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The Immigrant and the Child at Home: Chiasmus as a Narrative Technique in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Mrs. Sen’s”

Gregory Palmerino
p. 293-302


La nouvelle “Mrs. Sen’s’” qui figure dans le recueil Interpreter of Maladies, lauréat du prix Pulitzer 1999, décrit la relation chiasmique entre un garçon américain de onze ans, Eliot, et une immigrante bengali, Mrs. Sen, relation au travers de laquelle s’entrecroisent les parcours de l’enfance et de la vie adulte, de l’immigré et du natif. Les deux personnages s’efforcent de se frayer un chemin à travers les vicissitudes de la culture américaine afin de trouver un foyer. Mrs. Sen est partagée entre Calcutta et l’Amérique ; Eliot, entre l’Amérique et un Calcutta découvert par procuration. Mrs. Sen se comporte comme une enfant, ce qu’illustre sa dépendance à l’égard des autres, mais elle est adulte dans son identité culturelle ; Eliot possède l’indépendance d’un adulte mais il lui reste encore à grandir. En raison de la structure narrative de la nouvelle, ces dichotomies illustrent moins une division entre différentes identités qu’un mélange d’expériences instables entre l’immigrant en phase d’assimilation et l’enfant américain en développement.

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Auteurs étudiés :

Jhumpa Lahiri
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1In discussing Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel, The Namesake, Natalie Friedman points out that “children . . . are not only observers and translators of two worlds that encounter each other on American soil but also are conduits of change, importing American culture into their Indian homes and creating a kind of métissage that does not threaten their ethnic or cultural identity, but that enriches their experience” (116). In an ever-increasing mobile, disruptive and globalizing world, Lahiri’s characters show us that immigrants and children are similarly susceptible to the forces of rapid cultural change—from within a culture and from outside it—but nonetheless adaptable to a dominant culture in the face of those changes.

2In the short story, “Mrs. Sen’s,” from Lahiri’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning Interpreter of Maladies, a native-born American child and an adult immigrant from India are both predisposed to this kind of métissage, or mixing of identities, which cross-cultural psychologists call acculturation. John W. Berry defines acculturation as “the dual process of cultural and psychological change that takes place as a result of contact between two or more cultural groups and their individual members. . . . At the individual level, it involves changes in a person’s behavioral repertoire” (698-99). The relationship between an eleven-year-old American boy named Eliot and a Bengali immigrant named Mrs. Sen reveals a chiastic narrative structure of childhood and adulthood, immigrant and native, in which Lahiri’s characters cross into and out of these roles to navigate the vicissitudes of American culture as they both strive toward achieving successful acculturation.

3The short story, “Mrs. Sen’s,” tells the tale of a Bengali woman who is married to an Indian man employed as a university professor in New England. She is a recently arrived immigrant struggling to find her place in her adopted homeland, where she continues to practice traditional Bengali customs, especially in the way she cooks but also in the way she dresses and generally behaves. Her husband, on the other hand, thinks it would be good for his wife to learn to drive (which Mrs. Sen is reluctant to do) so that she can visit the fish market to obtain fresh cooking ingredients by herself. Meanwhile, Mrs. Sen finds employment as a babysitter. The immigrant and Eliot, the child she is in charge of, quickly form a mutual bond of respect. Together, the two characters learn about each other’s cultures and their places within the larger American society. With the encouragement of Eliot, however, Mrs. Sen attempts to drive to the fish monger herself and ends up crashing the car with Eliot sitting by her side. After that episode, Eliot’s mother removes her son from Mrs. Sen’s care and the story concludes.

4Many of Lahiri’s stories highlight the “unfixed sensibility” (Friedman 113) that immigrants and native-born characters struggle to manage in a rapidly changing world. Such a struggle may be the developing hallmark of Lahiri’s growing body of work. According to Friedman,

  • 1 In a 2013 interview with The New York Times, Lahiri denounces the term “immigrant fiction,” arguing (...)

