Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter

by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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Historical Context

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The story was written and takes place in the late 1990s. As a result, the historical context of India in the story is very similar to its current context. In the story, Divakaruni demonstrates the various cultural conflicts faced by Indians who have immigrated to America. But Indians faced similar conflicts in their native land in the late 1990s, which they still face today. In area, India—which is one-third the size of the United States—is the seventh largest country in the world. In population, however, India is the second largest, with more than one billion people. This massive population occupies several distinct ethnic and religious groups. Despite efforts to find some common national identity under which all of these groups can exist in harmony, these groups sometimes clash with each other.

The greatest conflict involves religion. More than 80 percent of India’s population is Hindu, and Muslims enjoy a significant percentage of the remaining minority. Hinduism, a religion that is not easily defined, is considered to be one of the oldest religions in the world, if not the oldest. Unlike most religions, it has no founder and has no set doctrine; several different, and sometimes contradictory, religious movements are considered to be part of Hinduism. However, what is known is that Hinduism provided the impetus for India’s social caste system, which is thousands of years old and which most Indians conform to, regardless of religion. A caste is a rigid social class, by which people’s rights and responsibilities are determined. People are born into their caste and generally are expected to marry within it.

The four traditional castes are the Brahmans (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaisyas (merchants), and Shudras (serfs). These caste designations are based on the level of pollutants—such as blood, saliva, dirt, and leather—that people in each caste traditionally come into contact with. A fifth, unoffi- cial, caste, known as the untouchables, is the lowest caste of all, because the members’ poor lifestyles and occupations brought them into contact with a high level of pollutants. Although discrimination against members of a lower caste is technically banned, it does still occur today. At the end of the twentieth century, Hindu groups began a massive nationalist movement, placing pressure on non- Hindus to conform to Hinduism. This was confusing to many non-Hindus in India, given Hinduism’s relatively indefinable nature. Also, many of the beliefs that are widely identified as belonging to Hinduism, such as the avoidance of contaminants, were already practiced by many non-Hindus. As part of the Hindu nationalist movement, pro-Hindu groups also tried to limit the rights of minorities like Muslims. These collective actions led to violent conflicts between Hindus and Muslims.

In the late 1990s, India also experienced con- flict with its neighbors on the Indian subcontinent, most notably Pakistan, a former Indian land that became a new nation when the British sacrificed control of this land in 1947. India and Pakistan, the latter of which is predominantly Muslim, had a long-standing border dispute, dating back to the 1947 emancipation that gave both countries their independence. In 1998, this dispute erupted when India performed nuclear weapons tests, prompting a response from Pakistan, which conducted its own nuclear weapons tests.

Literary Style

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Setting The setting is extremely important in this story. The differences between Indian life in India and Indian life in America are profound. Mrs. Dutta, Sagar, and Shyamoli were all born in India, but Sagar and Shyamoli have assimilated American culture, whereas Mrs. Dutta still follows traditional Indian customs. Mrs. Dutta notices this on many occasions. For example, unlike Indian women, Shyamoli expresses her frustrations...

(This entire section contains 700 words.)

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often. ‘‘Mrs. Dutta did not remember that the Indian Shyamoli, the docile bride . . . pursed her lips in quite this way to let out a breath at once patient and exasperated.’’ Also, Shyamoli gives Mrs. Dutta instructions that contradict their mutual Hindu religion. For example, Shyamoli asks Mrs. Dutta to save food that has not been eaten: ‘‘But surely Shyamoli, a girl from a good Hindu family, doesn’t expect her to put contaminatedjutha things with the rest of the food.’’ However, Shyamoli, who has become as American as her surroundings, does expect Mrs. Dutta to go against her habits and religious beliefs. In the end, Mrs. Dutta cannot do this and chooses to return to India.

Flashback The present action in the story consists of a number of events that take place during two days of Mrs. Dutta’s stay with her son’s family in America. However, this is only half of the story. The other half consists of flashbacks, each of which helps to give the reader more information about a specific aspect of Indian culture, while illustrating the con- flict between Indian and American cultures. For example, while Mrs. Dutta is getting ready in the bathroom on the second morning, she hears Mrinalini complaining that Mrs. Dutta has been in the bathroom too long, which Mrs. Dutta thinks is disrespectful. She ‘‘hopes that Shyamoli will not be too harsh with the girl’’ and then remembers back to all of the times she had to punish Sagar. ‘‘Whenever she lifted her hand to him, her heart was pierced through and through. Such is a mother’s duty.’’ When the narrator returns to the present, Shyamoli does not punish Mrinalini, further illustrating the difference between the two cultures.

