Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter

by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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Use of Letters as Plot Devices

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‘‘Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter’’ is a relatively static story. Not much action takes place in the present, in which Mrs. Dutta spends a lot of time remembering her past. In the place of a lot of action, the tale relies instead on a plot device, which helps to drive the story forward. The plot device consists of two letters in the story—Mrs. Basu’s letter and Mrs. Dutta’s response, the letter that is mentioned in the story’s title. If it were not for these two letters, Mrs. Dutta probably would not have come to the same conclusions that she does at the end of the story. The letters become more than simple objects. They disrupt the normal pattern of Mrs. Dutta’s life and ultimately force her to question and change her long-held beliefs.

Mrs. Basu’s letter and Mrs. Dutta’s many potential responses play an important role in the story. Although Mrs. Basu’s letter is mostly harmless, ‘‘filled with news from home,’’ it also contains a short question: ‘‘At the very bottom Mrs. Basu wrote, Are you happy in America?’’ For Mrs. Dutta, the answer is not a simple yes or no, because she is in conflict. If she says she is happy, she will be lying to Mrs. Basu, her long-time friend, who will see through the lie. However, if she says she is unhappy, then she will sound as if she is complaining— something that, as a loyal Indian wife, she has been trained not to do. As a result, she has delayed her reply, ‘‘while in her heart family loyalty battles with insidious feelings of—but she turns from them quickly and will not name them even to herself.’’

Mrs. Dutta sets the letter aside, but it still preys on her thoughts. The pressure caused by Mrs. Basu’s letter and Mrs. Dutta’s attempted responses disrupts Mrs. Dutta’s life. Mrs. Dutta is normally very religious and takes her Hindu rituals seriously. On the second morning in the story, she lies awake, waiting for the rest of the household to start getting up, which is her cue to start her day. Her first task is to repeat ‘‘the 108 holy names of God.’’ She starts doing this but notes that her mind is not totally focused on God this morning. Instead, ‘‘underneath she is thinking of the bleached-blue aerogram from Mrs. Basu that has been waiting unanswered on her bedside table all week.’’ Despite her best efforts to suppress her feelings of sadness, Mrs. Dutta is briefly overcome by them when she starts to craft her first mental response to the letter and thinks back to her life in India. ‘‘In her mind she writes to Mrs. Basu: Oh, Roma, I miss it all so much. Sometimes I feel that someone has reached in and torn out a handful of my chest.’’ However, Mrs. Dutta is still very much attached to her belief that she must not ‘‘indulge in nostalgia,’’ and so she ‘‘shakes her head clear of images.’’

She crafts her next mental response while she is washing her laundry. However, Mrs. Dutta does not think of telling Mrs. Basu that she is afraid of the washing machine, which leads to her having to sneak around behind the backs of Sagar and Shyamoli to wash her laundry by hand. She also overlooks the ‘‘anxiety’’ produced from this need to be covert. Instead, she puts a positive spin on the situation: ‘‘In her mind she writes to Mrs. Basu: I’m fitting in so well here, you’d never guess I came only two months back. I’ve found new ways of...

(This entire section contains 1874 words.)

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doing things, of solving problems creatively.’’ Mrs. Dutta does not find anything wrong with her covert laundry behavior. ‘‘Ignorance, as Mrs. Dutta knows well from years of managing a household, is a great promoter of harmony.’’ Mrs. Dutta is still focused mainly on following her duty and keeping everybody else happy while ignoring or suppressing her own feelings of anxiety.

This sense of duty is derived from her many years as a subservient wife in India, where she was constantly reminded of what she should and should not do. In fact, when Sagar invites his mother to come and stay with his family, Mrs. Dutta’s relatives in India are relieved because they feel this is supposed to happen: ‘‘Everyone knows a wife’s place is with her husband, and a widow’s is with her son.’’ Because of this deeply ingrained sense of duty to her son, Mrs. Dutta scolds herself once again when she starts to remember fondly her life in India. She tries to make herself believe that she is lucky to be in America and that all of her Calcutta relatives envy her. She tells herself, ‘‘After lunch you’re going to write a nice letter to Roma telling her exactly how delighted you are to be here.’’ Mrs. Dutta is in the process of doing this when Sagar comes home early that day.

Since Mrs. Dutta still bases her happiness on her ability to serve others, especially her son, she is overjoyed at Sagar’s early arrival: ‘‘So it is with the delighted air of a child who has been offered an unexpected gift that she leaves her half-written letter to greet Sagar.’’ However, her delight turns to anxiety as she waits to see if Sagar will accept her offer to make him a special Indian snack: ‘‘As she waits for his reply, she can feel, in the hollow of her throat, the rapid thud of her heart.’’ When Sagar accepts, all is well, at least for the time being. This changes when Shyamoli comes home, obviously upset about something. Mrs. Dutta, still happy that Sagar was pleased with her act of servitude, looks upon Shyamoli’s behavior in a negative manner. ‘‘In her mind-letter she writes, Women need to be strong, not react to every little thing like this.’’ As she continues crafting this latest mental response to Mrs. Basu, Mrs. Dutta regurgitates her decades of training, noting, ‘‘we had far worse to cry about, but we shed our tears invisibly. We were good wives and daughters-in-law, good mothers. Dutiful, uncomplaining. Never putting ourselves first.’’

