The Management of Grief

by Bharati Mukherjee

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 275

The title of Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief” suggests that grief is something that can, indeed, be managed. Judith Templeton represents the authority for such a claim. She carries a textbook on grief, she has taken a degree in managing grief, and her job, created by the provincial government, is to manage grief. The ways in which individual survivors cope with the disaster might also be interpreted as management of grief. The whole story also demonstrates the opposite of the title’s assumption: Mrs. Bhave cannot manage her grief; she can only experience it, move through it by some inexplicable process of mourning, and move on.

The assumptions that Templeton makes about the management of grief are not accurate when applied to the survivors. To a great extent, this misreading stems from cultural differences, which Templeton cannot see, even though her intentions are to do exactly that. Templeton becomes frustrated with survivors who refuse to accept the fate of their family members because they believe it is a parent’s duty to hope. When the men begin to remarry, she shows surprise at how little time has passed. Templeton’s judgment and ignorance is expressed in the labels she uses for surviving mothers, such as “hysterical” and “a real mess,” and in her references to the parents’ stubbornness and ignorance. Moreover, Templeton’s concern for her own discomfort over the discomfort of the survivors is too apparent. She makes jokes about how her bladder will fare because the job requires the frequent ritual of drinking tea with her clients, and she complains that although the people are lovely, they are driving her crazy.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 793

Religion
Religious conflict sets the scene for the plot of "The Management of Grief'. The men and boys at Shaila's house as the story opens, mostly Hindus, believe that Sikh activists planted the bomb that killed Shaila's husband and two sons.

Religion and religious issues shape much of Shaila's consciousness. In India, Shaila realizes that she is somewhat repelled by the Sikhs she sees, even old family friends, despite her progressive upbringing by parents who "do not blame communities for a few individuals.'' Though her grandmother was a devout Hindu, her parents are not religious, and Shaila ‘‘flutter[s] between worlds.’’ When helping Judith Templeton communicate with grieving families, Shaila says "I stiffen now at the sight of beards and turbans,’’ the traditional look of Sikh men. Shaila's husband Vikram appears to her in a vision as she worships in a tiny temple in the Himalayas. He is with a holy man who recites Hindus prayers, and he tells Shaila to "finish alone what we started together,'' part of which was to go "halfway around the world to avoid religious and political feuding.''

Culture Clash
The clashes of differing cultures create the tensions in "The Management of Grief,'' and much of Shaila's growth as a character takes the form of her learning to negotiate these tensions, especially within herself. The Sikhs who bomb the plane are pursuing their own nation and culture apart from the predominantly Hindu nation of India. In dealing with her grief, Shaila struggles against a newfound repulsion to Sikhs, noticing the difference between herself and her progressive, rationalist parents who
never ‘‘blame communities for a few individuals,’’ a difference that has always left her suspended between their world and the devout Hindu world of her grandmother, a different clash that informed Shaila's childhood.

The Indian culture clashes with Western culture especially as the latter is embodied in the social worker Judith Templeton. She measures the Indo-Canadians' grief with the charts, numbers, and techniques of Western psychology and social science, becoming impatient with individuals who do not fit her schema. Though she pushes "reconstruction’’ on the survivors, ‘‘she's a little surprised, even shocked, over how quickly some of the men have taken on new families’’ in response to the pressures of the Hindu culture. She grows impatient with the elderly Sikh couple's hope, but in their culture—in the culture of Dr. Ranganathan and Shaila—‘‘it is a parent's duty to hope.’’ Judith's failure to understand these cultural differences keeps her from transcending the situation and truly helping the people she has devoted her life to serving.

The contrasts between other characters further emphasize the theme of clashing cultures. Kusum's daughter, Pam, embraces the West, especially its consumer culture of malls and McDonald's, while Kusum returns to India to live in an ashram—a Hindu commune—with her swami. Dr. Ranganathan, though in many ways loyal to his Indian sensibilities, refuses to take another wife like many of the other men, despite enormous pressure from his family, and he returns West to start anew in Texas. The forces of cultural clash partly define all of the characters who engage that clash, while those who fail to acknowledge these forces fail to forge genuine identities.

Search for Self
Before her husband's death, Shaila has so little sense of self that she can hardly raise her own voice. After his death, she becomes more aware of her own silence. ‘‘I never once told him that I loved him,’’ she regrets. ‘‘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.''

But as the story progresses, Shaila begins to assert her voice and with it her selfhood. At first, she does so chiefly symbolically, when she throws to the sea a poem she has written for Vikram: ‘‘Finally, he'll know my feelings for him.’’ Kusum reports that her swami says "depression is a sign of our selfishness,’’ a selfishness that Shaila accepts, sensing that what some call "selfishness" is really a sense of one's own selfhood. Later, Shaila raises her voice at the customs officer in India, thus making her voice more public.

The climax of the story comes when Shaila finally asserts herself against the pushy Judith Templeton and thus accepts her own ways of negotiating culture and managing her grief. In the end, Shaila finds a sense of self in continuing the creation of a new identity that she began with her family years ago. After she has "tried to assess my situation, how best to live my life,'' she listens to the encouraging voices of her husband and sons once more and then strikes out on her own.

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