In several cases, the flashbacks are more recent and take place after Mrs. Dutta has already arrived at her son’s house. For example, when Mrs. Dutta is hand-washing her clothes in secret because she is afraid of the American washing machine, she remembers back to the day that she asked Sagar to hang up a clothesline for her so she could wash her own clothes. Shyamoli objected, saying that people do not do that in their neighborhood and told Mrs. Dutta to just store her dirty clothes in a hamper in her room until the end of the week when the family does their laundry. ‘‘Mrs. Dutta agreed reluctantly. She knew she should not store unclean clothes in the same room where she kept the pictures of her gods. That would bring bad luck.’’

Imagery The story also juxtaposes many contrasting images that further help to underscore the conflict between Indian and American cultures. For example, in America, Mrs. Dutta uses ‘‘her metal tongue cleaner’’ but does not like ‘‘the minty toothpaste’’ that Sagar’s family uses, since it ‘‘does not leave her mouth feeling as clean as does the bittersweet neem stick she’s been using all her life.’’ Other contrasting images include food. When Mrs. Dutta prepares a traditional Indian meal, it is an involved process: ‘‘With practiced fingers she throws an assortment of spices into the blender: coriander, cumin, cloves, black pepper, a few red chiles for vigor. No stale bottled curry powder for her.’’ This exotic image contrasts sharply with the ‘‘burritos from the freezer’’ that Mrs. Dutta knows her grandchildren would rather eat. Also, when Mrs. Dutta looks out the window of her son’s house, where one can stare ‘‘for hours and not see one living soul,’’ she offers some images of what life was like in India. She remembers ‘‘vegetable vendors with enormous wicker baskets balanced on their heads,’’ ‘‘peasant women with colorful tattoos on their arms,’’ and even animals, such as the ‘‘cows that planted themselves majestically in the center of the road, ignoring honking drivers.

Media Adaptations

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The Best American Short Stories 1999, which includes the story ‘‘Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter,’’ was adapted as an audiobook in 1999. It is available on four audiocassettes from Mariner Books. ‘‘Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter’’ is read by Divakaruni.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Aldama, Frederick Luis, Review of The Unknown Errors of Our Lives, in World Literature Today, Vol. 76, No. 1, Winter 2002, pp. 112–13.

Bose, Sudip, Review of The Unknown Errors of Our Lives, in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 106, No. 26, July 1, 2001, p. 16.

Divakaruni, Chitra, ‘‘Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter,’’ in The Best American Short Stories 1999, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999, pp. 29–47.

Review of The Unknown Errors of Our Lives, in Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2001.

Review of The Unknown Errors of Our Lives, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 248, No. 11, March 12, 2001, p. 61.

Seaman, Donna, Review of The Unknown Errors of Our Lives, in Booklist, Vol. 97, No. 13, March 1, 2001, p. 1187.

Further Reading Arnett, Robert, India Unveiled, Atman Press, 1999. Arnett, a non-Indian who is enamored with India, offers an in-depth discussion of India’s geography, people, and culture. The book, which discusses India region by region, includes more than two hundred photographs and seven detailed maps.

Henderson, Carol E., Culture and Customs of India, Greenwood Press, 2002. Henderson’s book examines what life is like for the one billion residents of India, who represent hundreds of different social groups. The book includes sections on every major aspect of Indian life, including food and dress; women, marriage, and family; and religion.

Lakhani, Mrs., Indian Recipes for a Healthy Heart: 140 Low- Fat, Low-Cholesterol, Low-Sodium Gourmet Dishes from India, Fahil Publishing Company, 1992. In Divakaruni’s story, Shaymoli worries about the high-fat content of the traditional Indian dishes that Mrs. Dutta prepares for Sagar’s family. In her cookbook, Mrs. Lakhani shows how the fat content can be cut out of many traditional Indian meals without sacrificing taste. The last section of the book includes information on spice usage and flavor; an explanation of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and sodium; and the cholesterol differences between raw and cooked foods.

Moorhouse, Geoffrey, Calcutta, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. In one of few book-length profiles of Calcutta, Moorhouse discusses the social conditions, people, and politics of this massive city. Although this book is outdated, it does give an idea of what life was like in the city when Mrs. Dutta would have lived there with her husband and son.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide