Carving Without the Least Bit of Intimidation: Love, War, and Food in Jhumpa Lahiri

I’m just going to jump right in and get us started with two interpretive questions:

1. What, precisely, is the “temporary matter” of the first story?
2. What does a pumpkin have to do with the partition of India?

Obviously, the title of “A Temporary Matter” refers to the brief electrical outages that occur each evening in the story, but by the end we are so far from minor inconveniences and so deep into the intimate pains of living a human life that this is clearly no longer the answer. And, of course, the pumpkin is simply what Jack-o’-Lanterns are made out of, and the Bangladesh Liberation War simply takes place in the autumn of 1971, so the presence of Halloween could be merely an accident of history.

These two questions, only seemingly simple, are going to run us over a very wide gamut of world history, geography, and culture. We could talk about many, many, many things just in these two stories, but I would like to focus your attention on a few key themes that are going to weave together this collection of short stories into a whole that will, by the end, emerge as something greater than it’s parts (though the parts are exquisite): marriage, food, genealogy, and partition. In piecing this list together, I excluded many things. For instance, I said marriage instead of love. Why do you think I made that choice? Why food, instead of music, or culture, or language? Genealogy I’ve used to stand in for that whole complex of our relations to our own past, “our native land, native language, and the laws that govern us” (#). And though the Partition does not appear in every story, a partition occurs throughout (see the end of “A Temporary Matter”).

Nilanjana Sudeshna “Jhumpa” Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for the short story collection you hold in your hand. Published in 1999, it is and was a breathtaking debut for a writer. For me, still slogging my way through the American fiction of the early twentieth-century in 1999—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner—it is a harbinger for the literature of this new millennium, telling at times shockingly similar stories about our everyday experiences, but changed fundamentally by a seemingly simple shift in perspective. Who is telling stories about whom can transform the work of art. You can read her writing about her own writing in her essay “Trading Stories: Notes from an apprenticeship” (here).

Stepping back, one way of viewing our final two texts is precisely this prism of who is telling stories about whom. Some scholars would emphasize the postcolonial context of this writing, emphasizing the thematic similarities of the art produced in the aftermath of the global fall of colonialism in the twentieth century (see Homi Bhabha’s Nation and Narration). Transnationalism, hybridity, and mimicry, not as matters of artistic choice but as matters of historical fact—think of the girls mocking Amusa in the marketplace, or Olunde’s studies abroad. Another aspect of this context is white supremacy: Elesin in slave chains, committing death as his final act of resistance against his colonizers. This is present in Lahiri as well, though often more subtly—think of how Lilia’s teacher thinks that in the context of wars of independence and national origins, the Partition is irrelevant and the Liberation is happening somewhere else (it is, of course, happening in her living room).

But let’s step back in to our stories themselves. I am going to start with our second question first, because it will give us some purchases on the deeper forces of history that are driving the stories in this collection. BUT, I think it is of the utmost significance that Lahiri puts “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” second. “A Temporary Matter” comes first, because the human drama of her characters comes first for Lahiri. The historical forces are crucial, but secondary. I think that just as for Wole Soyinka, the human situation comes first. As he says in his “Author’s Note” to Death and the King’s Horseman: “The Colonial Factor is an incident, a catalytic incident merely. The confrontation … is largely metaphysical, contained in the human vehicle” (6).

Yayoi Kusama – Pumpkin (2008)

I. Carving the Jack-o’-Lantern

What do the end of British Colonialism in South Asia, the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts, and the Irish potato famine have in common?

To answer this question here, I’m going to violate my own essay-writing dictum and put my thesis at the end instead of the beginning. If you want, though, you can jump down to the end of this section and see me lay it all out. Or just follow along on this Mr.-Toad’s-Wild-Ride through the history of colonialism …

The Partition of India by the British Empire in 1947 marked the beginning of the end of British colonialism, and western colonialism more broadly (a process that is still ongoing to this day). Through the hallowed, long-established practice of “white men wielding crayons,” India and Pakistan were created by fiat, and three-quarters of a century of war, violence, and bitter recrimination have followed this act. One of those wars is the subject of our story.

