‘When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine by Jhumpa Lahiri, 1998

The magic trick:

Bringing home the story of war by keeping a certain distance

Writing about personal tragedy is difficult.

Writing about tragedy on a grand scale? Difficult, verging on the impossible.

“When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine” manages to do both remarkably well. Truly amazing.

The topic at hand is the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. The story, however, is set in Boston. So how does that work?

Brilliantly, we get the story through the memories of our narrator looking back on her childhood – where her concerns about Halloween costume intermingle with sorting out how she feels about this odd guest who joins the family for dinner each night.

This guest, it turns out, is in Boston on an academic program, separated from his wife and children, who are half a world away in the middle of the Bangladesh Liberation War.

So we get the intensely personal connection through Mr. Pirzada. But we also get the distance – both physical distance between the story’s setting and the war, and the emotional distance caused by the limited capacity to understand inherent to our narrator’s age. The intensely personal connection obviously makes us feel sympathy for the situation. The distance makes it easier for us to relate – reading as most people will be from a setting and position of privilege similar to the narrator.

And that’s quite a trick on Lahiri’s part.

The selection:

At six-thirty, which was when the national news began, my father raised the volume and adjusted the antennas. Usually I occupied myself with a book, but that night my father insisted that I pay attention. On the screen I saw tanks rolling through dusty streets, and fallen buildings, and forests of unfamiliar trees into which East Pakistani refugees had fled, seeking safety over the Indian border. I saw boats with fan-shaped sails floating on wide coffee-colored rivers, a barricaded university, newspaper offices burnt to the ground. I turned to look at Mr. Pirzada; the images flashed in miniature across his eyes. As he watched he had an immovable expression on his face, composed but alert, as if someone were giving him directions to an unknown destination.


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