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HEN Mrs. Dutta decided to give up her home of forty- five years, her relatives showed far less surprise than she had expected. "Oh, we all knew you'd end up in America sooner or later," they said. She had been foolish to stay on alone so long after Sagar's father, may he find eternal peace, passed away. 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.
Mrs. Dutta had nodded in meek agreement, ashamed to let anyone know that the night before she had awakened weeping.
"Well, now that you're going, what'll happen to all your things?" they asked.
Mrs. Dutta, still troubled over those traitorous tears, had offered up her household effects in propitiation. "Here, Didi, you take this cutwork bedspread. Mashima, for a long time I have meant for you to have these Corning Ware dishes; I know how much you admire them. And Boudi, this tape recorder that Sagar sent a year back is for you. Yes, yes, I'm quite sure. I can always tell Sagar to buy me another one when I get there."
An Atlantic Unbound interview with Chitra B. Divakaruni.
Go to part one of this story.
Mrs. Basu, coming in just as a cousin made off triumphantly with a bone-china
tea set, had protested. "Prameela, have you gone crazy? That tea set used to
belong to your mother-
"But what'll I do with it in America? Shyamoli has her own set"
A look that Mrs. Dutta couldn't read flitted across Mrs. Basu's face. "But do you want to drink from it for the rest of your life?"
"What do you mean?"
Mrs. Basu hesitated. Then she said, "What if you don't like it there?"
"How can I not like it, Roma?" Mrs. Dutta's voice was strident, even to her own ears. With an effort she controlled it and continued. "I'll miss my friends, I know -- and you most of all. And the things we do together -- evening tea, our walk around Rabindra Sarobar Lake, Thursday night Bhagavad Gita class. But Sagar -- they're my only family. And blood is blood, after all."
"I wonder," Mrs. Basu said drily, and Mrs. Dutta recalled that though both of Mrs. Basu's children lived just a day's journey away, they came to see her only on occasions when common decency dictated their presence. Perhaps they were tightfisted in money matters, too. Perhaps that was why Mrs. Basu had started renting out her downstairs a few years earlier, even though, as anyone in Calcutta knew, tenants were more trouble than they were worth. Such filial neglect must be hard to take, though Mrs. Basu, loyal to her children as indeed a mother should be, never complained. In a way, Mrs. Dutta had been better off, with Sagar too far away for her to put his love to the test.
"At least don't give up the house," Mrs. Basu was saying. "You won't be able to find another place in case ... "
"In case what?" Mrs. Dutta asked, her words like stone chips. She was surprised to find that she was angrier with Mrs. Basu than she'd ever been. Or was she afraid? My son isn't like yours, she'd been on the verge of spitting out. She took a deep breath and made herself smile, made herself remember that she might never see her friend again.
"Ah, Roma," she said, putting her arm around Mrs. Basu. "You think I'm such an old witch that my Sagar and my Shyamoli will be unable to live with me?"
RS. Dutta hums a popular Tagore song as she pulls her sari from the fence. It's been a good day, as good as it can be in a country where you might stare out the window for hours and not see one living soul. No vegetable vendors with enormous wicker baskets balanced on their heads, no knife sharpeners with their distinctive call scissors- knives-choppers, scissors- knives- choppersto bring the children running. No peasant women with colorful tattoos on their arms to sell you cookware in exchange for your old silk saris. Why, even the animals that frequented Ghoshpara Lane had personality -- stray dogs that knew to line up outside the kitchen door just when the leftovers were likely to be thrown out; the goat that maneuvered its head through the garden grille hoping to get at her dahlias; cows that planted themselves majestically in the center of the road, ignoring honking drivers. And right across the street was Mrs. Basu's two- story house, which Mrs. Dutta knew as well as her own. How many times had she walked up the stairs to that airy room, painted sea- green and filled with plants, where her friend would be waiting for her?
What took you so long today, Prameela? Your tea is cold already.
Wait till you hear what happened, Roma. Then you won't scold me for being late --
Stop it, you silly woman, Mrs. Dutta tells herself severely. Every single one of your relatives would give an arm and a leg to be in your place, you know that. After lunch you're going to write a nice letter to Roma telling her exactly how delighted you are to be here.
From where Mrs. Dutta stands, gathering up petticoats and blouses, she can look into the next yard. Not that there's much to see -- just tidy grass and a few pale- blue flowers whose name she doesn't know. Two wooden chairs sit under a tree, but Mrs. Dutta has never seen anyone using them. What's the point of having such a big yard if you're not even going to sit in it? she thinks. Calcutta pushes itself into her mind again, with its narrow, blackened flats where families of six and eight and ten squeeze themselves into two tiny rooms, and her heart fills with a sense of loss she knows to be illogical.
