Lilia, the narrator of “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” reflects on her childhood, much of which she spent learning the history of American independence by heart at school. Her school’s proximity to Boston means a steady stream of field trips to Revolutionary War memorials, and the curriculum focuses heavily on George Washington and the other Founding Fathers. But while Lilia’s schooling tells a celebratory tale of historical revolution, her own family is wrapped up in a much darker, more contemporary independence movement—the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, in which East Pakistan became the independent nation of Bangladesh only after great suffering and loss. This war—completely ignored by Lilia’s school—becomes even more personal to Lilia when Mr. Pirzada, her parents’ frequent dinner guest, starts to fear that his family in East Pakistan might not survive the conflict. “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” thus reveals that fights for independence aren’t bloodless or purely victorious, as Lilia’s textbooks make them out to be. Rather, the story suggests that Americans’ mythic view of their own country’s revolution obscures the reality of war and excludes other historical and current events.
The history that Lilia learns in her classes tells a simplified, cheerful version of the American battle for independence, glossing over the true costs of revolution. For her class projects on the American Revolution, Lilia is asked to make puppets and “dioramas out of colored construction paper.” Boys at Lilia’s school reenact Revolutionary War battles on the playground, suggesting that they view the war for independence as a kind of game. These activities are specifically designed to be kid-friendly, colorful, and fun. Thus, they turn attention away from the violence and destruction that come with conflict. Mrs. Kenyon, Lilia’s teacher, teaches her class about the Mayflower (the ship that transported Pilgrim settlers to the Massachusetts Bay Colony), the Declaration of Independence, and the Battle of Yorktown (the final battle of the Revolutionary War)—all moments of victory for the burgeoning United States. Mrs. Kenyon’s focus on these victories, as well the focus on the distant past, presents the narrative of American independence as a simple, positive, neatly contained story arc. In addition, Lilia’s primary assessments in her history classes are map quizzes, in which she is given “blank maps of the thirteen colonies and asked to fill in names, dates, capitals.” These quizzes emphasize factual knowledge, but they do not take into account the human lives—and the human suffering—that are involved in any revolution.
Through her relationship with Mr. Pirzada, however, Lilia is able to see the human costs of revolution firsthand. When Mr. Pirzada, helping Lilia carve her jack-o’-lantern, learns that India will be entering the Bangladesh Liberation War, he drops the knife and raises “a hand to one side of his face, as if someone had slapped him there.” Even though Mr. Pirzada is thousands of miles away from the actual revolutionary fighting, it has a visceral, almost violent effect on him because he understands that his wife and daughters could be killed in the conflict. Lilia’s father, commenting on the news, reminds her that people just like her are living through this conflict. “See, children your age,” he says, “what they do to survive.” Unlike in her history classes, which focus mostly on famous leaders’ victories, Lilia’s experience of this contemporary revolution is always focused on the everyday people affected by war. When Lilia explains the key dates of the Bangladesh Liberation War, she is clear that these facts come “from any history book, in any library.” What she actually remembers of the war is that “my father no longer asked me to watch the news with them, and that Mr. Pirzada stopped bringing me candy, and that my mother refused to serve anything other than boiled eggs with rice for dinner.” The “history book” version of war has little to do with the personal experience of war, which for Lilia is marked not by any date or battle, but by the stress and despair that the conflict caused Mr. Pirzada and her parents.
Ultimately, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” suggests that Americans’ emphasis on a sanitized narrative of their own independence makes it difficult for them to see those in other countries—or even those on U.S. soil—who are struggling. “No one at school talked about the war followed so faithfully in my living room,” Lilia explains. Later, she is shocked to find that while her parents are constantly watching the TV news, the TV is not even on at her friend Dora’s house. Though the American Revolution, a centuries-old conflict, is still relevant at Lilia’s school, none of her classmates are aware of the Bengali independence movement that is happening in their present moment. In fact, in the story, this focus on U.S. independence directly blocks out awareness of other conflicts. Lilia learns about the American Revolution “every year,” leaving no room in the curriculum for anything else. And most tellingly, when Lilia tries to read about Dacca (the city in East Pakistan where Mr. Pirzada is from), her teacher forbids her from doing so, saying there is “no reason” to consult a book if it is not about the American Revolution. While Lilia is forced to re-learn the history of an old conflict, she is not allowed to learn the history behind a current one. Lilia and Mr. Pirzada are thousands of miles away from Dacca, but their personal investment in the Bangladeshi independence movement affords them a completely different lens than the historical one Lilia gets in school. In showing how complex and painful the lived experience of revolution is, the story implicitly calls for a more expansive view of history and current events—one that acknowledges the human costs of past revolutions and of ongoing conflicts around the world.
Independence, Revolution, and Violence ThemeTracker
Independence, Revolution, and Violence 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.
[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.
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.