Lahiri is part of a vanguard of young, contemporary ethnic American writers whose novels, short fiction, and memoirs suggest that assimilation—cleaving to the hope of an “American Dream”—is no longer at the heart of the immigrant story. Instead of shedding the trappings of the home culture and throwing himself headlong into the work of Americanizing, the protagonist of the contemporary immigrant [narrative]—whether an immigrant or a child born to immigrants—is more concerned with his or her dual identity as it manifests itself in America and in the shrinking global community. (112)1

5This shrinking global community, moreover, is affecting native-born children and immigrants alike, as the lines between foreign-born and native-born, “mother land” and “other land” (Sakthi and Venkatraman 107), are intersecting at an accelerated pace. As Berry points out, “acculturation takes place in the settled or dominant group as well as in the non-dominant group” (701). Like immigrants, native-born children are vulnerable to rapid cultural change, whether it is in their contemporaneous American experiences or in their unstable, modern lives generally. The transmigrations of thought and behavior that cultural change demands and inflicts on individuals is happening in children and immigrants in a way that is both transgenerational and transnational (Sakthi and Venkatraman 108).

6One of the best ways to observe acculturation and the narrative structure of chiasmus in Lahiri’s work is by examining Mrs. Sen, the adult immigrant, and Eliot, the native-born child, with their understanding of the concept of Home. As the possessive form of Lahiri’s title suggests, the unspoken word is “home.” Home (X) is the central thought unit between the adult immigrant (A) and the native-born child (B), in which the parallel components (A/A and B/B) simultaneously build toward and away from the central component (X) to form a chiastic narrative structure that repeats itself throughout “Mrs. Sen’s” specifically, but also Interpreter of Maladies in general. In the case of “Mrs. Sen’s”:

(A) Adult immigrant teaches new cooking skills
  (B) Native-born child learns Indian culinary ways
    (X) Home (Mrs. Sen’s physical home and Indian homeland)
    (X) Home (Eliot’s physical home and American homeland)
  (B) Native-born child teaches American independence
(A) Adult immigrant learns driving skills/taking risks

7Home in this example is at once the microcosm of Mrs. Sen’s domicile and the macrocosm of Eliot’s native culture. As Brad McCoy points out, “parallelism . . . can take place at a micro level . . . or a macro level” (19). Chiasmus (ABBA) is a common pattern of assimilation within an immigrant family, in which the native-born children are the translators and, in many instances, the teachers of their immigrant parents, helping them to navigate their way into and through a New World.

  • 2 Charles Leadbeater provides a succinct description of the current rise of populist and nativist mov (...)

8Lahiri appropriates this pattern in cross-cultural ways, thereby creating characters who mix their experiences and their identities between the old and the new. In this way, the transmigration of thought and behavior is seen on both native-born and immigrant characters.2 Her chiastic narrative structure creates a circular and secular pattern of storytelling that is also a sacred pattern of life. The author skillfully uses this structure to write some of the most solemn and reverent short stories in contemporary English language. The title character of “Mrs. Sen’s” is a new wife but not a young woman—“about thirty” (Lahiri, Interpreter 112)—born and raised in Calcutta, India and brought to America by her Indian husband who teaches mathematics at a local university. Home for Mrs. Sen continues to reside in India: “‘Everything is there’” (113), she says to Eliot’s mother during her interview for the job of babysitter; it is a worldview that begins and ends with the homeland as locus of control and it reverberates throughout Lahiri’s stories and her characters’ (dis)orientation with home.

  • 3 Paromita Deb’s comprehensive essay on “food tropology” in Lahiri’s work provides us with another ex (...)

