The Management of Grief

by Bharati Mukherjee

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Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 171

Mukherjee uses the technique of reporting in the story to produce distance between the narrator, Mrs. Bhave, and her surroundings. This conveys the shock and thus the surreal quality of the experience of loss. She also uses stream of consciousness and chains of thought to convey the experience of loss in the narrative, linking seemingly unrelated events or words, such as the women making tea and Mrs. Bhave’s sons making breakfast.

Mukherjee employs juxtaposition as well. One fact or event is placed alongside another, in seeming agreement or concordance, yet the effect of such placement is to pose irreconcilable disagreement between ideas, people, and cultures. An example of this is Kusum describing how modern women are fake because they must declare their love out loud, and then her own daughter Pam coming out into the living room and demonstrating modern and fake as defined by the preceding conversation. A more chilling example is the woman who makes tea; she is pregnant with her fifth child, all sons, and all living.

Historical Context

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Postcolonial India
Great Britain began colonizing India in the middle of the eighteenth century and spent the next two hundred years trying to secure military and economic control of the area. The colonization was never peaceful, and in April 1919 British troops fired into a crowd killing or wounding over one thousand Indians. In 1920, Mohandas Gandhi began his famous campaigns of civil disobedience ending in 1947 with India's independence from Britain. The India of 1947 and after is referred to as postcolonial India. Mukherjee was seven years old when India gained her independence, so most of her life is the life of a postcolonial Indian.

Furthermore, Mukherjee, as well as most of the characters in ‘‘The Management of Grief,’’ is part of the great Indian diaspora. A diaspora is a spreading out of a group of people, and, for most of this century, Indians have been leaving their native land to study, find jobs, and build lives elsewhere in the world, especially in the West. Mukherjee's father, for instance, worked in both London and Switzerland for several years (though he ultimately returned to India), and Mukherjee herself, by way of Canada, finally settled in the United States. Salman Rushdie, author of the famed Satanic Verses, is also part of this dispersion of Indian peoples.

Part of the postcolonial challenge for any country and its people is constructing an identity that can come to terms with the one the colonizing power imposed to serve its own ends. Thus Mukherjee, who grew up in Western schools and received her bachelor's degree in English, found much to value when she also studied ancient Indian culture in her master's degree program in India. Mukherjee believes it is part of her mission to give non-European immigrants their own voices in her fiction, voices that rise above the clanging and clashing of cultures. This is particularly difficult for people who inherit a heritage that has been dominated by an outside power.

Sikhs and Hindus
While most Indian people adhere to the ancient religion of Hinduism, there arose in the fifteenth century a rival religion called Sikhism, which opposed itself to the caste hierarchy (social system of classes in India) of Hinduism and advocated social equality as well as monotheism. Today, Sikhs make up only about two percent of the Indian population and most of them live in the province of Punjab, where they share the Punjabi language. The region of Punjab was divided between India and Pakistan in 1947, and again divided between the Hindus and Sikhs in 1966. Since 1947, there has been talk, which gained momentum through the 1970s and 1980s, among some Sikhs of an independent Sikh state. Tensions exploded in 1984 when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent the Indian Army to establish order and fighting broke out. Hundreds of Sikhs were killed. In October of 1984, two of Indira Gandhi's Sikh bodyguards assassinated her, prompting riots across India.

The feud between mainstream Hindu India and the Sikhs is part of the ‘‘religious and political feuding’’ Shaila and her husband ‘‘came halfway around the world to avoid.’’ The elderly couple whom Shaila visits with Judith are Sikhs who left Punjab with their sons only weeks before. But political borders were not enough stop the feuds, and the violence and anger spilled over into Canada, erupting in Sikh and Hindu communities there. In 1985, the Sikhs claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Air India flight that crashed into the seas off Ireland killing hundreds of Indo-Canadians. Thus, Shaila's ambivalent feelings about the Sikhs she encounters have their roots in a long history of strife and disagreement.

Canada's Policy of Multiculturalism
Though in the past few decades it has come under attack, the idea of a cultural melting pot has always been a source of pride for the United States, a society where, in theory, people of differing cultures can come together into a single community, a nation of immigrants who live together in harmony. By contrast, Canada, in 1971, established an official policy of multiculturalism, which would strive not to melt the nation's cultures into one pot but to let them constitute a ‘‘mosaic of cultures’’ within Canada. Under such a policy, the Canadian government recognizes the autonomy of its many immigrant cultures and tries to adapt its services to their particular needs, allowing them, some critics say, to segregate themselves into smaller, homogenous communities. Judith Templeton, the social worker who visits Shaila, administers to the needs of the members of the Indo-Canada Society under the aegis of multiculturalism.

Mukherjee finds serious fault with the policy, and it contributed significantly to her decision to leave Canada for the United States in 1980. Herself the victim of severe racism in Canada, Mukherjee believes the policy of multiculturalism exacerbated Canada's racism and served as an excuse for the Canadian government to avoid involvement in the problems of its immigrant citizens. In fact, in The Sorrow and the Terror, she claims the policy allowed the Canadian government to ignore mounting tensions between Sikhs and other Indians by calling the problem an Indian concern, and that the government is therefore responsible for the 1985 Air India bombing. The debate over Canada's multiculturalism policy continues today.