However, at this point, the tide starts to turn. Mrs. Dutta remembers a time when she burned a dessert and was punished by her strict mother-inlaw. The young Mrs. Dutta had cried after everyone left the house and then ‘‘washed her face carefully with cold water and applied kajal to her eyes’’ so that her husband would not know she had been crying. She thinks about Shyamoli’s own tearful face, and suddenly ‘‘a thought hits her so sharply in the chest that she has to hold on to her bedroom wall to keep from falling.’’ This thought, which is crafted as yet another response to Mrs. Basu, is the first real defiant thought that Mrs. Dutta has had. She has felt sad before, but now she is angry and reflective, wondering if all of the punishment she received was worth it: ‘‘The more we bent, the more people pushed us, until one day we’d forgotten that we could stand up straight. Maybe Shyamoli’s the one with the right idea after all . . .’’ This independent thought shocks Mrs. Dutta, and she tries to bury it and finish writing her letter to Mrs. Basu.

‘‘Then she remembers that she has left the halfwritten aerogram on the kitchen table.’’ This poses a dilemma for Mrs. Dutta. She wants to be respectful and give Sagar and Shyamoli space to talk about whatever is bothering her. But something new, ‘‘a restlessness—or is it defiance?—has taken hold of her.’’ She decides that she will retrieve her letter, even if it means interrupting her son’s family. Mrs. Dutta is starting to defend her right to be an individual, making decisions that are based not on the family’s needs but on her own. In her next mental response to Mrs. Basu, Mrs. Dutta criticizes the amount of television that the family watches and then quickly notes, ‘‘Of course she will never put such blasphemy into a real letter.’’ Her duty to herself is still struggling with the duty to her family, although the former is slowly starting to gain ground, because even though she cannot include this thought in a letter yet, ‘‘it makes her feel better to be able to say it, if only to herself.’’ This is a huge leap for a woman who felt guilty earlier in the day merely for entertaining the thought that she might be unhappy.

Mrs. Dutta’s final leap happens when she overhears the argument that she has caused between Shyamoli and Sagar and sees their shadows re- flected on the wall. At the end of the argument, their shadows, and the shadows of their children, ‘‘shiver and merge into a single dark silhouette’’ as the family resolves its issues in a group hug. She returns to her room and reads over the happy letter that she has started to write to Mrs. Basu, in which she puts a positive spin on her negative experiences. She starts to cry, and one of her tears falls on her unfinished letter. Bowing to her old habit of hiding her emotions from others, she carefully wipes up the tear. ‘‘She blows on the damp spot until it is completely dry, so the pen will not leave a telltale smudge. Even though Roma would not tell a soul, she cannot risk it.’’ Mrs. Dutta is still worried about what her relatives will think if they find out that she is not happy. Then, suddenly, she remembers the silhouette of her son’s family and realizes that her duty to her son’s family is useless; they are a separate unit that does not need, and does not appreciate, her help. With this newfound knowledge, she is finally able to break the chains of her past servitude, and she writes a new letter to Mrs. Basu, saying that she is coming home to India. ‘‘Pausing to read over what she has written, Mrs. Dutta is surprised to discover this: now that she no longer cares whether tears blotch her letter, she feels no need to weep.’’

In the story, Mrs. Dutta makes a rapid transformation over a period of two days. If Mrs. Basu had not written her letter, with its deceptively simple question about happiness, Mrs. Dutta might never have made this change. However, in her many attempts to write an honest response to her friend, Mrs. Dutta is forced to examine all of her long-held beliefs and to be honest with herself about their flaws. In this way, the letters become a plot device. They give the story its narrative structure and provide the catalyst that drives Mrs. Dutta forward through her striking evolution—from a dutiful Indian widow to an independent thinker who puts her own needs first and does not care what others think.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on ‘‘Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2003. Poquette has a bachelor’s degree in English and specializes in writing about literature.