9Mrs. Sen recognizes her dependence on others and her struggle to adapt when she says, “‘I am learning . . . But I am a slow student” (113). Considering that her husband is a college professor, it is notable that Mrs. Sen perceives herself as a student: she occupies a traditionally subordinate and, in many ways, an immature role, not only as wife and woman but as thinker and agent in a culture that encourages the opposite approach. Mrs. Sen’s behavior, however, shows her resisting change rather than struggling to embrace it. She is adamant about practicing the traditions and habits of her homeland by the way she cooks and dresses, by the way she acts toward her husband, by the way she longs for her life in Calcutta, and by the way she refuses to adopt American customs. Mrs. Sen continues to wear the traditional saris of her homeland; she cooks with traditional ingredients, using traditional methods with a special knife handed down to her by her mother. As Paromita Deb argues, Mrs. Sen challenges “the Western concept of independence and mobility as she partly demonstrates . . . a different autonomy and agency through a performance of daily chores, like cooking and serving food, within one’s home.”3 As such, the immigrant “deconstructs the common notion of ‘home’ as a constrictive, delimiting space [and] perceives it as a larger space where one can negotiate various nuances of one’s identity” (128). Mrs. Sen’s “performance” is a lesson not lost on Eliot. He quickly learns to take his shoes off when entering the Sen’s home and he enjoys watching Mrs. Sen chopping vegetables and preparing meals, helping Mrs. Sen, at times, when asked. Mrs. Sen may be stumbling through the process of acculturation, but there are signs of hope for her. According to Madhuparna Mitra, “Perhaps we are meant to see [Mrs. Sen] as a snapshot of a woman in the early years of her life as a struggling immigrant” (195). Mrs. Sen may be struggling to acculturate outside her home, but she is the indisputable master homemaker within it.

10Growing pains are a constant part of life for the immigrant as well as for the developing child—in order to succeed into acculturation or adulthood they must continue to change and grow. Mrs. Sen’s dislocation and persistent longing for her Indian homeland exacerbates her predicament as a foreigner in a foreign land, creating a childlike dependence on her more assimilated husband, but also on every other character in the story from the fishmonger to the policeman, as well as her eleven-year-old charge. Mrs. Sen’s childlike dependence is obvious in her naïve questions and immature speech patterns. In the same way a child begins to recognize the impending precipice of an autonomous consciousness, Mrs. Sen imagines a scenario that would test with a “scream” the very distance she must travel away from her homeland into otherness: “‘Eliot, if I began to scream right now at the top of my lungs, would someone come?’” (Lahiri, Interpreter 116). In recognizing the isolation that American independence forces on individuals, Mrs. Sen imagines the kind of panic a child might feel when separated from those who would protect her in times of crisis. Subsequently, when Mrs. Sen grows frustrated at her inability to navigate the speed of change through the very symbol of modern American culture—the automobile—she resorts to expressing herself with a kind of baby-talk: “‘Everyone, this people, too much in their world’” (121). The American automobile epitomizes at once the isolation and the freedom of American independence, as well as the risk of accepting a practice that fosters and celebrates such an impersonal and transient approach toward living. Mrs. Sen is changing, but slowly. Her inability to learn how to drive is a metaphor for her struggle toward (or resistance to) acculturation.

11Eliot’s displacement from his home, on the other hand, has the opposite effect on him: the child acquires a great deal of maturity and independence because his culture forces him away. Eliot is the child of divorced parents, living alone with a mother who works fifty miles from home and must employ a series of “baby-sitters” to supervise her son. Mrs. Sen is only the most recent and—as it turns out—final caretaker. Eliot’s daily partings from his mother and dislocation from his estranged father appear unquestioned by him in a way that Mrs. Sen can only begin to comprehend: “‘You are wiser than [I was at your age], Eliot. You already taste the way things must be’” (123). At eleven years of age, Eliot has been raised in a culture that cultivates a “taste” for dislocation and independence from the earliest stages of life. As Eliot’s mother is sure to point out, her son “‘can feed and entertain himself.’” She already views Eliot as self-sufficient and self-reliant in some of the most basic and superficial ways. She puts no emphasis on her son’s education or on his character development. The baby-sitters are only secured “‘in case of an emergency’” (111). This reason, however, seems to emerge more from his mother’s guilty feelings toward her son than from any honest concern for her son’s safety, when only a few short months later (after the car accident), she tells him that he’s “‘a big boy now’” (135) and can stay home alone. It is something the reader senses throughout the story and Eliot’s mother needs only a final excuse to exercise her real desire for Eliot to care for himself. The short list of character traits from previous babysitters—a distracted and disinterested university student, a closet alcoholic and an apprehensive, if not dangerous, driving student, Mrs. Sen—lays bare the ideological and cultural philosophy of the story’s dominant culture: being on one’s own (independent) in American society is safer than being with others.