A Jack-o-Lantern is an object celebrating the Christian holiday Halloween, comprising a hollowed-out pumpkin with an image carved into it, usually of a grotesque face, lit from the inside by a candle, and placed outside a family home. The Jack-o’-Lantern’s origins, however, are obscure to almost every American who, like myself, sits down with their seven year old and their nine year old to draw spooky, impossible-for-dad-to-carve-before-the-heat-death-of-the-universe faces on pumpkins. In fact, it came to America as a practice with “the great wave of Irish immigration” in the nineteenth century (Santino; for something a little less scholarly, check the wiki). One of the great movers of which was another colonialism-induced disaster, The Great Hunger, in Irish an Gorta Mór. If you would like to become blisteringly angry about the depredations of a colonial power, go read about it. It was bad, and it was unnecessary, and the people the did it not only had very little remorse, they often said that all that starvation was actually a good thing. Of course, the Irish anti-colonial struggle also lead to another 20th-century partition by the colonial power, one that is still a live wire in European politics to this very day.

There’s only one problem here: pumpkins are not Irish. In Ireland and Scotland, the tradition involved “turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces to represent spirits or goblins” (Hutton). Pumpkins are a North American crop, though widely dispersed by the colonization of native North America. The etymology of the word is obscure, traditionally traced to the French pompon, or melon, though since that word has Latin roots and is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as being in use before 1492, it gives credence to some who argue that the word might derive from a word from Massachusett or the closely related Narragansett (see, in brief, the wiki). Frankly, I see no reason it cannot be both, a sort of linguistic convergence in a contact zone between two different people. What isn’t in dispute, though, is that Cucurbita pepo is a species native to North America and whose introduction to Europeans has long been ascribed to the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts (or rather, Massuchusetts is of the Wampanoag, since it is their name and they were there first). Traditionally, it is one of the foods served at the first Thanksgiving.

So, the Halloween pumpkin on Lilia’s porch is carved by a Pakistani man, soon to be Bangladeshi, and an Indian-American girl out of a Wampanoag vegetable that is a means of warding off evil spirits out of pagan Irish folklore that is repurposed as part of a Catholic holiday that was probably written over a pagan Roman harvest festival (“probably” because I didn’t check this last one, but it’s a pretty safe bet), a concatenation of cultural practices marked by a violent history of colonization, partition, migration, and adaptation.

In this one seemingly-benign object, a whole history of histories is symbolized. Indeed, food serves as a continual touchpoint for the history of colonialism. Lilia’s father explained to her the history of partition thusly: “‘One moment we were free and then we were sliced up,’ he explained, drawing an X with his finger on the countertop, ‘like a pie. Hindus here, Muslims there.'” Or take, for instance, the “austere biscuits [dipped] into successive cups of tea” he and Mr. Pirzada have for dessert. This taking of tea is a very British practice. And of course, then, there are the recipes that will figure so prominently in “A Temporary Matter.”

Why does food serve this function? The taking of tea is a very British practice, but tea is not from Britain. In a cup of tea is a whole history of the modern world, and yet it is something that these two men, of different religions, possibly on opposite sides of a war in which their families lives are at stake, are united thousands of miles a way. Food retains this deep symbolic resonance for many reasons. Most deeply, perhaps, is because it may be the singular practice that defines our humanity. Many anthropologists have argued that the cooking fire is the first communal space, the sharing of food integral to not just the survival of the individual, but the thriving of the group. Indeed, cooking our food is likely what freed up all the extra energy for humans to a) grow big brains, which are energetically very expensive and b) expand into every space and ecosystem on the planet. Our cousins, the Great Apes, spend a massive amount of their time and energy just chewing and digesting their food. Cooking is basic; it makes us human. More concretely, cooking is not only culture, it is portable culture. It is portable materially, because seeds are small (that detail of the movie Fury Road is actually quite good, for instance). But more so it is portable immaterially, as culture itself. Consult your own experiences here. Almost all of your families cultural touchstones are organized around food; at times, a religious reason (also portable culture) might predominate, but food is always there, like a bowl of oranges set beside the front door for the new year, or cookies for Santa Claus, or Sugar Skulls, or Jack of the Lanterns warding the house at the time when we remember the dead, as the world dies into winter, and the leaves fall from the trees.

In short, food is a deeply human focal point for culture, survival, and memory. It’s history is our history. We pass it down from generation to generation, and with it the memory of those who came before us toward the promise of those will come after. Sometimes we are ignorant of it’s meaning, but it is there. Think of Lilia praying while eating pieces of candy. Why does she do this? Who is she praying to? To understand this, we need to understand food.

