In the autumn of 1971, Mr. Pirzada comes to Lilia’s house to dine each night. Mr. Pirzada is from Dacca, then a part of Pakistan. He left behind his wife and seven daughters for a fellowship to study the foliage of New England. Since his fellowship provided for only a meager dorm room, he comes to Lilia’s home to eat with her parents and to watch the news of the Indo-Pakistan War. Dacca had been invaded by the Pakistani army and torched and shelled. Thousands of people were tortured or killed. Although Mr. Pirzada writes a letter to his family each week, he had not heard from them in six months.
Lilia is 10 years old, living with her parents near a university north of Boston. Her parents, originally from India, miss their homeland and seek out names similar to their own in the university directory. This is how they found Mr. Pirzada. Lilia calls him “the Indian man,” but her father explains that he is no longer Indian; though he is Bengali, he is also a Muslim. In 1947, after winning independence from England, the country was sliced in two. This partition put Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan. Lilia’s father tells her that during Partition, violence erupted between Muslims and Pakistan. Lilia can’t understand this. Mr. Pirzada speaks the same language as her parents, they tell the same jokes and eat the same food.
Lilia’s father complains to her mother that their daughter is unaware of the current events of India and Pakistan. Lilia’s mother is proud that their daughter was born in the United States and that she is an American. She is assured a safe life, access to education and endless opportunities. Her father is not pleased that she does not seem to learn about the world.
When Mr. Pirzada arrives, Lilia takes his coat and is rewarded with a candy. Lilia savors the candy, storing the treats in a sandalwood box that belonged to a grandmother she never met. She eats the confections with ceremony, enjoying one only after laying out her clothes for school the next day. Mr. Pirzada and Lilia’s family eat in living room in front of the TV. Lilia, upon learning that Mr. Pirzada is not an Indian, watches him carefully. He takes out a silver pocket watch that is set 11 hours ahead – the time in Dacca. Lilia marvels that Mr. Pirzada’s family was already waking up the next morning. Theirs was the ghost life, lagging behind where Mr. Pirzada really belonged. Lilia pays attention to the news broadcast, wondering if they would catch a glimpse of Mr. Pirzada’s daughters waving from their balcony. But only images of tanks and clamoring refugees fill the screen.
That night, Lilia eats a piece of candy, letting it melt on her tongue while saying a prayer for Mr. Pirzada’s family. She falls asleep with sugar in her mouth, afraid to wash away the prayer by brushing her teeth. At school, Lilia is assigned a presentation on the surrender at Yorktown with her friend Dora. While at the library to read about the American Revolution, Lilia’s teacher Mrs. Kenyon catches her reading a book on Pakistan. She is chastised.
The news from Pakistan dwindles as the reports are censored. A death toll is announced along with only a recap of what is happening. More poets are executed and more villages set ablaze. In spite of this, Mr. Pirzada often stayed until midnight playing Scrabble, drinking tea and joking about the spelling of English words with Lilia’s parents. On the other side of the world, a nation was being born.
In October, Mr. Pirzada asks about the pumpkins he sees on the doorsteps of Lilia’s neighbors. She tells him that it is used to scare people. He helps her carve a jack-o’-lantern while a TV reporter mentions Dacca. It appears as if India will go to war with Pakistan. Mr. Pirzada’s knife slips, leaving a deep gash in the pumpkin. The mouth is fixed so that it appears that the jack-o’-lantern is frozen in astonishment.
Lilia dresses as a witch for Halloween with her friend Dora. It is the first year she is allowed to trick-or-treat unattended. Mr. Pirzada worries, asking her parents if there is any danger. Lilia’s mother assures him that it is only an American custom. Lilia tells him not to worry. Outside, Dora asks Lilia why Mr. Pirzada wanted to come with them. She says his daughters are missing, but immediately regrets it, as if saying it will make it true. Lilia corrects herself, saying that the girls are in another country and that their father misses them. When Lilia arrives home later, she finds their jack-o’-lantern has been smashed.