12Eliot, however, plays his adult role so well that he is even capable of appropriating the job of driving instructor previously held by Mr. Sen, directing Mrs. Sen with such self-assuredness that it is easy to imagine Eliot driving the car himself: “‘You need to wait until no one’s coming’” and “‘You have to turn and speed up fast’” (120). To Eliot, driving “seemed so simple when he sat beside his mother, gliding in the evenings back to the beach house” (120-21). The boy’s ease with American mobility and, consequently, independence is second nature. Although Eliot’s confidence may be the inspiration for Mrs. Sen’s failed attempt at driving to the fishmonger, the narrative structure highlights “the ways in which the child in Lahiri’s stories functions as a translator among cultures” (Friedman 121). Eliot, the child, is the one encouraging the adult to change and grow, almost demanding it from her. Lahiri turns the relationships between children and immigrants inside out. Mrs. Sen, the immigrant adult, appears to need more practice and more guidance before she reaches the same level of maturity/acculturation as Eliot, the native-born child.

13The same chiastic structure can be seen just as clearly in other stories in Lahiri’s debut collection. In “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” the adult immigrant, Mr. Pirzada, is a university professor who is eager to learn new things when he lets Lilia, the ten-year-old narrator and native-born American-Indian girl, teach him how to carve a pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern. Lilia teaches him in a tone and manner close to those in which Eliot teaches Mrs. Sen to drive, when she tells Mr. Pirzada, “‘First go around the top, like this’” (Lahiri, Interpreter 35), demonstrating with her index finger where to slice the pumpkin. Lilia and Mr. Pirzada’s relationship clearly imitates Eliot and Mrs. Sen’s when the native-born Lilia is the one consoling Mr. Pirzada, telling him not to worry about her safety while trick-or-treating during Halloween (38). The roles of student and teacher continue to intersect when Lilia is moved to read a book about Mr. Pirzada’s homeland, for which she is scolded by her middle-school teacher because it has taken time away from her report about the American Revolution. Still, each night as Lilia drifts off to sleep, she hears Mr. Pirzada and her parents “anticipating the birth of a nation on the other side of the world” (34). Lilia, a second-generation Indian girl born in the United States, realizes that for her family’s dinner guest “life . . . was being lived in Dacca first” (30) and in the United States second, just as Mrs. Sen longs for news from her homeland. The learning and teaching that takes place in these crosswise relationships between native-born children and immigrant adults is repeated throughout Lahiri’s narratives.

