The Role Of Food Symbolism In The Interpreter Of Maladies

Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies consists of a series of short works which explore and analyze issues of identity as well as the assimilation of American and Indian cultures. The presence of traditional Indian foods and their ritualized preparations are interwoven into each story. It is a metaphor for many things, including community, normalcy and culture, as well as love. “When Mr. Pirzada came to dine,” “Mrs. Sen’s” as well as “A Temporary matter.”

From beginning to end, “When Mr. Pirzada came to dine” is full of food symbolism. “Coming To Dine” is an event that can be considered a social gathering, where people share time and talk over meals. Lilia’s parents go through university directories and phone books looking for Indian surnames to find dinner companions. He presents Lilia with a portrait and a photo of his seven daughters when he arrives at her home. (23) Picnicking symbolizes recreation and familial bonding. Lilia is able to relate to this particular snapshot of their lives and can empathize and relate to it. Lilia is confused when her father attempts to explain to Lilia that Mr. Pirzada was “no longer considered Indian”. Lilia notes that their parents ate pickled mangoes every night, ate rice every evening with their hands, and for dessert, they dipped austere cookies into their teas like other Indians. Lilia, 25 years of age, is able to understand the meaning of food that is shared by people of like culture. Lilia assists her mother with setting the table and preparing the condiments. She recounts her mother’s efforts to put together a family meal. (30) Indian tradition shows her mother’s dedication to creating traditional Indian meals for guests each night. Lahiri creates an informal setting by bringing food from the dining room to the couch. This is how she breaks down the distance between invitees and family members and creates a more intimate, special space. Sen’s,” Lahiri explores the meaning of food in a more intimate setting. She does this through the eyes a young boy named Elliot who is being watched carefully by a single professor’s spouse. To maintain her social and normal life, Mrs. Sen is separated by the ocean. She uses ritualized techniques to cut vegetables and make stews. Elliot noticed that Mrs. Sen spends most of her day making elaborate meals for her husband, who returns home from work every evening. It takes her nearly an entire hour to cut, peel and slice vegetables. This procedure uses a cultural tool and is reminiscent of a tradition in which local women celebrated a significant event by sitting in a circle on top of their buildings, gossiping, laughing, and slicing fifty-kilos of vegetables throughout the night. (115). Her alternate practice of peeling, slicing, and chopping vegetables for nearly an hour every day, with only the television as her company, only reinforces her daily alienation from her family and friends. It is striking how important it is to cook proper Indian meals that Mrs. Sen will go to great lengths to get fresh fish. She will go to great lengths to get to the beach fish market. Lahiri also uses Mrs. Sen in order to draw a distinction among Elliot’s American mom and her traditional Indian mother. Their cooking style or degree of preparation signifies a significant cultural difference. Mrs. Sen welcomes Elliot’s mother to her home and offers her a meal. Elliot eats as much as she can, but she then orders a pizza to take to Elliot to go. Elliot’s mother doesn’t appreciate Mrs. Sen’s meticulous approach to cooking home-cooked meals. Elliot finds it more meaningful to be involved in the preparation and cooking of Mrs. Sen’s meals than when Elliot watches his mother order takeout and leave him to wrap the leftovers. Traditional Indian mothers are more likely to show compassion and appreciation for their children by spending hours preparing meals. Fast food is more indifferent and speaks more about the stronger affections between American mothers and their child.

Lahiri explores ideas of love, compassion and food through “A Temporary Matter”, the story of Shoba & Shukmar, a divorcing married couple. Shukmar witnessed a drastic change in his wife’s behavior after the birth of their baby son. She suddenly loses her ability to plan ahead and to prepare ready-to eat home-cooked meals for anyone who visits. (6) Shukmar recalls how she was able to put together meals that took her half a week to make. Shukmar’s testimony on the stark difference in Shoba after their son died is representative of Shoba’s devotion to traditional home-cooked meals. Shukmar recalls Shoba’s ability to “throw together meals which appeared to have taken half an hour to prepare… peppers that she had marinated with rosemary, and chutneys she made on Sundays, stirring boiling pans of tomatoes, prunes, and tomato sauces.” He also mentions his love for Shoba, his enthusiasm and to read her cookbooks He notes that Shoba had prepared a ten course meal for their first wedding anniversary. She then gave Shoba a sweater vest for their third. It is a symbol of their relationship’s decline. (18) Lahiri compares the couple’s efforts in cooking and preparing food to their marriage’s strength.

While it is true that people are more connected when they eat together, Lahiri brings the definition of food to a new level. Like many things, traditional cuisine and food help balance maintaining a sense and connection to both cultures. The characters of her meals are a symbol of their culture and help to confront the emotions, conflicting ideas, and identity that can come with being an immigrant or first-generation member of a society.


  • lindabarber

    I'm Linda Barber, a 29-year-old blogger and teacher. I'm passionate about writing and communicating ideas, and I love helping others achieve their goals. I also love going on adventures, learning new things, and spending time with my family and friends.



I'm Linda Barber, a 29-year-old blogger and teacher. I'm passionate about writing and communicating ideas, and I love helping others achieve their goals. I also love going on adventures, learning new things, and spending time with my family and friends.

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