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A P R I L  1 9 9 8

Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter
Awake in a strange place
When Mrs. Dutta decided to give up her home of forty-five years to go to America, her relatives were less surprised than she had expected. Everyone knows, they said, that a wife's place is with her husband, and a widow's is with her son

by Chitra B. Divakaruni

The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

WHEN the alarm goes off at 5:00 A.M., buzzing like a trapped wasp, Mrs. Dutta has been lying awake for quite a while. She still has difficulty sleeping on the Perma Rest mattress that Sagar and Shyamoli, her son and daughter-in-law, have bought specially for her, though she has had it now for two months. It is too American-soft, unlike the reassuringly solid copra ticking she used at home. But this is home now, she reminds herself. She reaches hurriedly to turn off the alarm, but in the dark her fingers get confused among the knobs, and the electric clock falls with a thud to the floor. Its angry metallic call vibrates through the walls of her room, and she is sure it will wake everyone.
Related feature:

  • Facts & Fiction: A Woman's Places
    An Atlantic Unbound interview with Chitra B. Divakaruni.

    Discuss this story in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

    Go to part two of this story.

  • She yanks frantically at the wire until she feels it give, and in the abrupt silence that follows she hears herself breathing, a sound harsh and uneven and full of guilt.

    Mrs. Dutta knows, of course, that this ruckus is her own fault. She should just not set the alarm. She does not need to get up early here in California, in her son's house. 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. How hard it was then to pull her unwilling body away from the sleep-warm clasp of her husband, Sagar's father, whom she had just learned to love; to stumble to the kitchen that smelled of stale garam masala and light the coal stove so that she could make morning tea for them all -- her parents- in- law, her husband, his two younger brothers, and the widowed aunt who lived with them.

    After dinner, when the family sits in front of the TV, she tries to tell her grandchildren about those days. "I was never good at starting that stove -- the smoke stung my eyes, making me cough and cough. Breakfast was never ready on time, and my mother- in- law -- oh, how she scolded me, until I was in tears. Every night I'd pray to Goddess Durga, please let me sleep late, just one morning!"

    "Mmmm," Pradeep says, bent over a model plane.

    "Oooh, how awful," Mrinalini says, wrinkling her nose politely before she turns back to a show filled with jokes that Mrs. Dutta does not understand.

    "That's why you should sleep in now, Mother," Shyamoli says, smiling at her from the recliner where she sits looking through The Wall Street Journal. With her legs crossed so elegantly under the shimmery blue skirt she has changed into after work, and her unusually fair skin, she could pass for an American, thinks Mrs. Dutta, whose own skin is as brown as roasted cumin. The thought fills her with an uneasy pride.

    From the floor where he leans against Shyamoli's knee, Sagar adds, "We want you to be comfortable, Ma. To rest. That's why we brought you to America."

    In spite of his thinning hair and the gold- rimmed glasses that he has recently taken to wearing, Sagar's face seems to Mrs. Dutta still that of the boy she used to send off to primary school with his metal tiffin box. She remembers how he crawled into her bed on stormy monsoon nights, how when he was ill, no one else could make him drink his barley water. Her heart lightens in sudden gladness because she is really here, with him and his children in America. "Oh, Sagar," she says, smiling, "now you're talking like this! But did you give me a moment's rest while you were growing up?" And she launches into a description of childhood pranks that has him shaking his head indulgently while disembodied TV laughter echoes through the room.

    But later he comes into her bedroom and says, a little shamefaced, "Mother, please don't get up so early in the morning. All that noise in the bathroom -- it wakes us up, and Molli has such a long day at work... "

    And she, turning a little so that he won't see her foolish eyes filling with tears, as though she were a teenage bride again and not a woman well over sixty, nods her head, yes, yes.

    WAITING for the sounds of the stirring household to release her from the embrace of her Perma Rest mattress, Mrs. Dutta repeats the 108 holy names of God. Om Keshavaya Namah, Om Narayanaya Namah, Om Madhavaya Namah. But underneath she is thinking of the bleached- blue aerogram from Mrs. Basu that has been waiting unanswered on her bedside table all week, filled with news from home. Someone robbed the Sandhya jewelry store. The bandits had guns, but luckily no one was hurt. Mr. Joshi's daughter, that sweet- faced child, has run away with her singing teacher. Who would've thought it? Mrs. Barucha's daughter- in- law had one more baby girl. Yes, their fourth. You'd think they'd know better than to keep trying for a boy. Last Tuesday was Bangla Bandh, another labor strike, everything closed down, not even the buses running. But you can't really blame them, can you? After all, factory workers have to eat too. Mrs. Basu's tenants, whom she'd been trying to evict forever, finally moved out. Good riddance, but you should see the state of the flat.