14The short story entitled “Sexy” also presents readers with immigrant adults and native-born children teaching to and learning from one another about their respective home lives. The native-born, Miranda, presently twenty-two years old, is having an affair with an Indian man, who is married. Much of the story revolves around Miranda learning about the ethnic Indian woman with whom she works and the ethnic Indian man with whom she has sex. At one point, Miranda has a flashback to her nine-year-old self, when she encountered a painting of the Indian goddess Kali at the bottom of a stairway in her neighbor’s home: the naked goddess has a red face, enormous white eyes, two circles for breasts; she brandishes a dagger in one hand and crushes a struggling man on the ground; she wears a necklace of bleeding heads and is sticking out her tongue (95-96). Kali is the goddess of Death. Beside “a heavy aroma of incense and onions in the house” (95)—more ethnic food/cooking imagery—it is the image of Kali that Miranda remembers most about her Indian neighbor’s home and the one that instills fear in her childhood months afterward. In her adult life, however, it is an image that shames Miranda (96), for Kali is also the goddess of sexuality and femininity, a strong mother-figure that embodies fertility and creativity. Miranda is subsequently compelled to explore Indian culture in depth, trying to eat its food and learn its language, to make sense of her situation and acquire, presumably, agency in her relationships. Although Miranda, the child, learns the name of this goddess from her neighbor, Mrs. Dixits, the immigrant adult, she does not learn its true significance until her present experience in an affair forces her mind open. Miranda is caught between two worlds: she is trying to come to terms with her American life as the mistress of a married man, but also as the lover of a man who is an Indian immigrant. However, it is a seven-year-old, native-born child, Rohin, the nephew of Miranda’s Indian co-worker, who teaches Miranda the meaning of sexy: “‘loving someone you don’t know’” (107). It is a lesson that comes to Miranda as an adult, but it comes to her through childhood. Rohin, in fact, commands Miranda to eat, to draw, to wear her dress the same way Lilia commands Mr. Pirzada to carve a pumpkin and not to worry, or the way Eliot commands Mrs. Sen to drive and take risks. In “Sexy,” Miranda may be the embodiment of a grown-up Eliot or Lilia struggling with her own métissage as an adult.

15Inversely, Eliot and Mrs. Sen share a remarkable bond with each other based on a more traditional mother/son or adult/child relationship. Mrs. Sen is clearly the more dynamic of the story’s characters. Her colorful saris, master cooking skills, and attention to filial relationships all make Mrs. Sen the most admirable woman in the story. According to Friedman, Lahiri “elevates the immigrant as the person who deserves respect and admiration not only for making the voyage to America but also for struggling to maintain cultural ties to a faraway homeland” (124). Eliot is quick to recognize Mrs. Sen’s strengths the way any intelligent, impressionable child might. Eliot’s easy acceptance of Mrs. Sen as his babysitter is revealing: “Eliot didn’t mind going to Mrs. Sen’s after school. By September [the story begins at the start of the new school year] the tiny beach house where he and his mother lived year-round was already cold” (Lahiri, Interpreter 113). The physical and emotional warmth Eliot finds at Mrs. Sen’s comes quickly. The immigrant’s home is warm and lively, a sharp contrast to Eliot’s native experience. As Michael W. Cox states, Lahiri’s youngest characters provide us with “a more probing insight, perhaps, than her adult characters might allow into cultural difference and cultural accommodation” (120). Eliot is Lahiri’s window for us to admire Mrs. Sen’s struggle to acculturate but also to witness her Indian identity. In contrast, Eliot’s mother seems to live in a cultural and psychological wasteland, and appears a walking stereotype of the floundering American woman: divorced, overworked, stressed, poorly fed, sexually promiscuous, isolated from neighbors and friends, discomfited by difference. She is not unlike Lilia’s description, in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” of her mother’s American co-workers who have such “peculiar eating habits” (Lahiri, Interpreter 34). The native-born adults do not appear to share a child’s ability to traverse cultural and ethnic pathways. Eliot clearly embraces the immigrant in a way that highlights his openness and her strengths. As such, the reader crosses another line of unfixed identity, but it is in the direction of the native-born child rather than the adult characters.