Unpredictablitiy of Divakaruni's Story

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In its opening pages, ‘‘Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter’’ seems to be a well-written but predictable story of cultural and generational differences. An aging widow moves from her Calcutta home to live with her son and his family in California. Although Mrs. Dutta is already in the United States when the story opens, the early pages are liberally sprinkled with her recollections of life in India. Author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni evokes Mrs. Dutta’s life in India so beautifully and powerfully that even an American-born reader unfamiliar with the country does not merely understand Mrs. Dutta’s homesickness but feels it. Mrs. Dutta stares out at her son’s silent suburban neighborhood, emptied of humanity and activity on a weekday when everyone is at work or at school. In her mind, she compares the sterile scene to her Calcutta neighborhood, with its vegetable vendors and knife sharpeners (they are tradesmen, not appliances), its menagerie of dogs and goats and cows. There is so much to miss, and so little to take its place.

The pace of the story slows when the narrator begins to explain why Mrs. Dutta washes her clothes in the bathtub and hangs them over the back fence to dry even though her daughter-in-law, Shyamoli, has told her that this is not done in nice American neighborhoods. Divakaruni dwells on this in such detail that the reader knows that this is the conflict on which the story will turn.

And it does, so that right up until the last few pages, the story unfolds in a completely predictable manner. Just as one would expect, Mrs. Dutta’s son, Sagar, is patient and solicitous toward her. Just as one would expect, his American-born children speak and behave in ways that she finds shockingly rude. Just as one would expect, his wife tries to be patient with Mrs. Dutta but lets the trying show, and, almost inevitably, it is finally the daughter-in-law who gives her husband an ultimatum about the mother- in-law.

It comes as no surprise that Mrs. Dutta overhears Shyamoli’s tirade about her or that Mrs. Dutta then retreats to her room and cries. It is not a surprise, either, that she bravely joins the family at dinner and acts as if all is well, because Divakaruni has drawn her as a stoic woman. Besides, what alternative is there for an old woman who has sold her home and given away her possessions to move to America and be with her family? Her circumstances seem to allow her no choice, and her culture confirms what her circumstances suggest. ‘‘Everyone knows a wife’s place is with her husband, and a widow’s place is with her son,’’ she knew her relatives in India had thought when she told them of her planned move to America.

Of course, life is not that simple, and it is the complications—even familiar, predictable ones— that make a story. Though this particular story of conflict between two cultures and between a mother- in-law and daughter-in-law seems destined for a predictable ending, Divakaruni sneaks a couple of subtle but sweet surprises into her closing pages. These surprises are a delight for two reasons. First, they bring a happier ending for the brave and perceptive Mrs. Dutta than most readers will have dared to hope for. Second, because while they are unexpected, they are not at all artificial or incredible. Mrs. Dutta’s surprising outcome illustrates one of the most admirable traits of the Indian character: the inspiring ability and the good-natured willingness to learn even from those who are hurtful or oppressive.

This is the story’s first surprise: When Mrs. Dutta overhears her daughter-in-law’s harsh words about her, her first reaction, which is to angrily think that Shyamoli should be more stoic, quickly gives way to an epiphany about the stoicism of Mrs. Dutta’s generation of Indian women. She thinks:

And what good did it do? The more we bent, the more people pushed us, until one day we’d forgotten that we could stand up straight. Maybe Shyamoli’s the one with the right idea after all.

This is extraordinary. Not many people can, amid the storm of pain and anger that blows through the mind when one is wronged, conclude that perhaps the wrongdoer is right—not right to have caused pain, but right to think as she thinks and live as she lives. Even in the pain of the moment, Mrs. Dutta is able to acknowledge both that Shyamoli was wrong to say the hurtful things she said and that she was right to stand up for herself.

When someone has been hurt, the temptation is to see the person who caused the hurt as being wholly wrong and wholly bad. Mrs. Dutta does not succumb to this temptation. Further, she grasps immediately that she must learn from Shyamoli; she must now stand up for herself as she has seen Shyamoli do for herself. It does not occur to her that if she adopts this one trait of Shyamoli’s she will be condoning the younger woman’s outburst or the pain it caused. It also does not occur to Mrs. Dutta that if she accepts this one element of American culture she will be abandoning or betraying her own. Virtually all of American culture that she has experienced she judges to be far inferior to her own. She is not about to adopt it wholesale. But Mrs. Dutta is a pragmatist and a survivor. She will take from Shyamoli and from America the good she sees in them, and the rest she will distance herself from without bitterness. This bespeaks a rare kind of wisdom, insight, and maturity.