When she first arrived in Sagar's home, Mrs. Dutta wanted to go over and meet her next-door neighbors, maybe take them some of her special sweet rasogollahs, as she'd often done with Mrs. Basu. But Shyamoli said she shouldn't. Such things were not the custom in California, she explained earnestly. You didn't just drop in on people without calling ahead. Here everyone was busy; they didn't sit around chatting, drinking endless cups of sugar- tea. Why, they might even say something unpleasant to her.
"For what?" Mrs. Dutta had asked disbelievingly, and Shyamoli had said, "Because Americans don't like neighbors to" -- here she used an English phrase -- "invade their privacy." Mrs. Dutta, who didn't fully understand the word "privacy," because there was no such term in Bengali, had gazed at her daughter- in- law in some bewilderment. But she understood enough not to ask again. In the following months, though, she often looked over the fence, hoping to make contact. People were people, whether in India or in America, and everyone appreciated a friendly face. When Shyamoli was as old as Mrs. Dutta, she would know that too.
Today, just as she is about to turn away, out of the corner of her eye Mrs. Dutta notices a movement. At one of the windows a woman is standing, her hair a sleek gold like that of the TV heroines whose exploits baffle Mrs. Dutta when she tunes in to an afternoon serial. She is smoking a cigarette, and a curl of gray rises lazily, elegantly, from her fingers. Mrs. Dutta is so happy to see another human being in the middle of her solitary day that she forgets how much she disapproves of smoking, especially in women. She lifts her hand in the gesture she has seen her grandchildren use to wave an eager hello.
The woman stares back at Mrs. Dutta. Her lips are a perfect painted red, and when she raises her cigarette to her mouth, its tip glows like an animal's eye. She does not wave back or smile. Perhaps she is not well? Mrs. Dutta feels sorry for her, alone in her illness in a silent house with only cigarettes for solace, and she wishes the etiquette of America did not prevent her from walking over with a word of cheer and a bowl of her fresh- cooked alu dum.
RS. Dutta rarely gets a chance to be alone with her son. In the morning he is in too much of a hurry even to drink the fragrant cardamom tea that she (remembering how as a child he would always beg for a sip from her cup) offers to make him. He doesn't return until dinnertime, and afterward he must help the children with their homework, read the paper, hear the details of Shyamoli's day, watch his favorite TV crime show in order to unwind, and take out the garbage. In between, for he is a solicitous son, he converses with Mrs. Dutta. In response to his questions she assures him that her arthritis is much better now; no, no, she's not growing bored being at home all the time; she has everything she needs Shyamoli has been so kind. But perhaps he could pick up a few aerograms on his way back tomorrow? She obediently recites for him an edited list of her day's activities, and smiles when he praises her cooking. But when he says, "Oh, well, time to turn in, another working day tomorrow," she feels a vague pain, like hunger, in the region of her heart.
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 at the door today, a good hour before Shyamoli is due back. The children are busy in the family room doing homework and watching cartoons (mostly the latter, Mrs. Dutta suspects). But for once she doesn't mind, because they race in to give their father hurried hugs and then race back again. And she has him, her son, all to herself in a kitchen filled with the familiar, pungent odors of tamarind sauce and chopped coriander leaves.
"Khoka," she says, calling him by a childhood name she hasn't used in years, "I could fry you two- three hot- hot luchis, if you like." As she waits for his reply, she can feel, in the hollow of her throat, the rapid thud of her heart. And when he says yes, that would be very nice, she shuts her eyes tight and takes a deep breath, and it is as though merciful time has given her back her youth, that sweet, aching urgency of being needed again.
RS. Dutta is telling Sagar a story.
"When you were a child, how scared you were of injections! One time, when the government doctor came to give us compulsory typhoid shots, you locked yourself in the bathroom and refused to come out. Do you remember what your father finally did? He went into the garden and caught a lizard and threw it in the bathroom window, because you were even more scared of lizards than of shots. And in exactly one second you ran out screaming right into the waiting doctor's arms."
Sagar laughs so hard that he almost upsets his tea (made with real sugar, because Mrs. Dutta knows it is better for her son than that chemical powder Shyamoli likes to use). There are tears in his eyes, and Mrs. Dutta, who had not dared to hope that he would find her story so amusing, feels gratified. When he takes off his glasses to wipe them, his face is oddly young, not like a father's at all, or even a husband's, and she has to suppress an impulse to put out her hand and rub away the indentations that the glasses have left on his nose.
