The Management of Grief

by Bharati Mukherjee

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Shaila Bhave

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 268

Shaila Bhave is the thirty-six-year-old protagonist and first-person narrator of the story. She is repressed through most of the story and outwardly shows only subtle emotions. Much of her character is revealed by what she wants to say, but does not. Yet under all the repression of emotion, she wants to talk. She first begins to open up to Dr. Ranganathan, partly because he seems to understand her and encourages her hope. Shaila regrets not telling her husband that she loved him, and when she writes an expressive poem to him and throws it in the sea, she begins to gain an authentic voice for herself.

She also becomes more assertive as the story progresses. She screams at the customs officer in India, noting that she is no longer acting like the proper Indian woman. When she realizes that talking with Judith is pointless since Judith cannot hear her voice, Shaila abandons her. Shaila's numb, quiet, anxious calm in the beginning of the story grows into a more self-assured, accepting calm by the end.

Shaila flutters, as she says, ‘‘between worlds,’’ between the progressive, rational world of her parents and of Judith, and the more spiritual and traditional world embodied in her grandmother and India. Like many of the other characters, she is trying to find between the two a balance that will allow her a fulfilling life. In the end, she and Dr. Ranganathan seem to be on a similar path, one that embraces the West and the freedom of more progressive ideas while also acknowledging the strength to be drawn from their Indian culture and people.

Other Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 881

Mithun Bhave
Shaila's younger son of ten years, he is also a good swimmer. Shaila throws into the sea a half-painted model airplane of his after he dies in the crash.

Vikram Bhave
Vikram is Shaila's husband. At work, to help his colleagues, he anglicized his name to "Vik," a detail which shows his efforts to remake himself in the new world. He dies in the crash with his two sons. When Shaila is in India, he appears to her in a vision and encourages her to continue the life they started together.

Vinod Bhave
Shaila's son, fourteen years old, dies in the plane crash. He had won swimming medals, and she and Dr. Ranganathan entertain the hope that he swam to safety with his brother and father. The authorities in Ireland think they may have found his body and bring Shaila to look at the pictures, but she denies that he is in them.

Elderly Couple
Judith Templeton takes Shaila to see an elderly Sikh couple who are refusing the government's social services. They have moved to Canada from a Punjabi village only weeks before the plane explosion which kills their sons. Simple survival tasks such as writing checks are beyond their ability, and soon they will lose utility service. Still, they distrust Judith and the government, preferring to put their faith in God's providence and in the hope that their sons will return. To them, accepting the government's help is also accepting its ways, its version of reality. Shaila reads the message in the man's eyes: "I will not pretend that I accept.''

Though Shaila believed that, since they are Sikhs, they will refuse to open up to her, a Hindu woman, she and the elderly couple are able to relate through the loss of their sons, and rather than persuading them to accept the help Judith offers, their encounter with Shaila changes her, and their integrity moves Shaila to abandon Judith.

Shaila's neighbor Kusum loses her husband, Satish, and her youngest daughter in the plane crash. She responds to her grief by consulting a swami and at the end of the story is living on one of his ashrams in India. Comfortable with her cultural traditions, Kusum, in the form of her swami, embraces the authorities of her culture. On the advice of her swami, she sees the deaths of the passengers as fated, and tells Shaila that depression over the loss is selfish.

Though a minor character, Pam represents the worst of Western commercial culture. The oldest daughter of Kusum and Satish, she feels that Kusum wishes she would have died instead of her younger
"good-goody" sister. Pam clearly goes farther than any of the other characters in abandoning her own culture and adopting that of the West. She first appears in a McDonald's uniform, likes Canadian boys, and frequents the malls. She clings only to those parts of Indian culture that give her knowledge she can sell, namely, yoga and makeup hints for Indian and Asian girls.

Dr. Ranganathan
Dr. Ranganathan, who lost all of his family in the plane explosion, serves as a model to Shaila of how to deal with her grief while maintaining personal and cultural integrity. An electrical engineer who ‘‘knows important secrets of the universe, things closed to’’ Shaila, she thinks, he is well-adjusted to life in the West, yet retains important links with his Indian culture and its values. He believes that "it's a parent's duty to hope,'' a belief that helps Shaila relate to the elderly Sikh couple she visits with Judith.

Shaila's Parents
Shaila's ailing parents still live in India. They are progressive, liberal thinkers who put little stock in religion and who treat people as individuals without stereotyping. But their attitudes alienate Shaila from them somewhat. When Shaila has her vision of Vikram in the Himalayan temple, she is not comfortable telling her mother, who is impatient with such ‘‘prophetic dreams.’’

Dr. Sharma
Directly following the death of Shaila's husband and sons, Dr. Sharma, a fellow member of the Indo-Canada Society, helps her take care of the practical concerns of life, what his wife calls "mundane details.’’ He talks with Shaila about finances and deals with phone calls. In one call, he notes that the Valium given to Shaila is "having the necessary effect,'' revealing his practical approach even to grief.

Mrs. Sharma
The wife of Dr. Sharma, Mrs. Sharma is pregnant with their fifth child. At the gathering in Shaila's house, she scolds Dr. Sharma for bothering Shaila with ‘‘mundane details’’ and scolds Pam for her insensitive comments to her mother, Kusum. Her main goal is to help the women manage, without interference, emotions of grief.

Judith Templeton
The Canadian government sends social worker Judith Templeton to help the Indo-Canadians whose family members died in the plane explosion. She is young and inexperienced, but has a master's degree in social work. Though she intends well, Judith is unable to transcend her book-learning and grows impatient with the Indian people who fail to fit into her Western paradigm. When Shaila abandons Judith after the interview with the elderly couple, thus rejecting the Western bureaucratic response to grief management that Judith represents, the best response Judith can give is, ‘‘Let's talk about it.’’

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