    At the very bottom Mrs. Basu wrote, Are you happy in America?

    Mrs. Dutta knows that Mrs. Basu, who has been her closest friend since they both moved to Ghoshpara Lane as young brides, cannot be fobbed off with descriptions of Fisherman's Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge, or even with anecdotes involving grandchildren. And so she has been putting off 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.

    Now Sagar is knocking on the children's doors -- a curious custom this, children being allowed to close their doors against their parents. With relief Mrs. Dutta gathers up her bathroom things. She has plenty of time. Their mother will have to rap again before Pradeep and Mrinalini open their doors and stumble out. Still, Mrs. Dutta is not one to waste the precious morning. She splashes cold water on her face and neck (she does not believe in pampering herself), scrapes the night's gumminess from her tongue with her metal tongue cleaner, and brushes vigorously, though the minty toothpaste does not leave her mouth feeling as clean as does the bittersweet neem stick she's been using all her life. She combs the knots out of her hair. Even at her age it is thicker and silkier than her daughter- in- law's permed curls. Such vanity, she scolds her reflection, and you a grandmother and a widow besides. Still, as she deftly fashions her hair into a neat coil, she remembers how her husband would always compare it to monsoon clouds.

    She hears a sudden commotion outside.

    "Pat! Minnie! What d'you mean you still haven't washed up? I'm late to work every morning nowadays because of you kids."

    "But, Mom, she's in there. She's been there forever... " Mrinalini says.

    Pause. Then, "So go to the downstairs bathroom."

    "But all our stuff is here," Pradeep says, and Mrinalini adds, "It's not fair. Why can't she go downstairs?"

    A longer pause. Mrs. Dutta hopes that Shyamoli will not be too harsh with the girl. But a child who refers to elders in that disrespectful way ought to be punished. How many times did she slap Sagar for something far less, though he was her only one, the jewel of her eye, come to her after she had been married for seven years and everyone had given up hope? Whenever she lifted her hand to him, her heart was pierced through and through. Such is a mother's duty.

    But Shyamoli only says, in a tired voice, "That's enough! Go put on your clothes, hurry!"

    The grumblings recede. Footsteps clatter down the stairs. Inside the bathroom Mrs. Dutta bends over the sink, fists tight in the folds of her sari. Hard with the pounding in her head to think what she feels most -- anger at the children for their rudeness, or at Shyamoli for letting them go unrebuked. Or is it shame she feels (but why?), this burning, acid and indigestible, that coats her throat in molten metal?

    IT is 9:00 A.M., and the house, after the flurry of de-
    partures, of frantic "I can't find my socks" and "Mom, he took my lunch money" and "I swear I'll leave you kids behind if you're not in the car in exactly one minute," has settled into its quiet daytime rhythms.

    Busy in the kitchen, Mrs. Dutta has recovered her spirits. Holding on to grudges is too exhausting, and besides, the kitchen -- sunlight spilling across its countertops while the refrigerator hums reassuringly in the background -- is her favorite place.

    Mrs. Dutta hums too as she fries potatoes for alu dum. Her voice is rusty and slightly off- key. In India she would never have ventured to sing, but with everyone gone the house is too quiet, all that silence pressing down on her like the heel of a giant hand, and the TV voices, with their strange foreign accents, are no help at all. As the potatoes turn golden- brown, she permits herself a moment of nostalgia for her Calcutta kitchen -- the new gas stove she bought with the birthday money Sagar sent, the scoured- shiny brass pots stacked by the meat safe, the window with the lotus-pattern grille through which she could look down on white- uniformed children playing cricket after school. The mouthwatering smell of ginger and chili paste, ground fresh by Reba, the maid, and, in the evening, strong black Assam tea brewing in the kettle when Mrs. Basu came by to visit. 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.

    But only fools indulge in nostalgia, so Mrs. Dutta shakes her head clear of images and straightens up the Sandalskitchen. She pours the half-drunk glasses of milk down the sink, though Shyamoli has told her to save them in the refrigerator. But surely Shyamoli, a girl from a good Hindu family, doesn't expect her to put contaminated jutha things with the rest of the food. She washes the breakfast dishes by hand instead of letting them wait inside the dishwasher till night, breeding germs. With practiced fingers she throws an assortment of spices into the blender: coriander, cumin, cloves, black pepper, a few red chilies for vigor. No stale bottled curry powder for her. At least the family's eating well since I arrived, she writes in her mind. Proper Indian food, puffed-up chapatis, fish curry in mustard sauce, and real pulao with raisins and cashews and ghee -- the way you taught me, Roma -- instead of Rice- a- roni. She would like to add, They love it, but thinking of Shyamoli, she hesitates.

