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The Heterotopic Living Room in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” by Jhumpa Lahiri


University of Gothenburg, Sweden

The space in which we live, which draws us out of ourselves, in which the erosion of our lives, our time and our history occurs, the space that claws and gnaws at us, is also, in itself, a heterogeneous space. In other words, we do not live in a kind of void, inside of which we could place individuals and things. (Foucault[i], 1986, p. 23)

Foregrounding new pathways for understanding space as a dynamic phenomenon, Michel Foucault challenges the conception of space in philosophical thinking. In an interview with the editors of the journal Hérodote, he notes, “[s]pace was treated as the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile. Time, on the contrary, was richness, fecundity, life, dialectic” (1980, p. 70). The need for a new perception of space, which was neglected for a long time because of the 19th century’s obsession with history and its epochal dominance over most of the following century, is heightened in our time. In the era that we live, immigration has become one of the most determining issues in the political and social orders around the globe. The spatial life of an immigrant is the subject of the most challenging modifications. Taking Foucault’s pathway to think differently about the notion of space, I explore the traces of different localities and how they define and re-define the conception of space for a character named Lilia in the story “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” from the short story collection Interpretation of Maladies by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri (1999). The space of the living room in which Lilia and her family spend their evenings in the U.S. is constantly connecting to other sites located in India and Pakistan. Consequently, the living room becomes a heterotopic space for Lilia as it provides a contradictory and transforming spatial experience for her. The connection between the sites is made possible through the traces they leave in each other. This process is a constant one and eventually makes the space of the living room fluid, mobilized, and ever-changing.

“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” is narrated by a teenage girl named Lilia who lives in the U.S. and is the daughter of an Indian family. The story is about Lilia’s life when a Pakistani man named Mr. Pirzada regularly visited her family to dine with them. Mr. Pirzada visits the family almost every night and watches the news with them. The story takes place in the year that Pakistan was engaged in civil war and Dacca, where Mr. Pirzada’s family lived, fought for autonomy from the Pakistani government. Every night, after dinner, Lilia’s parents and Mr. Pirzada watch the news about the civil war on television. He expresses his worries about his wife and daughters who live in Dacca. While Mr. Pirzada listens to the war news in the living room far from his family, Lilia experiences an emotional challenge. She cannot ignore these stories of war and violence. Mr. Pirzada’s presence opens up a new story in her life. Besides, he brings lots of information about India and Pakistan, which until then used to be mere concepts for Lilia.

Space is a production of different social practices and relations (Lefebvre, 1991). With the presence of Mr. Pirzada at their home, the dinners seem like Indian gatherings for Lilia. Her mother now prefers to cook Indian food as if they still live in India. The ceremony which is held every night in the living room and is followed by a gathering in front of the TV to watch the war news makes Lilia engaged with new conceptions of place and time. Having a little knowledge of the geography and history of India and Pakistan, she begins to look for maps of eastern countries in the library books. She asks questions about the East and imagines herself as Mr. Pirzada’s daughters in Dacca amid war. After learning Mr. Pirzada is not an Indian but Pakistani, Lilia begins to study him carefully. She notices that he wears an extra watch to keep the time of Dacca and notes that life “was being lived in Dacca first” (p. 30). She imagines Mr. Pirzada’s daughters living their daily routine life. She thinks that her family’s meals and actions are “only a shadow” of what has already happened in Dacca, and “a lagging ghost of what Mr. Pirzada really belonged” (p. 31).

Lilia stores the candies that Mr. Pirzada brings for her in a keepsake box made of carved sandalwood that once belonged to her grandmother in India. She calls the box a memento of a grandmother she had never known. Lilia mentions that before Mr. Pirzada’s presence, she had nothing to put inside the box. He not only brings the traces of a continent far away from the U.S. but also gives new definitions to the objects that Lilia possessed but had no emotional connection to. As Patrick Colm Hogan (2011) points out, “spatiality, the ‘existential’ experience of the location, is fundamentally an emotional experience” (p. 29). Lilia, who is extremely worried about the destiny of Mr. Pirzada’s seven daughters makes a ritual of praying for their safety. She eats one chocolate from the old keepsake box every night. While it is melting in her mouth, Lilia prays for them. She has never prayed for someone, but this is the first time that she feels the need for praying. Significantly, the old box becomes a story in itself; it belonged to a grandmother who lived in India; Lilia stores the candies she gets from Mr. Pirzada in it and, she uses it to pray for the safety of some girls who live in another place and with whom she has never been in direct contact.

Lilia, who can no longer concentrate on studying the geography and history of the U.S., goes to the library to find the section labeled Asia and finds a book about Pakistan. The map of the world is no longer limited to one country for her. Her sense of belonging to a place is emotionally and cognitively challenged. She notices that no one in school talks about the war in Dacca. She contemplates then on why her family and Mr. Pirzada are so engaged with this war. Watching TV every evening with her family, she notices that the news about the war in Pakistan “had been censored, removed, restricted, rerouted” (p. 34). She also notices that her parents and Mr. Pirzada enjoy meals, jokes, and other entertainments while many poets got executed and many villages set blazed in Pakistan. She becomes involved with a country called Pakistan, a place that was once part of India, and which is about to be partitioned again.