Literary Style

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Foil
Kusum serves as a foil to Shaila. A foil is a character whose qualities serve to contrast with and therefore emphasize the qualities of another character. Kusum holds to her traditions and their authority. When Shaila expresses regret that her traditional upbringing kept her from telling her husband she loved him, Kusum reassures her that this traditional way of married life is superior to that lived by ‘‘modern young girls’’ whose love is "fake." But this is not enough for Shaila, and she writes an expressive poem that she sends to her husband on the sea in Ireland, distinguishing herself from Kusum. When Kusum says "I have no right to grieve'' and represses her grief on the authority of her swami who calls it selfish, Shaila runs down the beach calling herself selfish, thus resisting a traditional authority of her own culture. Kusum finally leaves Canada for an ashram run by her swami in Hardwar, India, despite Shaila's pleas not to ‘‘run away.’’ At the end of the story, when Kusum writes to Shaila of the visions she has had of her dead daughter—while her living daughter wanders around North America—Shaila comments, slightly ironically, "I think I can only envy her.’’ Though the two women have had to deal with very similar situations, Kusum's response helps Mukherjee show the courage and vitality in Shaila, who continues what she and her husband started in the New World and rebuilds from what she still has.

Point of View
Shaila Bhave tells her own story in her own words in the first-person point of view, an important stylistic feature since "The Management of Grief" is about a woman finding her own voice. The story moves smoothly between narration of events and dialogue, on the one hand, and Shaila's internal workings, on the other. A woman now alone in the world, wondering "how best to live my life" must tell her own story; there is no other who can tell it for her. Mukherjee believes that immigrants must tell their own stories, because no one ‘‘speaks for us, the new Americans from nontraditional immigrant countries,’’ as she says in the New York Times Book Review. So her choice of first-person narration is also an enactment of her fictional project.

Jonathan Raban, also in the New York Times Book Review, says that Mukherjee's characters are ‘‘compulsively fluent talkers whose lives are too urgent and mobile for them to indulge in the luxury of the introspective past tense.’’ Shaila's first-person present-tense narration shows her thoughts as she experiences them and this creates a mood of urgency in the face of the demands made by her different cultures. When she finally finds her own way of managing grief, she is a more independent, stronger person, writing her own story, in a sense, as she tells it.

Setting
The story, based on the historical bombing of an Air India jet in 1985, is set in three countries. It begins in Canada, moves to Ireland, then to India, and finally back to Canada. Place names permeate the story as the characters move from one city, airport, or village to the next.

The real events behind the story and the real geographical places clearly named throughout give the story a sense of urgency and reality. Furthermore, the movements in geographical setting reflect the changes in Shaila's sense of self and culture. She leaves Canada for Ireland, where she stands on the beach with Kusum, who will eventually return to India to live and embrace its culture, and Dr. Ranganathan, who will eventually return to the West and continue to create his new life there. In this scene the beach, itself a border between the clashing worlds of water and earth, provides the setting for a drama played out among three people trying to decide how and where they will set the stories of their own lives.

From Ireland, the setting shifts to India, where Shaila searches for ways to manage her grief, unsure whether to stay or return to Canada. But she has brought with her a history in the West, and she decides to return and continue her path there. But when she does, she brings to Canada what she experienced in India Thus the changes in setting instigate and reflect the changes in Shaila's attitudes and emphasize the uncertainty and fluidity possible in the immigrant life.

Literary Heritage
Though not particularly interested in being known as an Indian writer, Mukherjee has placed herself in the long tradition of immigrant writers such as V. S. Naipaul and Bernard Malamud. She claims to have learned much from their fiction. She dedicated Darkness to her friend Malamud and even named one of her sons after him.

The predominant mode of American fiction in the 1980s was a minimalism exemplified by such writers as Raymond Carver. Minimalism used short sentences, understatement, and very little elaboration. Mukherjee positioned herself against this style, preferring instead a more elaborate one that allowed her to explore the layers of meaning and significance in the layered lives of her immigrant characters. She believes that a writer's status as immigrant gives her a great subject about which to write, and the subject deserves a great style.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 64

Suggested Readings

Carter-Sanborn, Kristin. “We Murder Who We Were’: Jasmine and the Violence of Identity.” American Literature 66, no. 3 (September, 1994): 573-593.

Moyers, Bill. “An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee.” In Connections: A Multicultural Reader for Writers, edited by Judith A. Stanford. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield, 1993.

Mukherjee, Bharati, and Clark Blaise. The Sorrow and the Pity: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy. Markham, Ontario: Viking, 1987.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 214

Sources
Birch, Dinah, "Other People," in London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 13, My 6, 1989, pp. 18-19.

Ching-Liang Low, Gail, "In a Free State: Postcolonialism and Postmodernism in Bharati Mukherjee's Fiction," in Women: A Cultural Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1993, pp. 8-17.

Mathur, Suchitra, "Bharati Mukherjee: Overview," in Feminist Writers, edited by Pamela Kester-Shelton, St. James Press, 1996.

Mukherjee, Bharati, "Immigrant Writing: Give Us Your Maximalists!," in New York Times Book Review, August 28, 1988, pp. 1,28-29.

Raban, Jonathan, review of The Middleman and Other Stories, in New York Times Book Review, June 19, 1988, pp. 1, 22-23.

Rajan, Gita, "Bharati Mukherjee," in Writers of the Indian Diaspora, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 235-42.

Sant-Wade, Arvindra, and Karen Marguerite Radell, "Refashioning the Self: Immigrant Women in Bharati Mukherjee's New World," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 11-17.

Sharma Knippling, Alpana, "Toward an Investigation of the Subaltern in Bharati Mukherjee's The Middleman and Other Stories and Jasmine," in Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, Garland Publishing, 1993, pp. 143-59.

Further Reading
Alam, Fakrul, Bharati Mukherjee, Twayne Publishers, 1996. Alam surveys all of Mukherjee's work up to 1996 and places it within the context of her life. This is an excellent introduction to Mukherjee and contains a fine bibliography.

Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1949.

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