16Mrs. Sen’s cultural critique of America—“Everyone in their own world”—becomes a distinctive pattern that Mrs. Sen and Eliot find themselves crossing into and out of repeatedly throughout Lahiri’s narrative: Mrs. Sen’s own world is Calcutta but also America; Eliot’s is America but also Calcutta by proxy; Mrs. Sen is childlike in her dependence on others but also an adult in her cultural identity; Eliot is adult-like in his independence but also a child in his aptitude for change and potential for growth. In classifying Interpreter of Maladies as a short-story cycle, Noelle Brada-Williams argues that “all nine stories are woven together with the frequent representations of extreme care and neglect. Repetitions of this dichotomy occur in a variety of communities including whole neighborhoods, marital and extramarital relationships, and relationships between children and adults” (456). In “Mrs. Sen’s,” this latter dichotomy is less of a divide between children and adults than a mixing of unstable experiences between the acculturating immigrant and the developing American child. Lahiri’s final short story in the book, “The Third and Final Continent,” becomes the great example of chiasmus when the roles of immigrant and native, that is, child and adult, are inverted. A 103-year-old American matriarch feels more disoriented about modern America, represented by a flag on the moon in 1969, than her younger, male Indian lodger, who finds his life’s cross-cultural journey from India to America some thirty years later “ordinary.” In “Mrs. Sen’s,” readers see a child and an immigrant growing together beyond the bounds of any fixed identity or cultural landscape to become something new. Yet, it is Lahiri’s chiastic narrative structure that gives her characters and her stories the power and reverence they contain.

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Berry, John W. “Acculturation: Living Successfully in Two Cultures.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 29.6 (2005): 697-712. Print.

Brada-Williams, Noelle. “Reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies as a Short Story Cycle.” Melus 29.3/4 (2004): 451-64. Print.

Cox, Michael W. “Interpreters of Cultural Difference: The Use of Children in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Short Fiction.” South Asian Review 24.2 (2003): 120-32. Print.

Deb, Paromita. “The Journey of Food from ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine’ to ‘Mrs. Sen’s’ in Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies.” South Asian Diaspora 6.1 (2014): 121-35. Print.

Friedman, Natalie. “From Hybrids to Tourists: Children of Immigrants in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.” Critique 50.1 (2008): 111-28. Print.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Print.

---. “By the Book.” The New York Times 8 Sept. 2013. Web. 5 Dec. 2019.

Leadbeater, Charles. “Why There’s No Place like Home – for Anyone, Any More.” Aeon. 30 Nov. 2016. Web. 19 Dec. 2019.

McCoy, Brad. “Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature.” CTS Journal 9 (Fall 2003): 18-34. Web. 19 Dec. 2019.

Mitra, Madhuparna. “Lahiri’s ‘Mrs. Sen’s.’” Explicator 64.3 (2006): 193-96. Print.

Sakthi, A. S., and R. Venkatraman. “A Study of the Immigrant Experience in the Works of Jhumpa Lahiri.” Language in India 17.9 (Sept. 2017): 106-12. Print.

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1 In a 2013 interview with The New York Times, Lahiri denounces the term “immigrant fiction,” arguing, instead, that writers have always been from other places writing about their adopted homelands or forced living situations: “From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. . . . The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme” (“By the Book”).

2 Charles Leadbeater provides a succinct description of the current rise of populist and nativist movements around the world, connecting these movements directly to concepts of “home” in the cross-cultural landscape of globalization and the tensions and risks they create around the world: “[F]rom Australia to Austria, politicians are running scared of the populist Right whipping up a fear that your home is about to be lost, or transfigured beyond recognition.” Twenty years on, Lahiri’s debut collection and its central characters are at the inception and unfolding of these upheavals.

3 Paromita Deb’s comprehensive essay on “food tropology” in Lahiri’s work provides us with another excellent example of how the central component (X) in Lahiri’s chiastic structure can be multi-faceted, with the immigrant and the child intersecting and then diverging around different but related pivotal themes such as food/cooking.

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Gregory Palmerino, « The Immigrant and the Child at Home: Chiasmus as a Narrative Technique in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Mrs. Sen’s” »Journal of the Short Story in English, 75 | 2020, 293-302.

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Gregory Palmerino, « The Immigrant and the Child at Home: Chiasmus as a Narrative Technique in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Mrs. Sen’s” »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 75 | Autumn 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2022, consulté le 26 septembre 2023. URL :

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Gregory Palmerino

Gregory Palmerino’s literary criticism and prose work have been published in Explicator, College English and Teaching English in the Two-Year College. He is an adjunct lecturer at Manchester Community College in Connecticut and Academic Advisor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

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