    At first Shyamoli was happy enough to have someone take over the cooking. "It's wonderful to come home to a hot dinner," she'd say. Or "Mother, what crispy papads, and your fish curry is out of this world." But recently she has taken to picking at her food, and once or twice from the kitchen Mrs. Dutta has caught wisps of words, intensely whispered: "cholesterol," "all putting on weight," "she's spoiling you." And though Shyamoli always says no when the children ask if they can have burritos from the freezer instead, Mrs. Dutta suspects that she would really like to say yes.

    The children. A heaviness pulls at Mrs. Dutta's entire body when she thinks of them. Like so much in this country, they have turned out to be -- yes, she might as well admit it a disappointment.

    For this she blames, in part, the Olan Mills portrait. Perhaps it was foolish of her to set so much store by a photograph, especially one taken years ago. But it was such a charming scene -- Mrinalini in a ruffled white dress with her arm around her brother, Pradeep chubby and dimpled in a suit and bow tie, a glorious autumn forest blazing red and yellow behind them. (Later Mrs. Dutta was saddened to learn that the forest was merely a backdrop in a studio in California, where real trees did not turn such colors.)

    The picture had arrived, silver- framed and wrapped in a plastic sheet filled with bubbles, with a note from Shyamoli explaining that it was a Mother's Day gift. (A strange concept, a day set aside to honor mothers. Did the sahibs not honor their mothers the rest of the year, then?) For a week Mrs. Dutta could not decide where it should be hung. If she put it in the drawing room, visitors would be able to admire her grandchildren, but if she put it on the bedroom wall, she would be able to see the photo last thing before she fell asleep. She finally opted for the bedroom, and later, when she was too ill with pneumonia to leave her bed for a month, she was glad of it.

    Mrs. Dutta was accustomed to living on her own. She had done it for three years after Sagar's father died, politely but stubbornly declining
    the offers of various relatives, well- meaning and otherwise, to come and stay with her. In this she surprised herself as well as others, who thought of her as a shy, sheltered woman, one who would surely fall apart without her husband to handle things for her. But she managed quite well. She missed Sagar's father, of course, especially in the evenings, when it had been his habit to read to her the more amusing parts of the newspaper while she rolled out chapatis. But once the grief receded, she found she enjoyed being mistress of her own life, as she confided to Mrs. Basu. She liked being able, for the first time ever, to lie in bed all evening and read a new novel of Shankar's straight through if she wanted, or to send out for hot eggplant pakoras on a rainy day without feeling guilty that she wasn't serving up a balanced meal.

    When the pneumonia hit, everything changed.

    Mrs. Dutta had been ill before, but those illnesses had been different. Even in bed she'd been at the center of the household, with Reba coming to find out what should be cooked, Sagar's father bringing her shirts with missing buttons, her mother- in- law, now old and tamed, complaining that the cook didn't brew her tea strong enough, and Sagar running in crying because he'd had a fight with the neighbor boy. But now she had no one to ask her, querulously, Just how long do you plan to remain sick? No one waited in impatient exasperation for her to take on her duties again. No one's life was inconvenienced the least bit by her illness.

    Therefore she had no reason to get well.

    When this thought occurred to Mrs. Dutta, she was so frightened that her body grew numb. The walls of the room spun into blackness; the bed on which she lay, a vast fourposter she had shared with Sagar's father since their wedding, rocked like a dinghy caught in a storm; and a great hollow roaring reverberated inside her head. For a moment, unable to move or see, she thought, I'm dead. Then her vision, desperate and blurry, caught on the portrait. My grandchildren. With some difficulty she focused on the bright, oblivious sheen of their faces, the eyes so like Sagar's that for a moment heartsickness twisted inside her like a living thing. She drew a shudder of breath into her aching lungs, and the roaring seemed to recede. When the afternoon post brought another letter from Sagar -- Mother, you really should come and live with us. We worry about you all alone in India, especially when you're sick like this -- she wrote back the same day, with fingers that still shook a little, You're right: my place is with you, with my grandchildren.

    But now that she is here on the other side of the world, she is wrenched by doubt. She knows the grandchildren love her -- how can it be otherwise among family? And she loves them, she reminds herself, even though they have put away, somewhere in the back of a closet, the vellum-bound Ramayana for Young Readers that she carried all the way from India in her hand luggage. Even though their bodies twitch with impatience when she tries to tell them stories of her girlhood. Even though they offer the most transparent excuses when she asks them to sit with her while she chants the evening prayers. They're flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, she reminds herself. But sometimes when she listens, from the other room, to them speaking on the phone, their American voices rising in excitement as they discuss a glittering, alien world of Power Rangers, Metallica, and Spirit Week at school, she almost cannot believe what she hears.

