April 28, 2023
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Our recent Quarterly Discussion spanned thousands of years, jumping from a play by Aeschylus to a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri. We began with Aeschylus’s “Suppliant Maidens” and then transitioned to the short story “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” by Lahiri.
In Aeschylus’s play, a group of fifty (or so) women attempt to flee forced marriages to their cousins. They leave Egypt guided by their father, Danaus. When they land in Argos, the maidens attempt to convince the local King of their Argive ancestry so that he will allow them to stay. The maidens explain that King Danaus descends directly from the line of Io. Their connection with Io creates the vital link, which eventually convinces the King to present their case to his people. The Argives unanimously accept the women into Argos.
However, as the play ends, the women have been allowed into the city, and even defended and protected by the Argives, but not allowed to integrate. Instead, the Chorus warns of marriage in general. They state, “To many a woman before,/ Has marriage come as an ending.” In other words, the Egyptian women may enter the city and perhaps try to assimilate, but they may not enter into marriage. Their entrance into the new city sounds temporary and conditional, as if they are to be eternal guests. To me, they retain a sort of refugee status, as impossible to define then as now.
Fast forward to Lahiri’s story, where we find an Indian family living in America. Through the perspective of Lilia, a young Indian girl who attends school in America, the reader also also questions the meanings of ethnicity and identity. Lilia’s parents note that they are Indian Muslims born in Calcutta. Mr. Pirzada visits with them during a brief stay in the United States. While there, his homeland undergoes occupation and warfare. This means that the status of his family back in Bengali is unknown. Lilia’s father explains that while Mr. Pirzada comes from a place that used to be considered India, he is actually no longer Indian. Lilia tries to piece together the sudden difference. She thinks, “It made no sense to me. Mr. Pirzada and my parents spoke the same language, laughed at the same jokes, looked more or less the same.” She notes that they ate the same foods and had the same traditions also.
Lilia also mentions that Mr. Pirzada’s presence makes her momentarily feel like a stranger in her own home. Possibly, Lilia felt more American than Indian in his presence. Possibly the stranger disrupted family patterns. Either way, Lilia begins to enjoy his presence and look forward to his visits. Yet, she still tries to come to terms with difference. In what way or ways, does Mr. Pirzada fit in? In what way or ways is he different? Lahiri also offers excellent juxtapositions of the American world outside of Lilia’s home.
At the end of the story, Mr. Pirzada returns to Dacca, a city greatly affected by the war in his absence. He reunites with his family and Lilia never sees him again. This story looks closely at what happens when cultures merge or divide. It investigates seemingly mundane cultural representations in the form of language, food, habit, dress, etc. Lilia learns that self-identity is sometimes affected by political barriers, changes, strife, and human invention.
Though Lilia and her family have already integrated into America, they still feel different. Lahiri’s wonderful details, such as a Halloween outing and a peek inside a friend’s house, examine these differences. The two households, though both American, are very unique. In other words, integration is not seamless, but it is, in some ways, inclusive. Aeschylus’s suppliants, however, remain in limbo. Their acceptance of a new homeland depends upon their virginal status. In the end, Danaus gives them this very enigmatic advice: “Above my other counsels cut this wisdom:/ Time becomes the touchstone of the alien./ … Honor modesty more than your life.” The alien, in the words of Danaus, undergoes many changes over time. What these might be is still unclear. Finally, both works focus on the responsibilities of a guest-host relationship. It questions how these roles might depend upon and intersect with culture.
Though very different situations, both pieces bring me to similar questions about identity. What is the status of the characters at the end of the play? What does it feel like to be in-between places? When does a new place become a home? How far does ancestry extend? How much does ancestry interact with identity? What constructs add to our own self-identity?
Thanks to the excellent groups who discussed these works with me. I look forward to our next Quarterly Discussion in July, which will focus on Philosophy.
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