To summarize: the pumpkin in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” is clearly a symbol, but for what? I think there are two plausible alternatives here: the trauma of partition or, conversely, the healing of that trauma. On the one hand, it is a symbol of the trauma and violence of partition. Mr. Pirzada carving it is a miniature of the violence being inflected on his home, and the pumpkin smashed at the end is a whole world smashed to pieces, irretrievable—even though we know what the pumpkin looked like before, there will be no putting its smashed pieces back together. On the other hand, though on the surface it seems like it is just another carved pie, even in the repetition of that trauma, the pumpkin is transformed into something else, into a way beyond the partition of the world by white men with crayons, a warding off of evil spirits. Lilia’s father thinks she is ignorant of the realities of the world, and that she must come to accept the inevitability of the differences that the past has created. For him the partitioning of the world is obvious and permanent, even if he personally deplores it and its consequences, and sees both sides with fairly clear eyes. But for Lilia, these differences seems small in comparison to all the similarities. She is indifferent to those differences. This seems at first to be a naive, childlike perception, but there is wisdom in it. In the carving of the pumpkin, they create a new tradition, one that reaches across all those differences in time and space to create a new way not just of viewing the world, but of being in it. Even though pumpkins are smashed or rot away on our porches, that’s not the point. No pumpkin is forever. The next year, the next generation, we will carve another one.

The Isothermal lines of India (1863) – A map of India indicating the rainy seasons, with drawn anotations indicating residency areas of various ethnic groups (British Museum)

II. Strangers in a Strange Land

First things second. “A Temporary Matter” is a story that I loved when I first read it. It drew me in to all these other wonderful stories, and between beginning here and ending with “The Third and Final Continent” is to begin and end with a literary work of profound beauty. Between now and when I first read it, though, I have completed my dissertation, gotten married, had two children, and moved thousands of miles across America, here to where I was born but did not grow up, Houston. My wife is an editor. The deadline I set myself for finishing my Ph.D. was before my daughter was born; if not, I thought to myself, it might never happen. I was in my thirties. Between finishing the 299th page of my dissertation and walking across the stage in my robes, Lilah was born, just 4 lbs 8 oz.

Which is all to say, that while I loved this story the first time I read it, this time I wept at the end. Then, driving to see my grandparents for the first time in over a year last week, I listened to the stories on tape so that I could keep writing this essay in my head while I was on the road; I wept again.

Why do I tell you this? Because I think this is Lahiri’s great gift. She tells seemingly simple stories of regular human lives that resonate beyond all reason, making and building connections with our own lives that seem deeply personal. And as I was driving across Texas, I realized that there was another reason that I was connecting so viscerally with these stories this time around. In this time of plague we have all, in some small way, had the experience of Shukumar and Shoba, or Mr. Pirzada with his watch set to Dacca time. We have all been in a sort of internal exile. My entire life, if I had merely desired it, I could have shown up at my grandparents door within 12 hours, 24 at the most. Usually much less. But for fifteen months, there was simply no prospect of visiting them, in their late 80s, at a retirement home. This compelled us all to relate to our families the way that millions of immigrants have been forced to for centuries anyway, by phone or letter, slowly, with our thoughts and hearts often somewhere else besides where we are right now. And throughout, this strange guilt of not being there, and this strange fear that those we loved might be becoming strangers. Or, if we just had to see them, something so basic and so human that of course many of just had to, that we might be, from the unbearable burden of our love, our absolute need for their love, be the cause of their deaths. Or that they might die anyway, alone, and no matter what we wanted to do, how much we wanted to be there, we could do absolutely nothing about it.

I switched between “compelled” and “forced” in the last paragraph for a reason, but I want to come back to it in a minute. First, I want to return to our text, and think about why it made me react the way it did. Maybe it was deeply singular and personal, the way a great work of art often is to us (like the lyrics of a song that we later learn are wrong, but we keep singing it that way in our head anyway). But let’s use it as a way into the text anyway, and by diving deeply into a text dive deeply into ourselves.