    STEPPING into the back yard with a bucket of newly washed clothes, Mrs. Dutta views the sky with some anxiety. The butter- gold sunlight is gone, black- bellied clouds have taken over the horizon, and the air feels still and heavy on her face, as before a Bengal storm. What if her clothes don't dry by the time the others return home?

    Washing clothes has been a problem for Mrs. Dutta ever since she arrived in California.

    "We can't, Mother," Shyamoli said with a sigh when Mrs. Dutta asked Sagar to put up a clothesline for her in the back yard. (Shyamoli sighed often nowadays. Perhaps it was an American habit? Mrs. Dutta did not remember that the Indian Shyamoli, the docile bride she'd mothered for a month before putting her on a Pan Am flight to join her husband, pursed her lips in quite this way to let out a breath at once patient and exasperated.) "It's just not done, not in a nice neighborhood like this one. And being the only Indian family on the street, we have to be extra careful. People here sometimes" She broke off with a shake of her head. "Why don't you just keep your dirty clothes in the hamper I've put in your room, and I'll wash them on Sunday along with everyone else's."

    Afraid of causing another sigh, 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. And the odor. Lying in bed at night she could smell it distinctly, even though Shyamoli claimed that the hamper was airtight. The sour, starchy old-woman smell embarrassed her.

    She was more embarrassed when, on Sunday afternoons, Shyamoli brought the laundry into the family room to fold. Mrs. Dutta would bend intently over her knitting, face tingling with shame, as her daughter- in- law nonchalantly shook out the wisps of lace, magenta and sea- green and black, that were her panties, placing them next to a stack of Sagar's briefs. And when, right in front of everyone, Shyamoli pulled out Mrs. Dutta's crumpled, baggy bras from the heap, she wished the ground would open up and swallow her, like the Sita of mythology.

    Then one day Shyamoli set the clothes basket down in front of Sagar.

    "Can you do them today, Sagar?" (Mrs. Dutta, who had never, through the forty-two years of her marriage, addressed Sagar's father by name, tried not to wince.) "I've got to get that sales report into the computer by tonight."

    Before Sagar could respond, Mrs. Dutta was out of her chair, knitting needles dropping to the floor.

    "No, no, no, clothes and all is no work for the man of the house. I'll do it." The thought of her son's hands searching through the basket and lifting up his wife's -- and her own -- underclothes filled her with horror.

    "Mother!" Shyamoli said. "This is why Indian men are so useless around the house. 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? How'll I manage if he doesn't help me at home?"

    "I'll help you instead," Mrs. Dutta ventured.

    "You don't understand, do you, Mother?" Shyamoli said with a shaky smile. Then she went into the study.

    Mrs. Dutta sat down in her chair and tried to understand. But after a while she gave up and whispered to Sagar that she wanted him to teach her how to run the washer and dryer.

    "Why, Mother? Molli's quite happy to ... "

    "I've got to learn it ... " Her voice was low and desperate as she rummaged through the tangled heap for her clothes.

    Her son began to object and then shrugged. "Oh, very well. If it makes you happy."

    But later, when she faced the machines alone, their cryptic symbols and rows of gleaming knobs terrified her. What if she pressed the wrong button and flooded the entire floor with soapsuds? What if she couldn't turn the machines off and they kept going, whirring maniacally, until they exploded? (This had happened on a TV show just the other day. Everyone else had laughed at the woman who jumped up and down, screaming hysterically, but Mrs. Dutta sat stiff- spined, gripping the armrests of her chair.) So she has taken to washing her clothes in the bathtub when she is alone. She never did such a chore before, but she remembers how the village washerwomen of her childhood would beat their saris clean against river rocks. And a curious satisfaction fills her as her clothes hit the porcelain with the same solid wet thunk.

    My small victory, my secret.

    This is why everything must be dried and put safely away before Shyamoli returns. Ignorance, as Mrs. Dutta knows well from years of managing a household, is a great promoter of harmony. So she keeps an eye on the menacing advance of the clouds as she hangs up her blouses and underwear, as she drapes her sari along the redwood fence that separates her son's property from the neighbor's, first wiping the fence clean with a dish towel she has secretly taken from the bottom drawer in the kitchen. But she isn't worried. Hasn't she managed every time, even after that freak hailstorm last month, when she had to use the iron from the laundry closet to press everything dry? The memory pleases her. 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 doing things, of solving problems creatively. You would be most proud if you saw me.

    The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

    Chitra B. Divakaruni received the 1995 American Book Award for fiction for Arranged Marriage, a collection of short stories. Her most recent novel is The Mistress of Spices (1997).

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