The Management of Grief

by Bharati Mukherjee

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What is the central conflict in Bharati Mukherjee's short story "The Management of Grief"?

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In literature, there are usually five basic forms of conflict: man versus man; man versus nature; man versus society; man versus self; and man versus technology.

The central conflict in The Management of Grief would be man versus society; the protagonist, Shaila Bhave, finds herself pitted against two opposing societal ideals in grief management, Hindu and secular western. The resolution of the conflict is surprising, but uplifting.

First, we will discuss Shaila's Indian culture. India boasts many different ethnic groups, each with distinct customs regarding death and mourning. Among these ethnic groups, further religious and caste considerations bear critical influence in the area of grief management. Shaila, for example, is Hindu, and conceivably descends from Brahmin ancestry. We are told that Shaila's grandmother was a 'spoiled daughter of a rich zamindar...' Zamindars or Bhumihar Brahmins were wealthy, land-owning aristocrats. In her grandmother's time, widowed Brahmin women were considered unlucky. They were expected to shave their heads as an act of shame after their husband's demise. Essentially, it was an act of penance for bringing such ill luck to her household.

In the story, Shaila's grandmother was purported to have 'shaved her head with rusty razor blades when she was widowed at sixteen.' Today, many widows (even those from the higher castes), are expected to restrict their diets to plain foods, eschewing sexually stimulating foods such as garlic, onions, pickles, and fish. Many widows, especially those from the Brahmin castes, are expected to devote the rest of their lives to worship and prayer, most notably at ashrams. Shaila confesses that no one thinks 'of arranging a husband for an unlucky widow.'

Shaila herself visits one such ashram 'in a tiny Himalayan village' and makes 'offerings of flowers and sweetmeats to the god of a tribe of animists.' While she worships, her husband descends to her as a supernatural incarnation of himself. He speaks to her as her former teacher: "You must finish alone what we started together." When a 'sweaty hand gropes' for her blouse, she does not scream. Interestingly, Hindu mythology is filled with stories of otherworldly sexual activity between deceased husbands and their widowed wives.

In life, a Hindu woman is defined as an extension of her husband and sons. This outward manifestation of value is conferred upon a woman based on an ancient, patriarchal construct that has been revered for centuries. In life as in death, a woman graciously abides by her husband's edicts; should he die, her svadharma (personal duty) is defined by her husband in any incarnation he may choose ('How to tell Judith Templeton that my family surrounds me, and that like creatures in epics, they've changed shapes?'). Essentially, the husband-wife relationship is that of a master-pupil (guru-shishya) relationship.

In the story, we are told that 'substantial, educated, successful men of forty' are expected to marry and to 'look after a wife,' while the widows are expected to remain chaste. While a man derives relevance from his status as a provider, a woman's value is defined by her relation to her husband. Differing expectations aren't unusual for Hindu women such as Shaila.

Now, from the western, secular standpoint, Judith Templeton's grief philosophy represents the quintessentially clinical outlook favored by many experts. To Judith, 'there are stages to pass through: rejection, depression, acceptance, reconstruction.' Remarriage is part of reconstruction, but even Judith is a little surprised at 'how quickly some of the men have taken on new families.' Because she has such little experience and knowledge of traditional Indian ways of grieving, Judith enlists Shaila's help in reaching out to other families. She thinks that Shaila's outward calm demonstrates her strength; she doesn't realize that, even within her own community, Shaila's unusually restrained outward demeanor differentiates her from her peers. Shaila is descended from a Zamindar and manifests only what she is expected to: dignified calmness in the midst of tragedy. However much her true self desires cathartic, emotional release, she refuses to give way to hysterics.