This mature, sophisticated response is characteristic of India and Indians. It has its roots in Hindu culture and religion, which acknowledge that all ways of life and all human beings are a mixture of good and bad, love and hate, wisdom and ignorance. Some, of course, are better than others, but neither a person nor a culture is to be condemned for imperfection or weakness. The wise course is to absorb the best of all cultures and leave the rest alone; to see the good in all people while protecting oneself from the bad. This is why, after more than three hundred years of unwanted and sometimes brutal British rule, the Indian people, on the whole, do not hate the British. Fifty-plus years ago, Indians won their independence from Great Britain through amazing courage, perseverance, determination, and stoicism— the same strengths that see Mrs. Dutta through her trial. The Indians celebrated the end of British rule, but many Britons remained in India, a land they had come to love and where they were, by and large, welcome to remain. India patterned its government after those of England and America. It made English one of its official languages, for the pragmatic reason that it served as something of a lingua franca (a widely understood language that serves as a medium of communication among groups with different native languages) in a nation with hundreds of indigenous languages. What could have been cast out as the language of the oppressor was adopted as a favored language of the new nation, because this served India. Similarly, India recognized the value of the infrastructure the British had built and made use of it to build their country. And today, the average Indian is at least as likely as the average Briton to stop everything at 4 p.m. sharp to enjoy a relaxing cup of tea. It is a British custom that Indians have made their own. All these reflections on India are inspired by old Mrs. Dutta, whose creator, Divakaruni, endowed her with the very best of Indian character and thus equipped her to rise above all the grief, disappointments, and rude awakenings that even mostly predictable lives and stories are all too likely to bring.

There is still one more factor in Mrs. Dutta’s willingness to learn from Shyamoli that deserves mention. Mrs. Dutta’s cultural background has prepared her to accept wisdom even from an adversary, but it has not prepared her to accept a much younger woman as her teacher. In Hindu families, the daughter- in-law occupies the lowest rank in her husband’s extended family, and she is expected to be a humble student of her mother-in-law in all things. Divakaruni instructs American readers in this cultural reality by having Mrs. Dutta recall her relationship with her own mother-in-law. As a seventeen-year-old bride, Mrs. Dutta lived in the home of her husband’s family. Her mother-in-law informed her that she was to get up before everyone else and make tea for all in the household. More than once in the course of the story, Mrs. Dutta recalls how her mother-in-law scolded her.

Divakaruni also reveals that the confident American businesswoman Shyamoli was once a shy Indian girl whom Mrs. Dutta prepared for marriage and sent off to her son, already in America. This strongly implies that the marriage was an arranged one, as is traditional in Hindu families. There was a time, then, when Mrs. Dutta held all the power. Back then, Shyamoli did not even have the power to choose the man with whom she would spend her life. Mrs. Dutta’s expectation would have been that Shyamoli would live under her roof and under her supervision, as Mrs. Dutta had once lived with her mother-in-law. By tradition, it was Mrs. Dutta’s turn to rule the roost.

This background gives non-Indian readers at least a hint of how upside-down Mrs. Dutta’s life in California is. Instead of living in her own home and having authority over her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Dutta finds herself living in her daughter-in-law’s home, once again in a position of powerlessness. As a young bride, she was forced to get out of bed each morning earlier than she wanted to. Now, as an old woman, she must stay in bed longer than she wants to so that she does not wake the others.

There is nothing in Mrs. Dutta’s background that prepared her for this. She is forced to accept Shyamoli’s authority in the home and, understandably and not surprisingly, she chafes at this. This makes it all the more remarkable that when crisis comes, Mrs. Dutta is able to acknowledge that, although Shyamoli’s authority over her may be illegitimate in her eyes, the younger woman still has something to teach the older one. In addition to the wisdom that her traditions taught her, Mrs. Dutta shows a humility that requires her to reach beyond her traditions. Beyond being an exemplar of Indian wisdom, she is a remarkable individual.

This prepares the reader for Divakaruni’s second surprise, which she saves for the very end of the story. Mrs. Dutta is not going to adopt Shyamoli’s independent, outspoken spirit merely to carve out a place for herself in her son’s house or in American culture. She is going to do what she truly wants to do, in spite of what her son and other relatives will surely think and in spite of having divested herself of her home and possessions. Mrs. Dutta, whose culture and religion have taught her to balance tradition and innovation, is going back to Calcutta to live out her days with her lifelong friend, whose ways are her ways and who both needs and nurtures her more than her closest relatives do. It comes as a shock to Mrs. Dutta that her son’s family is complete without her and that they do not need her. But, she absorbs the shock and very quickly figures out how to adjust her expectations and her course.

Still willing to learn and adapt although she is old, Mrs. Dutta has learned what America had to teach her, and she is going home. To readers unfamiliar with Indian culture, this turn of events may seem not just surprising but incredible. Mrs. Dutta might be expected to be too old and frail, too tradition-bound, too weak to stand up to her family after a lifetime of acquiescence. But Mrs. Dutta is none of these things. The same traditions and beliefs that held her in her accepted role for most of her life also allow her to learn new lessons, adopt new ways, and seek happiness. Those traditions and beliefs, combined with her own courage and intelligence, allow her to triumph over all of life’s trials, even one as difficult as a sojourn with her family in America.

Source: Candyce Norvell, Critical Essay on ‘‘Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2003. Norvell is an independent educational writer who specializes in English and literature.


Critical Overview