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The Symbolism of Objects

Jhumpa Lahiri is well-known for her emphasis on everyday objects to symbolize cultural tradition and assimilation in her stories. Food, religious artifacts, and clothing help to determine who her characters are. By focusing on mundane objects in “This Blessed House”, Lahiri is able to explore the marriage and assimilation of Twinkle and Sanjeev. Objects immediately demonstrate Sanjeev’s disapproval of assimilation, while simultaneously showcasing Twinkle’s love of new cultures: They discovered the first one in a cupboard above the stove, beside an unopened bottle of malt vinegar.

“Guess what I found. ” Twinkle walked into the living room [… ] waving the vinegar in one hand and a white porcelain effigy of Christ, roughly the same size as the vinegar bottle, in the other. [… ] “Throw it away. ” [… ] “But I can cook something with the vinegar. It’s brand-new. ” “You’ve never cooked anything with vinegar. ” [… ] “Check the expiration. And at the very least get rid of that idiotic statue. ” [… ] “No, we’re not Christians. We’re good little Hindus” (136).

Twinkle immediately demonstrates herself to be an untraditional woman. She is named after a child’s lullaby and her interest in the bottle of vinegar and the figure of Christ demonstrates her disinterest with tradition. Despite her being Hindu, she is also appreciative of other cultures. She has never cooked anything with malt vinegar before but now that she has the bottle in her hand, she wants to add it to her cooking. She is not Catholic but there is a beauty about the figure which seems to transcend past its religious background.

The figure is no longer a figure of Christ, but a symbol of the deeply religious, a characteristic which Twinkle admires throughout the story. Sanjeev cannot bring himself to look past the superficial surface of the malt vinegar and the figure of Christ. He characterizes himself only as Hindu; he cannot have Christian relics in his life because they do not represent any aspect of his being. As for the malt vinegar, he looks for any excuse he can to minimize any cultural clashes in the household and in his own personal life.

He cannot see the malt vinegar as being an exotic ingredient to enhance his meals; he sees only a bottle which has never been manipulated before in his wife’s cooking and that outward appearance leads him to think of the food and the relic as being frivolous objects which are only taking up space in the room as he struggles to bring order to the household. He is a man unaccustomed to change. He keeps his old college books because “[… ] the presence of his college books in the room reminded him of a time in his life he recalled with fondness, when he would walk each evening across the Mass.

Avenue bridge to order Mughlai chicken with spinach from his favorite Indian restaurant on the other side of the Charles, and return to his dorm to write out clean copies of his problem sets” (138). He is incapable of embracing change; the fact that he would eat the same meal every day for several years shows how comfortable he is in having a set routine. It is a fond memory because it was a static time in his life; he was able to go to the same restaurant every day, he was able to always order the same food, and his evening habits never differed.

Change threatens his sense of being and Sanjeev repeatedly mocks the effigies for destroying the routine which he has worked so hard to maintain, “‘We should call the Realtor. Tell him there’s all this nonsense left behind. Tell him to take it away'” (138). He is incapable of looking at the figures for representing something to the house’s original owners or to Twinkle. He even alludes to how threatening he finds the changes in Twinkle to be, “He was further puzzled that Twinkle, who normally displayed good taste, was so charmed.

These objects meant something to Twinkle, but they meant nothing to him. They irritated him” (138). Sanjeev is irritated by the objects merely because of the religion they represent. If they were Hindu effigies, they would not be alarming because at the very least, the figures would symbolize a part of Sanjeev’s culture. The main tension is with Sanjeev’s tendency of identifying himself with his culture: “Oh, we must, we simply must put it up. It’s too spectacular. ” [… ] “Now, look. I will tolerate, for now, your little biblical

menagerie in the living room. But I refuse to have this,” he said, flicking at one of the painted peanut-tears, “displayed in our home. ” [… ] I’m going to put it in my study,” she informed him, “That way you won’t have to look at it. ” “What about the housewarming? They’ll want to see all the rooms. I’ve invited people from the office. ” [… ] “By the way,” Twinkle hollered, “if you want to impress people, I wouldn’t play this music. It’s putting me to sleep” (140). It is interesting to note how condescending Sanjeev’s speeches to his wife are.

He says he will “tolerate, for her, [her] little biblical menagerie” almost as though he is Twinkle’s father and has the right to dictate what her collections consist of. It is that tone which flavors the majority of his conversations with her; he does not speak to her as though they are in an equal relationship. He is dismissive with Twinkle’s comments in general; he disregards the fact that she looks at her findings with great interest and uses them as a way of enriching their mental connection. It is also obvious that Sanjeev is fearful of people’s opinions of him.

It is that fear which drives him to identify with his culture. He has to maintain the persona of an Indian Hindu because that is an identity he believes people see him as. He does not want anyone to question him, which is why he is adamant that the collection be hidden away for his party. Twinkle is not blind to Sanjeev’s lack of self-worth, or to the tension he feels with the relics in the house. In a phone conversation with a friend, she states that, “The switch plates in the bedroom were decorated with scenes from the Bible. You know, Noah’s Ark and all that.

[…] Sanjeev went to the hardware store right away and replaced them, can you imagine, he replaced every single one” (141-142). Despite Twinkle’s awareness of Sanjeev’s dislike of the relics, she still finds his insistence on getting rid of the pieces to be unnerving. She speaks of the relics as though they are treasures and even refers to “each day is a treasure hunt” (141). But the treasure she speaks of is one her husband cannot appreciate and as quickly as she finds her treasures, Sanjeev is already planning on how to dismiss them from their lives.

He goes through the trouble of removing all the switch plates in the house because he cannot bear to have a symbol of Christianity in his household, threatening his own culture. Christianity is not Indian to him, Christianity forces him to question his own religion; in order to reassure himself of his identity, the pieces have to be thrown away, because he finds their very presence so threatening. It is this threat which leads to his alarm after Twinkle discovers the lawn statue of the Virgin Mary: Behind an overgrown forsythia bush was a plaster Virgin Mary as tall

as their waists, with a blue painted hood draped over her head in the manner of an Indian bride. […] “This is meant for outdoors. For the lawn. ” […] “All the neighbors will see. They’ll think we’re insane. ” […] “Why, for having a statue of the Virgin Mary on our lawn? Every other person in this neighborhood has a statue of Mary on the lawn. We’ll fit right in. ” “We’re not Christian” (146). There is a combination of cultures in the description of the Virgin. She looks like an “Indian bride” even though she is a Christian figure, and is associated more with America and Europe.

Twinkle sees the statue as a way of assimilating into the neighborhood. Every other house has the same type of statue, making the area seem homogonous with its religious beliefs. But Sanjeev cannot bear to assimilate; he can only think of what the neighbor’s will think of the Virgin Mary is placed on the front lawn. It does not matter that every other house has a statue; because he is Hindu, he does not feel that he can belong in that religious society, despite Twinkle’s insistence that the couple merely appreciate the new culture which the house has brought to them.

That culture struggle appears even at the beginning of Sanjeev and Twinkle’s relationship: Her parents, who lived in California, and his, who still lived in Calcutta, were old friends, and across continents they had arranged the occasion at which Twinkle and Sanjeev were introduced […]. At the restaurant they were seated side by side at a round table with a revolving platter of spareribs and egg rolls and chicken wings, which, they had concurred, all tasted the same.

[…] At the urging of their matchmakers, they married in India […] in incessant August rains, under a red and orange tent strung with Christmas tree lights on Mandeville Road (142-143). Twinkle was raised in America and her parents acclimated to life in the United States as well, which Sanjeev’s parents opted to remain traditional by staying in India. Yet, despite Twinkle’s family’s connections to America, they still go about the matchmaking process the traditional way.

The restaurant itself is also interesting; the purpose of the dinner is to celebrate the sixteenth birthday of a close Indian friend, and while in the restaurant, the couple feasts on American typical American dishes. Even more interesting is the fact that while they go about the entire wedding ceremony in the traditional way, there is still an emphasis on the lights that decorate the tent as being “Christmas tree lights”, a description used to both hint at the later American-Indian tensions as well as the Christian- Hindu tensions.

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