The Management of Grief

by Bharati Mukherjee

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Who is the protagonist in the short story of "The Management of Grief"?

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The protagonist in, and narrator of, Bhatari Mukherjee's short story "The Management of Grief" is Shaila Bhave, the widow of a Indian-Canadian man who was among the hundreds murdered--a death toll that also included Shaila's sons--when Sikh terrorists planted a bomb on the plane carrying him back to India from Canada. Based on the real-life bombing of Air India Flight 182 on June 23, 1985, Mukherjee's story is a reflection on the nature of orthodox Hindu culture and on the struggles among Indians to reconcile their own culture with an increasingly multicultural world. An early indication of Shaila's emotional state when Mukherjee's story begins is her comment regarding the loss of her husband and her "failure" to assure him of her love:

“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.

Shaila, surrounded by caring but sometimes inadvertently pretentious members of her community--a community bound by the size of the Indian expatriate community residing in Canada--struggles with the demands of her culture and the need to mourn while also being tasked to help bridge the cultural and language gap between the Indo-Canadian community and the Canadian authorities investigating the bombing while also attempting to connect with relatives of the dead. Among Shaila's mental burdens is the expectation that, despite her horrific personal losses, she will be available to help communicate with and even console the other relatives of the dead. Being presented with a Sikh couple, since the group responsible for the terrorist act were Sikh in faith (Sikhs are a distinct religious minority in India, practicing their own religion and, among very few, agitating for independence from India), Shaila is forced to walk that cultural and social tight-rope, building the metaphorical bridge through the notion of shared grief:

"We converse a bit in Hindi. They do not ask about the crash and I wonder if I should bring it up. If they think I am here merely as a translator, then they may feel insulted. There are thousands of Punjabi speakers, Sikhs, in Toronto to do a better job. And so I say to the old lady, 'I too have lost my sons and my husband, in the crash.' Her eyes immediately fill with tears. The man mutters a few words which sound like a blessing. 'God provides and God takes away,' he says. I want to say, but only men destroy and give back nothing. 'My boys and my husband are not coming back.' I say. 'We have to understand that'.”

Mukherjee's protagonist serves as a focal point for the myriad conflicts, emotional as well as physical, that separate peoples of a common heritage. Her grief at the loss of her husband, Vikram, and sons is enormous, but circumstances dictate that she serve a role for which she may not be well-suited. As with all such crises, time passes and participants move away. Life goes on. It is only some time later, when walking alone through a park near her apartment in Toronto, that Shaila finally allows herself to confront her loss and move on.

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