Food & Longing For One’s Home In Jhumpa Lahiri’s Mrs. Sen’s!

In Jhumpa Lahiri's short story ‘Mrs. Sen’s' the immigrant character struggles to cook fish in Indian style. In a foreign land, it gives her a sense of home.

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story ‘Mrs. Sen’s’ the immigrant character struggles to cook fish in Indian style. In a foreign land, it gives her a sense of home…

Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, Mrs. Sen’s (1999), navigates the experiences of an immigrant woman who tries to satiate her longing for home by cooking various Indian dishes. The narrative is tied with several instances of cooking and consumption that position food as an idiom for nostalgic desire.

I feel that the act of cooking Indian food, allows the characters a medium, to negotiate the pangs of displacement. Here, I look at the entangled web of affiliations created between the metaphor of food, nostalgia and diasporic identity. I view it through the prism of ‘Culinary Citizenship’ as proposed by Anita Mannur in her book, Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture (2010).

Jhumpa Lahiri’s character hacks cauliflower like she did in India

In her short story “Mrs. Sen’s”, Jhumpa Lahiri portrays an immigrant woman cooking and consuming Indian dishes in a foreign land. The title character prepares meals in the same manner she used to do in her home land.

She hacks cauliflower and cabbage in one go with the help of a blade brought from India. She easily peels off potatoes and onions in a second.

Later on, she is shown buying fish from a super-market. She is elated to find fish and recalls her time in India when she had fish two times a day. She even narrates the stories of her native culinary practices to Eliot. When Eliot’s mother comes to pick him up, Mrs. Sen serves her tuna croquette and expresses her dislike for foreign dishes.

Through fish, halva & rose syrup, Jhumpa Lahiri creates a gastronomic map of India

In ‘Mrs. Sen’s’, Jhumpa Lahiri incorporates food-related imagery such as fish, halvah, rose syrup and blade (Indian food chopper). Consequently, she recreates a gastronomic map of India.

Diasporic authors often employ food imagery to represent a particular culture and its traditions. They metaphorically equate national identity with various traditional food products. Claude Fishchler writes, “You are what you eat, bespeaks not only the biochemical relationship between people and their food but also the extent to which food practices determine systems of beliefs and representations”.

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In her work, Culinary Nostalgia (2010), Josephine Smart advocates that immigrants often combat feelings of homesickness by creating, eating and participating in the creation of food familiar to their native lands. She remarks, “Immigrants are connected to the past, live in the present, and imagine a future through culinary nostalgia.”

Expressing one’s culture through food

Native food is the only object which symbolises Indian-ness for Mrs. Sen. She puts an effort into preparing traditional Indian dishes. This helps her to reduce the pangs of dislocation to some degree. According to Smart, she creates a “recollection of another time and place through the use of food”. The blade, which is not available in foreign country, keeps her close to the native land.

Anita Mannur in Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture (2010), writes that food is a central part of the cultural imagination of the diasporic populations. 

Native culinary practices offer them with a scope to alleviate bouts of nostalgia. Moreover, it highlights the difficulties of settling in a foreign land. For this reason, Mannur introduces the concept of ‘Culinary Citizenship’ in her re-reading of the identity conflicts experienced by diasporic people. 

She focuses on the metaphor of food in texts to understand questions of nostalgia and ethnic identity. 

From Mannur’s argument, we can understand that culinary practices suggest more than just symbolic meanings. They acquire an affective place in diasporic fiction. Immigrants who maintain emotional ties with their homelands see food as an outlet of their national identity.

In a foreign land, Mrs Sen prefers using Indian vessels for cooking

In ‘Mrs. Sen’s’, the title character prefers to rely on native vessels for food preparation. She uses a blade brought from India to cut vegetables into slender strips and squares for dinner. 

The blade “that curved like the prow of a Viking ship”, allows her to feel comfort of her native place. She narrates to Eliot, how the sharp blade could neatly slice fifty kilos of vegetables like cucumber, eggplant and onion, during a wedding in the family.

These stories of food thus reflect her longing for native culture and family members. The dishes she prepares could be seen as an expression of the essence of her Indian identity. 

She had the company of females gossiping during any feast in the Indian household whereas abroad, she could hardly find any friend to share her thoughts. Although she tries to communicate with Eliot’s mother by offering her foods like a “glass of bright pink yogurt with rose syrup, breaded mincemeat with raisins and, a bowl of semolina halvah”, the latter would try to refuse the food.

Eliot’s mother feels uncomfortable with the foreignness of Mrs. Sen. Therefore, the Indian foods offered by Mrs. Sen also appear alien to her.

Cooking fish creates a sense of home for her…

Among other things, Mrs. Sen would deeply desire ‘a whole fish, not shell-fish or fillets.’ For this reason, she calls in the supermarket and later on, goes to buy fish, despite her inability to drive.

“The second thing that makes Mrs. Sen happy is a whole fish from the seaside” (Lahiri). Fish is an essence of Bengali culture. The act of cooking fish enables her to identify with native culture in a foreign land. 

“Food becomes an emotional tool for her as an immigrant subject, psychically transporting Sen to her childhood home,” remarks Mannur. Although it is difficult to get fish in market every day, she constantly struggles to buy and cook fish in Indian style.

“When she wants fish, she avoids calling Mr Sen and takes the bus instead” (Lahiri). Cooking fish, therefore, creates a sense of home for her in a place where she did not feel at home.

Throughout the narrative, traditional Indian foods play a central role in Mrs. Sen’s life. It reflects her effort to inhabit an authentic subject position in a foreign land.

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About the Author

Piya Hore

Recent postgraduate in English literature from Hyderabad Central University. Interested in the interdisciplinary fields pertaining to food studies, Women's Writings and Children's literature, particularly from Indian and Asian perspectives. read more...

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