pirzada to connect with India and East Pakistan, thousands of miles away. When Lilia’s mother serves Mr. Pirzada a mincemeat kebab, his first thought is that “one can only hope […] that Dacca’s refugees are as heartily fed.” The tastes of home—kebab is a classic Bangladeshi dish—brings his mind instantly to Dacca, and to the wife and children he has left behind there. Similarly, while Lilia struggles to watch the carnage in Dacca on the TV news, Mr. Pirzada is “calmly creating a well in his rice to make room for a second helping of lentils.” Rather than giving in to despair as he watches his country in disarray, food offers Mr. Pirzada a moment of “calm”—and perhaps memories of happier times at home, where he united with his family over meals similar to the one he is eating now. Food also proves connective for Lilia, even though she has only visited India once. She keeps Mr. Pirzada’s candies in a “box made of carved sandalwood […], in which, long ago in India, [her] father’s mother used to store the ground areca nuts she had after her morning bath.” This is all Lilia has of her grandmother, whom she has never met. Here, the food Mr. Pirzada gives her allows Lilia to bond—across both space and time—with her grandmother, as they both keep their treats in the same box.
Most tellingly, moments when connections are broken—either culturally or interpersonally—are associated with the absence of food. Often, Lilia’s parents associate great moments of conflict with a refusal to eat or cook. Lilia’s father, explaining Partition (1947 the division of British India into India and Pakistan) to her, says that it has left such deep wounds for Hindus and Muslims that many finding eating together “unthinkable” even decades later. Later, when India commits to joining the Bangladesh Liberation War, Lilia’s mother refuses “to serve anything other than boiled eggs with rice.” In each case, the absence of a family-style meal suggests a situation in which connection is impossible. Along the same lines, after Mr. Pirzada returns to Bangladesh, Lilia realizes she will never see him again, and she copes with her grief by throwing away the candy he gave her. She feels that there is “no need to” continue eating the candy if she will never again see the man who gave it to her. In no longer eating the candy, Lilia is resigning herself to the impossibility of continuing a relationship with Mr. Pirzada—suggesting that even though they have been apart for months, being able to eat the sweets Mr. Pirzada gave her is what has kept their bond alive for Lilia.
In “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” food connects people to one another, to family history, and to countries on the other side of the world; conversely, the absence of food marks the loss of homelands or loved ones. But by providing such sensory detail about the various dishes in the story—and in doing so, conjuring the reader’s own memories of taste and texture—the story also allows the reader to deeply connect and empathize with Lilia, her parents, and Mr. Pirzada. Just as eating food connects Lilia and Mr. Pirzada, reading about food links readers to the story’s characters.
Food, Culture, and Connection ThemeTracker
Food, Culture, and Connection 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.
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.
“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.
Eventually I took a square of white chocolate out of the box, and unwrapped it, and then I did something I had never done before. 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. I had never prayed for anything before, had never been taught or told to, but I decided, given the circumstances, that it was something I should do. That night when I went to the bathroom I only pretended to brush my teeth, for I feared that I would somehow rinse the prayer out as well. I wet the brush and rearranged the tube of paste to prevent my parents from asking any questions, and fell asleep with sugar on my tongue.