At the first meetings with Mr. Pirzada, Lilia calls him ‘Indian Man’ as if she does not consider herself an Indian. Her father points out that after the partition of India Mr. Pirzada is no longer an Indian. He shows her a world map and points at the lines that separate India from Pakistan. Father also finds out that she is unaware of Bangladesh’s fight for sovereignty from Pakistan. Eventually, Lilia realizes that while she has learned a lot about American history and geography at school, she has no knowledge of the geography of the place that she belongs to in many ways. Maps are showcases of other places, but in a bunch of countries displayed in the world map, Pakistan and India get highlighted in her mind. Even though she gets information about these places and is updated by the news, it is only through Mr. Pirzada’s stories about his family that Lilia begins to care about India and Pakistan.

Lilia knows that she does not belong to Mr. Pirzada’s and her parent’s world in the way that they do: “they discussed intrigues I did not know, a catastrophe I could not comprehend” (p. 31). When they sit in front of the TV and talk about the war news, she cannot fully understand them. This leads consequently to an emotional experience by which Lilia realizes that not only doesn’t she belong to the place from which her parents and Mr. Pirzada come, but also her American identity does not seem as absolute as before. She engages herself with the traces of other places geographically locates in another continent. Consequently, Mr. Pirzada’s presence in the dining room becomes the cornerstone of Lilia’s spatial life. Pakistan and India are no longer some names on a piece of paper called the world map. They encompass times and places that challenge Lilia emotionally and spatially. Every time Mr. Pirzada comes to dine with Lilia’s family, the living room turns to a heterotopia in the sense described by Foucault (1986). It is a focal point of Lilia’s socio-spatial activity in which she interacts with new notions of time and place through specific social practices. The heterotopic living room is located in the U.S. while the space that encompasses this location is not limited to one country.

Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia is developed in relation to his definition of utopia (1986). He refers to utopias as imaginary and unreal sites that represent the inverted form of real spaces of society. He further talks about spaces that do exist in every culture and civilization but are utopias enacted. According to Foucault (1986), these sites simultaneously represent and contest all other possible real sites. He further writes: “Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.” (Foucault, 1986, p. 24). He calls attention to heterotopology, a ‘systematic description’ that studies, analyzes and describes the characteristics of heterotopias which can be found in different cultures. Foucault (1986) discusses different principles of heterotopology, among which one is relevant here: “The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (ibid, p. 25). He refers to the theater and the cinema which make heterotopias possible on the stage or on the two-dimensional screen[ii], and also to the traditional rectangular gardens of the Persians which were sorts of microcosm representing the four parts of the world with a water fountain at its center representing the center of the world (ibid, p. 25).

Edward Soja (1996) developed Foucault’s conception of heterotopia using Henri Lefebvre’s pioneering work on the production of social spaces. He introduced his theory of ‘Thirdspace’ which refers to space in which both real and imagined come together. Soja’s thirdspace is a contribution to understanding the conception of space beyond the dualism of physical/imagined space and calls our attention to other spaces. The living room is a third space that provides a complex set of different spatial and social experiences for Lilia. The imaginary and the physical spaces merge into each other as if there has never been a fixed borderline between them.

Eventually, Mr. Pirzada leaves the U.S. and returns to his country. Lilia’s family gets no news of him for months until they receive a card from him along with a short letter. He writes that he is reunited with his wife and daughters. He also adds that his family survived because they stayed at a place belonging to his wife’s grandparents in the mountains. Lilia’s mother prepares a special dinner to celebrate the good news. The family sit down at the coffee table in the living room and toast their water glasses. Studying the map above her father’s desk, Lilia imagines Mr. Pirzada on “that small patch of yellow” (p. 41), which represents Pakistan on the map. Situated under a constant flow of interactions between different social and cultural experiences which leave their traces on Lilia’s spatial life, the living room is still a heterotopic space even after Mr. Pirzada returns to his country.

[i] I call the attention of the reader to this note from the editor of the text: “This text, entitled "Des Espaces Autres," and published by the French journal Architecture-Mouvement-Continuite in October, 1984, was the basis of a lecture given Michel Foucault in March 1967. Although not reviewed for publication by the author thus not part of the official corpus of his work, the manuscript was released into the domain for an exhibition in Berlin shortly before Michel Foucault's death. Attentive readers will note that the text retains the quality of lecture notes. Diacritics wishes to Jay Miskowiec for securing permission to translate the text and for furnishing his translation to us. [Ed.]”

[ii] Joanne Tompkins examines the concept of heterotopia in theater in her book Theater’s Heterotopias: Performance and the Cultural Politics of Space (2014)


Foucault, Michel, & Miskowiec, Jay. (1986). Of Other Spaces. Diacritics, 16(1), 22-27. DOI:10.2307/464648

Foucault, Michel. (1980). Power/Knowledge, Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977: Michel Foucault. Colin Gordon (Ed.). (Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham & Kate Soper Trans.). New York: Pantheon Books.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. (2011). Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln; London: University of Nebraska.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. (1999). Interpreter of Maladies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Lefebvre, Henri. (1991). The Production of Space. (Donald Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. (Original work published 1974)

Soja, Edward. (1996). Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.


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