My question here is, what does the “temporary matter” of the title refer to? Let me lay out a series of possibilities:

1. It’s just the work on the electricity and I’m just reading too much into it;
2. It’s their marriage;
3. It’s their love;
4. It’s Shooba’s pregnancy;
5. It’s the funk their marriage is in, which is part of every long relationship, and will be better soon if they try and make it work;
6. It’s the food in the fridge, because even frozen foods goes bad eventually;
7. It’s the honesty they find in the dark;
8. It’s life itself.

Okay, that’s sufficient. Now let me approach this in a more straightforward matter than the last section. I’m just going to go down the list and say why it can or cannot be each one:

1. It can’t be that, I’m professional close-reader, and I need a job
2. All marriages are temporary, but yeah, okay, but that’s just factual by the end
3. Alright, this one is good. I think the tension between this one and number 5 is at the heart of the plot, driving it
4. See number 2, but really see number 8
5. Trauma is inevitable, and time is like a river, cleansing all wounds
6. I think that after our discussion of pumpkins, we can see that this is a lot more important than we thought at first
7. This one is, I think, the most intriguing and the biggest challenge to what I’m about to say; explore it if you so desire, but I’m going to leave it aside for now
8. It’s life itself, that’s the answer

I think the two big interpretations, for me, of the title is that it’s whether they are misreading their own situation (the flashbacks show they seem to really love each other, and have a lot in common) or that their relationship is already over and they just can’t face it. I would encourage you to explore the first one, because it seems so against the grain of where we end up, but I’m not sure it’s wrong even if it is a bit counter-intuitive. The question to ask is: how do they imagine their lives will be better? Do they think they can escape the trauma of the stillbirth of their child by escaping each other? That seems unlikely, to say the least, and probably the opposite. Do they think they will find other people more compatible with each other? Oof, that’s a lot harder than you might think (there’s even some good math on this question, go check the “Long Now” podcast archives if you’re interested). In short, isn’t the fantasy of the good life that they’ll have without each other just that, a fantasy? More deeply, how do you make a life, if you can’t make it through the inevitable traumas? Is marriage, much less love, even possible, or is it always a temporary matter?

I tend to think that, yes, those things are all inevitable, and the real trauma here is something deeper, which is that life is a temporary matter. Below the psychological questions the story poses is the existential one. As something like second-generation immigrants, Shooba and Shukumar are cut off from a place that one might call their homeland; they are trying to make a new home, in a new place. Shukumar feels some guilt that a white classmate knows the languages and history of his culture better than he does; but that’s because one doesn’t know culture, one lives it. Shukumar making rogan josh is him trying to communicate with Shooba in the only way he has left, through the language of food. Making rogan josh is making home; Shooba not making it anymore is why he makes it; he knows that she no longer lives here, with him. They are roommates, not a family. And he knows why, even if he cannot admit it: because they have not confronted the trauma they have shared. They have partitioned their own experiences of that trauma from one another, and shared culture is not able to overcome that distance because it is about something more basic, though just as human. This is why he cannot finish his dissertation; he feels guilty about the birth of this book, as if it is an insult to that small body he held in his arms, a desecration of that memory he cannot share until the end (reread the story for all the metaphors about generation and birth, then remember back to Plato and Socrates talking about giving birth in the body and giving birth in the mind, different forms of birth in beauty on the rungs of Diotima’s ladder).

In this way, the personal partitions in “A Temporary Matter” set the stage for the political partitions in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine.” Lahiri starts with the existential, the personal, before recasting it in its broader context. And indeed, this is how I experienced rereading these stories. At first, they were deeply personal, resonating with my own life in a way that caught me off guard, even shocked me. Then, it took me outwards to the world, to this time of plague, and reflections on being a refugee and the experience of the immigrant. While I felt compelled to isolate myself, immigrants are forced to: leave, and never come back, or come back and be placed in a prison, separated from your children on purpose, as an act of calculated cruelty, perhaps never to see them again. And thus from the personal, existential questions, we are forced to move outward and ask political questions about the stories, which are also personal. Do we want to be a world of partitions? Of walls, deportations, and refugee flows? More specifically, do we want to be the partitioners, the wall builders, the deporters? Or do we want to become the place, always mythical, that drew so many so far, often bringing with them not much more besides the Jack-o’-Lantern or the rogan josh—namely, culture, that immaterial, extremely portable bundle of ideas, beliefs, and practices that make up the human situation? Lahiri’s stories compel us all to find our own answer to such questions.