Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter

by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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Mrs. Roma Basu Mrs. Basu is Mrs. Dutta’s longtime friend and neighbor in India. It is her letter that prompts Mrs. Dutta to examine whether or not she is really happy. At the end of the story, Mrs. Dutta writes to Mrs. Basu to ask if she can rent her friend’s downstairs apartment, which has been recently vacated.

Mrinalini Dutta Mrinalini is Mrs. Dutta’s granddaughter, who is not interested in exploring her Indian heritage. Shyamoli calls Mrinalini ‘‘Minnie’’—a further sign of the family’s assimilation into American culture.

Pradeep Dutta Pradeep is Mrs. Dutta’s grandson, who is not interested in exploring his Indian heritage. Shyamoli calls Pradeep ‘‘Pat’’—a further sign of the family’s assimilation into American culture.

Mrs. Prameela Dutta Mrs. Dutta is a dutiful Indian widow, who experiences cultural conflict while trying to live with her son’s Americanized family. Mrs. Dutta wed Sagar’s father in a traditional Indian marriage when she was seventeen. Throughout her life, she has been subservient to her husband and other family members, suppressing her own desires in order to fulfill their needs. When her husband dies, she lives as a widow in their home for three years, until she is stricken with pneumonia. Her son invites her to come and live with his family, and she feels that she is following her Indian duty by accepting his invitation. Despite the misgivings of her best friend, Mrs. Basu, Mrs. Dutta gives up her Calcutta home and gives away most of her possessions to friends. When Mrs. Dutta arrives at her son’s home in California, she is shocked at the customs of American culture, which often clash with her traditional Indian upbringing. Throughout the story, she remembers what her life was like in India, as she compares it to her immigrant experience in America. Mrs. Basu writes Mrs. Dutta a letter, asking Mrs. Dutta if she is happy in America. Mrs. Dutta struggles to answer this letter in a positive manner but must keep putting it aside because she is not happy. However, Mrs. Dutta does not feel comfortable saying anything bad about her son and, at first, thinks that it would be shameful to return to India. Although Mrs. Dutta tries to fit in at her son’s household, there are some customs that she cannot understand. Shyamoli becomes frustrated when her mother-in-law throws out uneaten food, but saving leftover food is a practice that conflicts with Mrs. Dutta’s Hindu belief about not saving contaminated food. Mrs. Dutta also does not condone her grandchildren’s behavior toward their parents and is horrified when Shyamoli addresses Sagar by his first name and asks him to fold laundry—especially since the laundry includes Mrs. Dutta’s underclothes. As a result, she volunteers to wash the laundry but is terrified of the washing machine and hand washes them instead. A neighbor sees her drying the clothes on her fence and tells Shyamoli, which leads to a fight between Sagar and his wife. Mrs. Dutta overhears this argument and realizes that she is not happy in America and that she should put her own needs ahead of her family duty. She writes to Mrs. Basu to let her know that she will be returning to India and that she wishes to rent Mrs. Basu’s downstairs apartment.

Sagar Dutta Sagar is Shyamoli’s husband and Mrs. Dutta’s son. He was born in India and was married to Shyamoli through a traditional, arranged marriage. Since moving to the United States, he has assimilated many aspects of American culture, although he still tries to be a dutiful Indian son. As a result, when Mrs. Dutta gets sick with...

(This entire section contains 1010 words.)

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pneumonia, he encourages her to move in with him and his family in California. When Mrs. Dutta arrives, Sagar tries to help her make a peaceful transition to American life. However, unlike Shyamoli, Sagar is still interested in various aspects of his Indian heritage. He likes his mother’s cooking and appreciates hearing humorous stories from his childhood, which makes it harder for him to deny her. He does try to train his mother in various American customs—such as how to use a washing machine—but he is unsuccessful. However, he does not confront his mother on many issues that Shyamoli has with her, which leads to tension between Sagar and his wife. When Mrs. Dutta’s Indian behavior draws negative attention from a neighbor, Shyamoli and Sagar have an argument. Although Shyamoli and Sagar resolve their conflict, he does not realize that Mrs. Dutta has overheard the argument and has decided to return to India.

Shyamoli Dutta Shyamoli is Sagar’s wife and Mrs. Dutta’s daughter-in-law. She was born in India and was married to Sagar through a traditional arranged marriage when she was a young woman. However, when she moved to the United States, she totally assimilated American culture. Mrs. Dutta notes that, as a light-skinned Indian, Shyamoli—who is now a modern working mother—can almost pass for an American. Unlike Sagar, Shyamoli is not interested in revisiting her Indian heritage. In fact, she worries that Mrs. Dutta’s Indian cooking is unhealthy for them. Shyamoli also kisses her husband in public, calls him by his first name, and asks him to do chores around the house—all nontraditional behavior that shocks Mrs. Dutta. Shyamoli, who goes by the Americanized name ‘‘Molli,’’ is particularly anxious lest her neighbors perceive her family—the only Indian family in the neighborhood—as savages. This fear comes true when Mrs. Dutta dries clothes by hanging them over the fence into the next-door neighbor’s yard. This incident causes an argument between Shyamoli and Sagar, which Mrs. Dutta overhears.

MinnieSee Mrinalini

MolliSee Shyamoli

Neighbor Sagar’s and Shyamoli’s next-door neighbor complains to Shyamoli after Mrs. Dutta hangs clothes over the fence that divides the two properties. This incident leads to Shyamoli’s argument with Sagar and makes Mrs. Dutta realize that she wants to return home to India.

PatSee Pradeep




Critical Essays