Food as Metaphor in Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies

Dr. Asha Choubey, Lecturer, Post-Graduate Dept. of English Kanya Mahavidyalaya, Bareilly, U.P., India

Born and brought up at Calcutta, I have now settled in Bareilly. On our annual visit to our home-town when the train reaches Asansol station, the vendor's call of jhalmuri enters my ears as the song of the Nightingale announcing my physical proximity to my home. I have come to associate jhalmuri with home; so much so that for me home is where jhalmuri is. Food, though apparently a trivial matter, serves as an important social as well as national role. Out of all the significant aspects of community life, food (apart from arts) is perhaps the only one that binds while all others separate one community from the other. Food and culinary items define social hierarchies, and serve as a driving force behind people's actions. Food delineates privilege, economic class, and social position. Food is a land issue and a power issue. Food sustains life. As Chisaga points out, one's stomach is one's ancestor -- it rumbles like a lion, refusing to be ignored.

Food is a motivating factor that propels action on the part of an individual, a community or an entire society. Food is part of the cyclical pattern of life; food is culture, but the question of the 'Indianness' of Indians acquires a particular poignancy overseas, as Indians abroad are presumed to shed their regional, linguistic, and ethnic identities in deference to the more general identity of being an Indian. It is arguable that one is more easily an Indian abroad than in India; the category of 'Indian' is not contested abroad as it is in India. This is perhaps all the more remarkable, when one considers that the 'Indianness' of the Indian diaspora is not as evidently conceptualizable, or even visible, as the distinctly Chinese characteristics of the Chinese diaspora or the Islamic features of the Arab diaspora. Hindi does not bind together diasporic Indians in the manner in which Chinese holds together the Chinese diaspora; nor does Hinduism play in the Indian diaspora a role comparable to that of Islam.

For immigrants and non-residents food certainly serves as an important part of their identity. When away from home the food from one's land brings as much pleasure as mother's voice on overseas calls. Food provides a link it induces a sense a sense of belonging in an otherwise alien world. Food serves as a key to binding. In a strange land familiar items of food are as welcome as familiar faces. Just as music or art breeds familiarity, food also serves as a medium of link. Food is an important part of cultural exchange and bonding as such its importance in the study of diaspora cannot be undermined. The present study aims to trace how Jhumpa Lahiri makes an effective use of food metaphor in Interpreter of Maladies.


The personal life of Jhumpa Lahiri is the very prototype of diasporic culture. Having spent more than thirty years in the United States she still feels 'a bit of an outsider.' Though she has confessed that her days in India are 'a sort of parenthesis' in her life, the fact that she is at heart an Indian cannot be denied. The stories collected in her debut anthology Interpreter of Maladies deal with the question of identity. The protagonists -- all Indians -- settled abroad are afflicted with a 'sense of exile.' Alienation has become their lot. The absence of the sense of belonging that these creatures experience makes them resolved to achieve communication. There is always a lingering awareness of 'clutching at a world that does not belong to them' but at the same time there is the propensity towards initiation, subsequent reconciliation and final communication. The heart-breaks and aches of acculturation are not absent but at the same time the strong will to adapt as well as adopt also makes its presence felt. The process of initiation that Lahiri undertakes involves besides other things food. Food becomes a motivating force in these stories.


The first story of the collection A Temporary Matter focuses mainly on marital alienation but food emerges as a metaphor in the story. Shoba's disinterest in cooking comes about when the sense of alienation sets in after a miscarriage. As long as marital bliss was much present the kitchen had also been well stocked. Shoba's inclination to cook good food and to keep her kitchen in good shape is proportionate to and concomitant with her pleasure in marital life. The author's description of the happy days includes a detailed inventory of food items:

The pantry was always stocked with extra bottles of olive and corn oil, depending on whether they were cooking Italian or Indian. There were endless boxes of pasta in all shapes and colors, zippered sacks of basmati rice, whole sides of lambs and goats from the muslim butchers at Haymarket, chopped up and frozen in endless plastic bags. (1998: 6 All subsequent references to different stories are from this book.)

Shoba had been quite a meticulous cook and revelled in entertaining guests. But those were golden days of the yore. After a miscarriage things change and so does the kitchen. The couples sense of alienation and lack of communication is conveyed by their food habit:

For months now they'd served themselves from the stove, and he'd taken his plate into the study, letting the meal grow cold on his desk before shoving it into his mouth without pause, while Shoba took her plate to the living room and watched game shows. (8)

The electricity repairs comes as a bridge for Shukumar to reach to Shoba. For five consecutive days electricity was to be cut off paralysing all normal activities, hence the pretext of their busy work schedule that the couple used to put up was not affordable at the time. This one hour provides the couple with the much needed intimacy which is necessary to mend the divide in a marriage. Besides playing a truth-or-dare-like game, the only other means of communication to unite the estranged couple is food. Rogan josh and a bottle of wine serve as the perfect symbol of truce.

Shukumar plans the meals quite cautiously and lays the table quite romantically. Four days of communion are marked by food exotica but the morning of the fifth night comes with the ominous announcement that the lines had been repaired ahead of schedule. The first thing that conveys Shukumar's despair is again food: 'He was disappointed. He had planned on making shrimp malai for Shoba but when he arrived at the store he didn't feel like cooking any more.'(20)

Whereas in A Temporary Matter food induces a sense of belonging between a couple, in the next story When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine food comes as a fistful soil from the motherland. Not only does food serve as a slice of native life for Mr. Pirzada but also it serves as a strong bond between the protagonist -- Mr. Pirzada and Lilia's family. Mr. Pirzada comes from Dacca whereas Lilia's parents are from India. But the food that they relish as also their eating habits establish a bond of affinity :

They ate pickled mangoes with their meals, ate rice every night for supper with their hands. Like my parents, Mr. Pirzada took off his shoes before entering a room, chewed fennel seeds after meals as a digestive, drank no alcohol, for dessert dipped austere biscuits into successive cups of tea. (25)

Other items of cuisine that keep popping up through the story are: mincemeat Kebabs with coriander chutney (28), ground areca nuts (29), lentils with fried onions, green beans with coconut, fish cooked with raisins in a yogurt sauce. (30)

Not only the food but eating habits as well build up atmosphere. Lilia marks the way Mr. Pirzada has his meals, 'calmly creating a well in his rice to make room for a second helping of lentils.' (30) These food items which are typically Indian as well as Pakistani not only set the rhythm of harmony between two people from two different countries but also they serve as a refuge for Mr. Pirzada in his home-sickness.

Interpreter of Maladies has Das family on a visit to India. Mr. and Mrs. Das enjoy all things Indian. The couple is as if drinking its fill of Indian experience. Just as the Suntemple at Konarak becomes a must see, they also enjoy jhalmuri that is typical of Bengal and its adjacent states. Mrs. Das is quite a foreigner in her dress and taste, the lady does not forget to carry her water bottle lest she catches infection due to consumption of contaminated water. But she cannot resist enjoying the jhalmuri: 'She walked slowly, carrying some puffed rice tossed with peanuts and chilli peppers in a large packet made from newspapers.' (46) The family also enjoys a hearty breakfast at a road side restaurant (Dhaba). If on one hand they sip bottled mango juice with sandwiches they also enjoy the typical Indian pakora throwing all apprehensions of infection to the wind. However, the author once again does not use the Indian word for the same, instead she prefers to define it as 'onions and potatoes deep fried in graham-flour batter.' (54)

Mrs. Sen deals with cultural alienation that infests the wife of a mathematics professor in an American University. She is a docile housewife who is bored to death because her husband is busy with his job and she is missing her Calcutta family, her neigbourhood and above all the community feeling that is totally absent in the American culture. Mrs. Sen is a typical Bengali woman for whom fish is the ultimate in food. Though almost all her stories use food as a metaphor, Lahiri's Mrs. Sen is one story where food acquires a character as well. Fish which is almost the staple food of Bengal becomes an obsession with Mrs. Sen as it is not always that one gets good whole fish in America. With Eliot, for whom she works as a baby-sitter, she shares her passion for bengali people, bengali food, fish and all things from Bengal. The arrival of fish at the local store is greeted as a piece of news from home and she is always too eager to hold it, to cook it and to serve it to Mr. Sen. The homely lady is learning to drive, but whenever fish arrives at the local store she troubles her husband with the job of transporting it from the store to her home. If the husband is busy she takes a bus to fetch the fish, but absolute happiness eludes her because the other passengers object to the smell. The incorrigible Mrs. Sen, however, is not easily daunted. The next time when the fish arrives she takes a bold step and taking Eliot with her, she decides to drive to the store. The car meets with an accident and Mr. Sen has to be called to the lady's rescue. Fish becomes the leitmotif in the story. Mrs. Sen's existence as also her survival in an alien land revolves around and depends upon this food item. When she gets it she is happy, and when it is absent from her kitchen for a long time, she sulks like a child. For Mrs. Sen fish becomes her home, her state, her neighbourhood, her friend and her family. Fish gives her a sense of proximity to her people. The arrival of a tasty halibut gives her pleasure as nothing else does.

The last story in the collection, 'The Third and Final Continent,' presents the alienation and gradual initiation of a Bengali gentleman. He pursues his higher education in Britain and then his job takes him to America. Adapting to the ways of three continents, the man and his wife succeed in retaining his original cultural identity. Even in America the smell of steamed rice (192) marks a home as different from an apartment. A dish of chicken made with 'fresh garlic and ginger on the stove' (193) makes a sumptuous meal. Not only food but the eating habits also becomes dear as it induces a sense of belonging. Eating with hands gives pleasure as no spoon or fork does. Their son who attends Harvard University will also inherit this habit of eating steamed rice with his hands. This habit, which is becoming considered contemptible and uncivilized in India itself, is in great favour with Indians settled abroad.

Food serves more as a symbol and acquires a metaphoric stature than mother tongue for the simple reason that even in India most of these characters speak English, but English food, though enjoyed occasionally, is still not an intrinsic part of the Indian cuisine or diasporic identity.

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Last modified Depavali 2001