The Ubiquitous Unhomeliness of the Diasporic Home

side by side series of the cover of Interpreter of Maladies

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” published in her renowned 1999 collection Interpreter of Maladies, the boundary between political tension and domestic life blurs, uncovering the pervasive effects of dislocation on various diasporic subjects. Narrated from the perspective of ten-year-old Lilia, daughter of Indian immigrants in the United States, the story follows the appearance and gradual integration of Mr. Pirzada, a visiting scholar from Dacca, at that time a part of the former East Pakistan, into the family’s home routine around the time of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Mr. Pirzada’s regular presence at the family’s dinner table reveals Lilia’s lack of historical subcontinental knowledge and introduces her to the concerns of transnationally-located families, such as worrying for safety and political turmoil abroad. The shifts in the family’s home sparked by the bond between the three adults are mirrored not only the cultural education transferred between Mr. Pirzada and Lilia, but also in the metonymic relationship between the micro concerns of Lilia’s domestic sphere and the macro events of international politics. The two grounding characters of the story further emphasize these effects of dislocation through their evocation of Homi Bhabha’s concept of the unhomely, or what he describes in The Location of Culture as “the estranging sense of the relocation of the home and the world—the unhomeliness—that is the condition of extra-territorial and cross-cultural initiations.” In rendering this concept through the sounds and daily events of a young girl’s life, Lahiri exposes a particular formation of unhomeliness inherent to diasporic experience.

The reader quickly learns that Mr. Pirzada’s incorporation into the family’s dinners began from a ritual of Lilia’s parents, itself born out of diasporic longing: “The supermarket did not carry mustard oil, doctors did not make house calls, neighbors never dropped by without an invitation, and of these things, every so often, my parents complained,” Lahiri writes. “In search of compatriots, they used to trail their fingers, at the start of each new semester, through the columns of the university directory, circling surnames familiar to their part of the world. It was in this manner that they discovered Mr. Pirzada, and phoned him, and invited him to our home.” Just after this scene, Lilia sets a fourth place at their table out of habit for Mr. Pirzada one day, but mistakenly refers to him as “the Indian man,” after which her father gives her a short lesson on Partition and the history of the Indian subcontinent. Lilia’s confusion, however, stems from her childish observation of similarities. To her, Mr. Pirzada and her parents display the same cultural markers that she associates with her Indian heritage, such as how, “like [her] 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.” As the tensions in Pakistan grow and the three adults begin to eat simpler meals in front of the news on television, exuding an atmosphere of distress, Lilia even interprets them as “operating during that time as if they were a single person, sharing a single meal, a single body, a single silence, and a single fear.” Despite this unity, however, it is through the illusion of sameness that Lilia begins to learn and pay attention to her own difference, such as searching for books on Pakistan in the school library and noticing the contrast between her friend Dora’s home life and her own family’s constant attention to the international news, as “the television wasn’t on at Dora’s house at all,” replaced instead by the relaxed luxury of saxophone music, magazines, and wine.

Accompanying this cultural interchange and heightened awareness of Lilia’s own identity as a diasporic subject comes a marked sense of unease. As Mr. Pirzada forms an impression on Lilia, she continually notes a strange feeling of displacement or discomfort, indicative of Bhabha’s concept of unhomeliness for the postcolonial—or, here, diasporic—subject. For example, Mr. Pirzada routinely offers Lilia a piece of candy upon arriving at their home, a ritual that she “awaited in part with dread, in part with delight.” She remarks feeling “charmed by the presence of Mr. Pirzada’s rotund elegance, and flattered by the faint theatricality of his attentions, yet unsettled by the superb ease of his gestures, which made me feel, for an instant, like a stranger in my own home.” His initial protest to being thanked for the candy, linked to his observation of over-thanking in the United States—“What is this thank you? The lady at the bank thanks me, the cashier at the shop thanks me, the librarian thanks me . . . If I am buried in this country I will be thanked, no doubt, at my funeral,” he comically remarks—leaves Lilia uncertain of how to respond to his gifts. Similarly, as Lilia decides to “try to figure out what made him different” after learning he is not Indian as she had assumed, she focuses on his custom of setting his pocket watch to the time in Dacca before eating as one marker of his difference. Upon seeing him wind the watch one night, however, she suddenly notes that “an uneasiness possessed me; life, I realized, was being lived in Dacca first.”

