Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter

by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 852

Cultural Conflict
The major theme in the story is the many differences between traditional Indians and modern Indians living in America and the conflict that this cultural divide can create. On one end of the spectrum is Mrs. Dutta, who has been raised to be a traditional Indian wife. In India, she was taught that her needs should be placed below the family’s needs and is used to getting up earlier than everyone else to make breakfast. However, in America, her early morning activities are a problem, because they wake up Shyamoli. ‘‘But the habit, taught her by her mother-in-law when she was a bride of seventeen, A good wife wakes before the rest of the household, is one she finds impossible to break.’’ This is the first of many cultural conflicts that Mrs. Dutta faces. On the other end of the spectrum are Shyamoli and Mrs. Dutta’s two grandchildren, who have totally assimilated American culture. They do not like Mrs. Dutta’s traditional Indian meals and would rather engage in American activities like reading the Wall Street Journal or playing video games than listen to Mrs. Dutta’s stories. Finally, Sagar is trapped between the two cultures. He enjoys various aspects of American culture, such as watching television crime shows, but he also enjoys his mother’s food and stories. Also, he wants to please his Indian-Ameri can wife but feels compelled to be a dutiful son to his Indian mother. This creates the largest conflict of all, because he is unable to be totally supportive of either woman. At the end, Sagar bonds with his wife and family, and Mrs. Dutta realizes that her place is not with her family in America; it is with her friend, Mrs. Basu, in Calcutta.

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Roles of Women
The story also explores the roles of Indian women in both India and America. Both Shyamoli and Mrs. Dutta have had arranged marriages, but their respective homes offer them very different environments. In India, women are expected to serve the family, to put their own needs last, and, above all, to be subservient to their husbands and other men. At one point, the narrator notes that ‘‘Mrs. Dutta . . . had never, through the forty-two years of her marriage, addressed Sagar’s father by name.’’ Also, women are expected to live with a man, not on their own. Mrs. Dutta does live on her own for a few years after her husband’s death, but her other relatives do not think this is appropriate and let her know that they are glad that Sagar asked her to come to America: ‘‘Good thing that boy of hers had come to his senses and called her to join him. Everyone knows a wife’s place is with her husband, and a widow’s is with her son.’’

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Latest answer posted August 7, 2013, 8:34 pm (UTC)

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On the other hand, Indian women who live in the United States, like Shyamoli, often enjoy the freedoms that other American women have. Shyamoli is not subservient to Sagar. She argues with him when she is angry, such as when Mrs. Dutta’s behavior attracts negative attention from their neighbor, and says, ‘‘I know having her here is important to you. But I can’t do it any longer. I just can’t. Some days I feel like taking the kids and leaving.’’ Shyamoli does not totally depend on Sagar, either. She has her own job outside of the home and expects Sagar to share the housework with her, a fact that mortifies Mrs. Dutta. Says Shyamoli, ‘‘Here in America we don’t believe in men’s work and women’s work. Don’t I work outside all day, just like Sagar?’’

Happiness
When Mrs. Dutta became a wife, her own needs were placed below the needs of her husband and family. As a result, her own happiness since then has been measured in terms of how much she is needed by others. When she displeases her son, she is sad, and when her son accepts her offer to make him a snack, ‘‘it is as though merciful time has given her back her youth, that sweet, aching urgency of being needed again.’’ When she receives the letter from Mrs. Basu that asks ‘‘Are you happy in America?’’ she is unable to answer it right away, because she has conflicting feelings: her duty tells her to serve her family, but her family does not want to be served. ‘‘And so she has been putting off her reply, while in her heart family loyalty battles with insidious feelings of—.’’ In this early part of the story, Mrs. Dutta is afraid to acknowledge that by following her duty she is not happy. However, as each attempt to adapt to American life and help her family fails, these feelings of unhappiness get stronger. When she overhears Sagar and Shyamoli talking about her, she realizes that she is unwanted and also that she does not want to be in America. It is only when she casts aside her expected duty that she is able to realize what will truly make her happy— returning to Calcutta.

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