So, how is the 'protagonist versus society' conflict resolved? Does Shaila resort to the life of penance expected of a Brahmin widow, or does she choose the western, clinical approach? At the end of the story, we are told that Shaila hears the voices of her husband and sons one last time; their voices tell her to 'go, be brave' and that her time has come. So, essentially, Shaila chooses to adhere to her Hindu beliefs, but with a caveat. Instead of relying on incarnations of her husband and sons to guide her future, she decides to choose her own guru-shishya relationship and to pursue her svadharma (personal duty) on her terms. Whatever the future holds, she will decide how she receives wisdom and how she fulfills her purpose on earth.

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The central conflict in Bharati Mukherjee’s short story "The Management of Grief" is between the story’s protagonist and narrator, Shaila Bhave, the Indo-Canadian woman whose husband and children were killed by a terrorist bombing of the aircraft on which they were flying, and the culture in which she was raised and from which she and many other Indians moved for myriad reasons. Throughout Mukherjee’s story, narrated by Shaila, that conflict is an enormous sense of personal alienation and emotional struggle for a woman desperately struggling to grieve within the stultifying constraints of her Hindu culture. Discussing the tragedy and her regrets over her repressed emotions with her neighbor and friend Kusum, who lost her husband and daughter on the same flight, the two women attempt to comfort each other, but their shared culture is as much an obstacle to their grieving process as their shared tragedy:

“Why does God give us so much if all along He intends to take it away?” Kusum asks me.

I nod. We sit on the carpeted stairs, holding hands like children. “I never once told him that I loved him,” I say. I was too much the well-brought-up woman. I was so well brought up I never felt comfortable calling my husband by his first name.

“It’s all right,” Kusum says. “He knew. My husband knew. They felt it. Modern young girls have to say it because what they feel is fake.”

This exchange is a reflection of the emotionally-repressive nature of their Indian culture. Women are expected to serve a specific function in the family and in society at large, often subjected to arranged marriages. Speaking with a representative of the provincial government, Shaila responds to the woman’s observation that she has remained inordinately calm, noting that “All the people said, Mrs. Bhave is the strongest person of all. Perhaps if the others could see you, talk with you, it would help them”:

“'By the standards of the people you call hysterical, I am behaving very oddly and very badly, Miss Templeton.' I want to say to her, I wish I could scream, starve, walk into Lake Ontario, jump from a bridge. 'They would not see me as a model. I do not see myself as a model.' I am a freak. No one who has ever known me would think of me reacting this way. This terrible calm will not go away."

Again, Shaila’s emotional reaction, especially in public, to the horrible tragedy she has just confronted is, by necessity, subdued. The culture she represents, and in which she has lived all of her life, even in Canada, has molded her persona. She is being approached by blonde-haired Judith Templeton, the color of her hair noted to emphasize the vast cultural gulf separating these two women, one Western, one Eastern (or, South Asian), as a representative of the Indo-Canadian community. This community is insular, as many immigrant communities tend to be, at least for the first one or two generations, and holds dear the cultural and religious attributes of their native land, all the while doing what their culture permits by way of assimilation.

The main conflict in The Management of Grief is that between Shaila and the Indian culture she represents. In perhaps one of the story’s most important passages, she describes the ancient customs of the land of their heritage as they relate to the relationship of men to women:

“Already the widowers among us are being shown new bride candidates. They cannot resist the call of custom, the authority of their parents and older brothers. They must marry; it is the duty of a man to look after a wife. The new wives will be young widows with children, destitute but of good family. They will make loving wives, but the men will shun them. I’ve had calls from the men over crackling Indian telephone lines. ‘Save me,’ they say, these substantial, educated successful men of forty. ‘My parents are arranging a marriage for me.’ In a month they will have buried one family and returned to Canada with a new bride and partial family.”

For a story in which the main protagonist and narrator has experienced a horrific loss at the hands of terrorists, that the main conflict should involve a clash of cultures and the repressive effects of one culture on the grieving process of Indian women is a powerful indictment of that culture. It is Shaila’s struggle to grieve within the confines of her Indian upbringing, however, that constitutes the story’s main theme.

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