The Management of Grief

by Bharati Mukherjee

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What is one symbol in Bharati Mukherjee's story "The Management of Grief"? Elaborate and explain it clearly and completely.

There is only one symbol that can be directly related to a single element within “The Management of Grief”. The author uses several symbols that are either directly or indirectly related to the theme of the story.

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The Management of Grief” is a short story written by American author Bharati Mukherjee. Using the first-person narrative, it tells the story of Shaila Bhave, a widow who has recently lost her two sons, Vinod and Mithun, and her husband, Vikram, in a plane crash. It is based on a real-life event: a Sikh terrorist attack on an Air India plane in 1985. Everybody on the plane was killed.

In addition to the symbols explained below, the use of voyages within “The Management of Grief” is another significant and interesting symbol to consider. In the first instance, voyages are used literally. There are many actual, physical voyages within the story as characters travel from country to country and oftentimes back again.

In the second instance, voyages are also used metaphorically. Not only are the characters on a physical journey, but they are also on an emotional one as they try to come to terms with their individual losses following the crash. The narrator, Shaila, is on an emotional journey as a recent widow and also as an immigrant who is trying to overcome feelings of loneliness as she attempts to start a new life in a strange country.

I do not know where this voyage I have begun will end.

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There is, when examining symbolism in Bharati Mukherjee’s short story "The Management of Grief," a very obvious example that one could choose to emphasize. That obvious example involves the role of roses and rose petals. Flowers are important in Hindu religious practices and in Indian culture. They symbolize purity and spirituality. When the protagonist and narrator of Mukherjee’s story, Shaila, travels to Ireland, where she encounters others of Indian heritage also mourning the loss of their loved ones in the horrific terrorist bombing of the aircraft on which these relatives were traveling, one of the relatives, Dr. Ranganathan, removes squashed roses from his jacket, explaining that his wife, who died in the disaster, loved pink roses, which she considered a symbol of her husband’s love. One could, then, use the role of flowers in "The Management of Grief" as an example of symbolism.  A more intriguing example of symbolism, however, is the package that Shaila abandons on a park bench in the story’s final passage:

“One rare, beautiful, sunny day last week, returning from a small errand on Young Street, I was walking through the park from the subway to my apartment. I live equidistant from the Ontario Houses of Parliament and the University of Toronto. The day was not cold, but something in the bare tress caught my attention. I looked up from the gravel, into the branches and the clear blue sky beyond. I thought I heard the rustling of larger forms, and I waited a moment for voices. Nothing. “What?” I asked. Then as I stood in the path looking north to Queen’s Park and west to the university, I heard the voices of my family one last time. Your time has come, they said. Go, be brave. I do not know where this voyage I have begun will end. I do not know which direction I will take. I dropped the package on a park bench and started walking.”

The reader does not know what is in this package. One can, however, surmise that the package contains items that belonged to her husband and sons, all of whom were killed in the airplane disaster. Earlier, returning to the part of the story when Shaila visits Ireland and stands on the coast with other surviving relatives, she mentions certain items that she has brought from Canada to deposit in the ocean as a form of memorial.  These items, a model of a B-52 military airplane that belonged to one son, the pocket calculator that belonged to her other son, a poem Shaila had just written for her departed husband, are her contributions to the collective act of grieving in which these Indians have gathered to participate. Shaila also references in this scene a “suitcase in the hotel [that] is packed heavy with dry clothes for my boys.” These references to physical items associated with her family provide an important clue to the contents of the mysterious package she abandons on the park bench.  When Shaila hears the voices of her departed family one last time, telling her to “go, be brave,” she can finally abandon those physical symbols of her husband and sons’ lives. The package symbolizes her family’s belongings—items that she no longer needs to hold onto in remembrance of her family, or in the unrealistic hope that they will someday return in the form in which she knew them. She leaves the package on the park bench because the items in that package represent the past, and she can finally look to the future.

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