Inside, Lilia’s parents sit on the couch. Mr. Pirzada’s head is in his hands. India and Pakistan are on the brink of war. The U.S.A. sides with West Pakistan, the Soviet Union with India and what will become Bangladesh. During the twelve days of the war, Lilia’s mother only cooks boiled eggs and rice. They lay out a blanket for Mr. Pirzada to sleep on the couch. Lilia’s parents call their relatives in Calcutta for updates. The house rings with fear.
In January, Mr. Pirzada flies home to what is left of Dacca. Dacca’s new leader is released from prison and must lead its people through famine and unemployment and refugees returning from India. Lilia imagines Mr. Pirzada when gazing at her parents’ now out-of-date map. Months later, Lilia’s family receives a letter from Mr. Pirzada. He is reunited with his family who were kept safe from harm by his wife’s family. He thanks their family deeply for their hospitality. Lilia’s mother makes a special supper that evening, but Lilia does not feel like celebrating. She misses Mr. Pirzada. Since he left in January, she continued to eat a piece of candy in prayer for his family. But now there was no longer a need. Eventually, she throws the rest of the candy away.
The story is told from the first person perspective of Lilia, primarily in her 10th year. Choosing to tell this story through the eyes of a child somewhat mitigates the heavy topic. The war between India and Pakistan in 1971 is witnessed from a distance both geographically and emotionally. While Lilia’s parents fret over a skirmish thousands of miles away, Lilia is more concerned with her own life. The candy that Mr. Pirzada lavishes on Lilia becomes a prayer for the safety of his daughters. Her awareness of the contrast between her situation and Mr. Pirzada’s daughters opens her eyes to the complicated political struggle on a personal level. In this case, the lessons learned by Lilia are the same learned by the reader but in a more literary, less didactic way.
Time is an interesting construct in this story as well. Lilia remarks that events are unfolding eleven hours ahead of her time zone. She feels as if the events are playing out in the future and her life is somehow a ghost life. This has two separate meanings for Lilia. First, there is a remove between herself and the girls culturally as Lilia is a first-generation American born to immigrant parents. Second, since this is also a coming of age story, Lilia struggles for some semblance of maturity. As a child, she feels as if her life has already been experienced by others who have gone before her. Lilia also narrates from the present, adding yet another layer of remove into the story. All that is occurring in the time frame of the story actually has already happened. The facts of the war, she says, were a “remote mystery with haphazard clues.” Lilia narrates the story from the remoteness of childhood, only understanding after years have passed.
Assimilation of Indians to America is one of the overarching themes in Interpreter of Maladies. Lilia and her parents are on either side of a divide. Identity issues are typically compounded generation to generation. Though Lilia’s parents remember their own experiences in India vividly, Lilia is an American and therefore a step removed from the culture of her parents. Lilia’s father is dismayed that she is ignorant of current events in India. Lilia does, in fact, attempt to study the history of Pakistan but she is unable to do so on school time. Lilia does have an interest in her parents’ world, but she is fully enmeshed in, to Mr. Pirzada, unthinkable customs. Halloween, a purely American holiday, mystifies Mr. Pirzada.
Customs shared by Lilia and her parents are also shared by Mr. Pirzada. From Lilia’s perspective, the division of Pakistanis and Indians is arbitrary. When her father tells her that Mr. Pirzada is no longer Indian, she inspects him and his actions for clues of difference. This echoes her own relationship with her father, who worries that her American education is making her no longer Indian. However, America allows for Mr. Pirzada and Lilia’s father to dine together, worry together and laugh together. Assimilation is seen as both positive and negative.
There is no mention of religion in Lilia’s family, though it can be assumed that her family is Hindu since they are unlike Mr. Pirzada. But Lili gives in to a secular type of prayer with the candy that Mr. Pirzada gives to her. Like traditions, rituals can expose belief systems of a person. Since Lilia, who says she doesn’t pray, performs a ritual to keep the Pirzada girls safe, it can be assumed that she does not typically practice the religion of her parents. Lilia can be read as a secular American, again removed from the culture of her parents.