From these two examples of Mr. Pirzada’s presence causing Lilia to feel discomfort in her own life, Bhabha’s concept of the unhomely begins to unfold. In the daily act of proffering candy from his suit pocket for Lilia and refusing her cultural norm of expressed gratitude, Mr. Pirzada unsettles her diasporic identity, of which she was largely unaware, purely by the existence of his own diasporic identity—one that looks the same to her on the surface but is in fact markedly different. This hidden difference leaves Lilia grasping at straws as she attempts to figure out just what makes him different from her, and, in turn, what makes her different from everyone else. Mr. Pirzada’s ritual of tying his meals to the time of his homeland moves the unease from selfhood to the domestic space, upsetting Lilia’s feeling of stability in her home. Realizing that someone who she assumes to be the same as her parents, and by proxy herself, is connected to a far-away place that she understands as living life before her due to time differences, suddenly destabilizes her feelings of rootedness in time, place, and home, casting a pallor of doubt on her perception of herself in relation to the world. Mr. Pirzada’s more visible unhomeliness, evoked in his longing for familiar cultural practices, fear for the safety of his family, and inexperience with American customs, such as carving pumpkins on Halloween, unearths another form of the unhomely in the unsuspecting Lilia. Previously fairly unaware, or at least unconcerned, with her diasporic experience and difference, Mr. Pirzada’s presence as someone similar-yet-different forces her to confront her own identity and its location as not just neither fully American nor Indian, but different as well in more subtle ways from the experience of a recent immigrant such as Mr. Pirzada.

Lilia’s home life thus shifts from one in which she, as a child, had no immediate need to learn the difference between India and Pakistan, to one in which she listens while falling asleep each night to the sound of Mr. Pirzada and her parents watching the news, “anticipating the birth of a nation of the other side of the world.” In this conflation of the daily sounds and routines of her domestic sphere with markers of international conflict, political tension, and cultural difference, Lahiri blurs the distinction between the personal and political—but she does not stop there. Through the gradual introduction of Bhabha’s unhomely in the interactions between Lilia and Mr. Pirzada, Lahiri maps a cross-cultural exchange that occurs squarely in the place of multiple forms of dislocation—one permanent, unquestioned, and largely invisible to Lilia; the other new, temporary, and plainly jarring to Mr. Pirzada. In her 2011 essay “Minority Cosmopolitanism,” interdisciplinary scholar Susan Koshy notes that Lahiri reveals the diasporic unhomely as “embedded in the everyday acts, habits, and routines of accommodation,” that rather than the “sudden ‘invasion’ of history into the domestic space” that Bhabha describes of the concept, Lahiri’s unhomely is “endemic” to the domestic sphere.

In this way, the forms of the unhomely seen in Lilia and Mr. Pirzada do not only spark each other’s formation through the existence of differing experiences of diasporic subjectivity but also reveal unhomeliness as inherent to the diasporic domestic sphere. Mr. Pirzada’s presence in Lilia’s life, although foregrounding her introduction to history and politics, truly only makes her aware of the illusion of stable place and belonging she had previously accepted unhesitatingly. In rejecting the falsity of a separation between the domestic and political spaces, Lahiri uncovers the muted constancy of Bhabha’s sudden postcolonial awakening to a feeling of unhomeliness even at home for subjects of diaspora, a constancy that itself exposes the very political nature of domesticity. In “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” the unhomely was there all along, waiting dormant for Lilia to contend with its perpetual unease.