"I'd totally forgotten," Sagar says. "How can you keep track of those old, old things?"
Because it is the lot of mothers to remember what no one else cares to, Mrs. Dutta thinks. To tell those stories over and over, until they are lodged, perforce, in family lore. We are the keepers of the heart's dusty corners.
But as she starts to say this, the front door creaks open, and she hears the faint click of Shyamoli's high heels. Mrs. Dutta rises, collecting the dirty dishes.
"Call me fifteen minutes before you're ready to eat, so that I can fry fresh luchis for everyone," she tells Sagar.
"You don't have to leave, Mother," he says.
Mrs. Dutta smiles her pleasure but doesn't stop. She knows that Shyamoli likes to be alone with her husband at this time, and today, in her happiness, she does not grudge her this.
"You think I've nothing to do, only sit and gossip with you?" she mock- scolds. "I want you to know I have a very important letter to finish."
Somewhere behind her she hears a thud -- a briefcase falling over. This surprises her. Shyamoli is always careful with it, because it was a gift from Sagar when she was finally made a manager in her company.
"Hi!" Sagar calls, and when there's no answer, "Hey, Molli, you okay?"
Shyamoli comes into the room slowly, her hair disheveled as though she has been running her fingers through it. Hot color blotches her cheeks.
"What's the matter, Molli?" Sagar walks over to give her a kiss. "Bad day at work?" Mrs. Dutta, embarrassed as always by this display of marital affection, turns toward the window, but not before she sees Shyamoli move her face away.
"Leave me alone." Her voice is low, shaking. "Just leave me alone."
"But what is it?" Sagar says with concern.
"I don't want to talk about it right now." Shyamoli lowers herself into a kitchen chair and puts her face in her hands. Sagar stands in the middle of the room, looking helpless. He raises his hand and lets it fall, as though he wants to comfort his wife but is afraid of what she might do.
A protective anger for her son surges inside Mrs. Dutta, but she moves away silently. In her mind- letter she writes, Women need to be strong, not react to every little thing like this. You and I, Roma, 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.
A sudden memory comes to her, one she hasn't thought of in years -- a day when she scorched a special kheer dessert. Her mother- in-law had shouted at her, "Didn't your mother teach you anything, you useless girl?" As punishment she refused to let Mrs. Dutta go with Mrs. Basu to the cinema, even though Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam, which all Calcutta was crazy about, was playing, and their tickets were bought already. Mrs. Dutta had wept the entire afternoon, but before Sagar's father came home, she washed her face carefully with cold water and applied kajal to her eyes so that he wouldn't know.
But everything is getting mixed up, and her own young, trying- not-to- cry face blurs into another -- why, it's Shyamoli's -- and a thought hits her so sharply in the chest that she has to hold on to her bedroom wall to keep from falling. 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 ...
Mrs. Dutta lowers herself heavily onto her bed, trying to erase such an insidious idea from her mind. Oh, this new country, where all the rules are upside down, it's confusing her. The space inside her skull feels stirred up, like a pond in which too many water buffaloes have been wading. Maybe things will settle down if she can focus on the letter to Roma.
Then she remembers that she has left the half- written aerogram on the kitchen table. She knows she should wait until after dinner, after her son and his wife have sorted things out. But a restlessness -- or is it defiance? -- has taken hold of her. She is sorry that Shyamoli is upset, but why should she have to waste her evening because of that? She'll go get her letter -- it's no crime, is it? She'll march right in and pick it up, and even if Shyamoli stops in mid-sentence with another one of those sighs, she'll refuse to feel apologetic. Besides, by now they're probably in the family room, watching TV.
Really, Roma, she writes in her head, as she feels her way along the unlighted corridor, the amount of TV they watch here is quite scandalous. The children, too, sitting for hours in front of that box like they've been turned into painted dolls, and then talking back when I tell them to turn it off. Of course she will never put such blasphemy into a real letter. Still, it makes her feel better to be able to say it, if only to herself.
In the family room the TV is on, but for once no one is paying it any attention. Shyamoli and Sagar sit on the sofa, conversing. From where she stands in the corridor, Mrs. Dutta cannot see them, but their shadows -- enormous against the wall where the table lamp has cast them -- seem to flicker and leap at her.
She is about to slip unseen into the kitchen when Shyamoli's rising voice arrests her. In its raw, shaking unhappiness it is so unlike her daughter- in- law's assured tones that Mrs. Dutta is no more able to move away from it than if she had heard the call of the nishi, the lost souls of the dead, the subject of so many of the tales on which she grew up.
"It's easy for you to say 'Calm down.' I'd like to see how calm you'd be if she came up to you and said, 'Kindly tell the old lady not to hang her clothes over the fence into my yard.' She said it twice, like I didn't understand English, like I was a savage. All these years I've been so careful not to give these Americans a chance to say something like this, and now"
"Shhh, Shyamoli, I said I'd talk to Mother about it."
"You always say that, but you never do anything. You're too busy being the perfect son, tiptoeing around her feelings. But how about mine? Aren't I a person too?"
"Hush, Molli, the children ... "
"Let them hear. I don't care anymore. Besides, they're not stupid. They already know what a hard time I've been having with her. You're the only one who refuses to see it."
In the passage Mrs. Dutta shrinks against the wall. She wants to move away, to hear nothing else, but her feet are formed of cement, impossible to lift, and Shyamoli's words pour into her ears like fire.
"I've explained over and over, and she still does what I've asked her not to -- throwing away perfectly good food, leaving dishes to drip all over the countertops. Ordering my children to stop doing things I've given them permission to do. She's taken over the entire kitchen, cooking whatever she likes. You come in the door and the smell of grease is everywhere, in all our clothes even. I feel like this isn't my house anymore."
"Be patient, Molli. She's an old woman, after all."
"I know. That's why I tried so hard. 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's voice disappears into a sob.
A shadow stumbles across the wall to her, and then another. Behind the weatherman's nasal tones, announcing a week of sunny days, Mrs. Dutta can hear a high, frightened weeping. The children, she thinks. This must be the first time they've seen their mother cry.
"Don't talk like that, sweetheart." Sagar leans forward, his voice, too, anguished. All the shadows on the wall shiver and merge into a single dark silhouette.
Mrs. Dutta stares at that silhouette, the solidarity of it. Sagar and Shyamoli's murmurs are lost beneath the noise in her head, a dry humming -- like thirsty birds, she thinks wonderingly. After a while she discovers that she has reached her room. In darkness she lowers herself onto her bed very gently, as though her body were made of the thinnest glass. Or perhaps ice -- she is so cold. She sits for a long time with her eyes closed, while inside her head thoughts whirl faster and faster until they disappear in a gray dust storm.
HEN Pradeep finally comes to call her for dinner, Mrs. Dutta follows him to the kitchen, where she fries luchis for everyone, the perfect circles of dough puffing up crisp and golden as always. Sagar and Shyamoli have reached a truce of some kind: she gives him a small smile, and he puts out a casual hand to massage the back of her neck. Mrs. Dutta shows no embarrassment at this. She eats her dinner. She answers questions put to her. She laughs when someone makes a joke. If her face is stiff, as though she had been given a shot of Novocain, no one notices. When the table is cleared, she excuses herself, saying she has to finish her letter.
Now Mrs. Dutta sits on her bed, reading over what she wrote in the innocent afternoon.
Dear Roma,With the edge of her sari Mrs. Dutta carefully wipes a tear that has fallen on the aerogram. 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. She can already hear them, the avid relatives in India who've been waiting for something just like this to happen. That Dutta-ginni, so set in her ways, we knew she'd never get along with her daughter-in-law. Or, worse, Did you hear about poor Prameela? How her family treated her? Yes, even her son, can you imagine?
This much surely she owes to Sagar.
And what does she owe herself, Mrs. Dutta, falling through black night with all the certainties she trusted in collapsed upon themselves like imploded stars, and only an image inside her eyelids for company? A silhouette -- man, wife, children, joined on a wall -- showing her how alone she is in this land of young people. And how unnecessary.
She is not sure how long she sits under the glare of the overhead light, how long her hands clench themselves in her lap. When she opens them, nail marks line the soft flesh of her palms, red hieroglyphs -- her body's language, telling her what to do.
Dear Roma, Mrs. Dutta writes,
I cannot answer your question about whether I am happy, for I am no longer sure I know what happiness is. All I know is that it isn't what I thought it to be. It isn't about being needed. It isn't about being with family either. It has something to do with love, I still think that, but in a different way than I believed earlier, a way I don't have the words to explain. Perhaps we can figure it out together, two old women drinking cha in your downstairs flat (for I do hope you will rent it to me on my return) while around us gossip falls -- but lightly, like summer rain, for that is all we will allow it to be. If I'm lucky -- and perhaps, in spite of all that has happened, I am -- the happiness will be in the figuring out.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.
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).
Illustrations by Gérard Dubois
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1998; Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter; Volume 281, No. 4; pages 88-97.