1Bharati Mukherjee’s ‘The Management of Grief’, (The Middleman and Other Stories, Grove Press, New York, 1988, pp. 179-97), is a spare, controlled story which focuses on the reactions of Shaila Bhave and her friend Kusum after the deaths of their husbands and children in a terrorist attack on an Air-India flight bound for India from Canada. Shaila Bhave, the main character, is a Punjabi Hindu living in Canada. To all appearances she is well-integrated and articulate. The Bhaves have gone beyond the initial conflicts of immigration and settling-in and have said their goodbyes to India. The story charts her journey through bereavement, from the initial stages of the stunned calm that envelops her when the news first breaks, through her rejection of the facts, despair and final acceptance. What we have is a woman who is alone and adrift, who is, maybe for the first time in her life, face to face with herself. It reveals what it is to be Indian, woman, wife and widow.
2The story is divided into ten sections and opens on the day when Shaila and Kusum first hear the news. All they know is that the plane has crashed off the Irish coast and that there are no survivors. The two women are sitting on the staircase of Shaila’s split-level house, holding hands. The house is filled with solicitous Indian friends who have taken charge: the women are in the kitchen making tea, «whispering , and moving tactfully» (p.179); the men and boys are tuned to different radio and TV stations, and relaying the latest news and developments. To all intents and purposes, they could be back in India. The geographical location has been subsumed by the landscape of the mind and emotions. The story is narrated on two levels - we are given Shaila’s external reactions of calm and control which are undercut by the turmoil that seethes in her mind: the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer', the ‘real’ and the ‘false’, what Mukherjee calls the «Before and After» of immigrant identity in her early novel, Wife (Ballantine Books, New York 1973, p.95). How does Shaila reconcile the dichotomy in her being which has been triggered off by exile and bereavement? «Like my husband’s spirit,» says Shaila, «I flutter between worlds» (p.189).
3In his essay entitled «Authority and Identity in India», (Daedalus, Fall 1989, vol. 118, no.4, pp.147-69), Professor T.G.Vaidyanathan states that the «master paradigm» (p.148) of the Indian sense of self is found in the guru-shishya (master-pupil) relationship, that this principle consists of «choosing a unique other whose guidance is thereafter unquestioned and indispensable», that «it celebrates the abrogation if not the very extinction of personality» unlike Western concepts which «joyfully celebrate the extension of personality and often personality itself», that an Indian is not «so much an ‘individual’ in the accepted Western sense of the term with its attendant corollaries of ‘identity’, ‘selfhood’, ‘moral choice’, ‘growth’ and so on but extraordinarily ‘dividual’» (ibid, p.148), that the the Indian sense of self is irrevocably linked to an external authority, to an ‘other’ or ‘others’. «Living as he does in a cosmos of interpersonal flow, the Hindu has an essentially fluid self, changing and interchanging with others in a manner that has baffled the Occidental mind habituated to the architecture of loneliness.» (ibid. p.151). Now, the guru-shishya paradigm does not apply only to that of the master and pupil or of mentor and protegé; it also extends to that of husband and wife. The Vedas not only define the wife as being the husband’s pupil (The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization, A.S.Altekar, Delhi, 1991), but that the husband and wife are «complements of each other» (ibid. p.95), and that this complementarity is essential to their spiritual journey towards self-realization or moksha which in turn rests on the concepts of dharma and karma which invest the Hindu world-view.
- 1 Bharati Mukherjee has stated that her best stories «are about characters who hear the wake-up call(...)
4Marriage in these terms is not a romantic bond, but a religious obligation for both partners. A brahmachari or bachelor is considered incomplete and cannot perform certain religious duties without the presence of his wife. Significantly, the first remark that Shaila makes about her husband is, «I never once told him that I loved him. (...) I was so well brought up that I never felt comfortable calling him by his first name» (MG, p.181). Indian women are from the day of their birth identified in relation to their fathers, brothers, husband and children, and I shall show how Shaila, in spite of being an only child of «progressive» and «rationalist» (MG, p.189) parents, in spite of her new-found life and identity in Canada, unconsciously falls back on the traditional patterns of behaviour to come to terms with her loss and grief. Divested of the sources of external authority (i.e., her husband and sons), that had hitherto defined her being, Shaila «delves deep into the unconscious»1 to provide herself with a template, a suprapersonal ‘other’ to guide her. She finds this in the archetype of the Indian woman - Sita.
5Sita, who in keeping with her dharma as wife, followed her husband, Rama, into exile. Sita, who in keeping with her svadharma, (personnal dharma), stepped over the white, protective circle, (the Laksmanarakha), drawn around her and thus precipitated the story of the Ramayana. The dynamics of the story of Sita is dharma; it spans both the self and the other, the personal and the suprapersonal, and it is this element, together with two others of the epic - that of exil and the Laksmanarekha - that is pertinent to the present paper.
6Women like Shaila and Kusum, who have followed their husbands into exile, (in this case, Canada), are literally following in Sita’s footsteps. «We were well brought up women; we were dutiful wives who kept our heads veiled, our voices shy and sweet» (MG.p.189). The crossing of forbidden borders, (orthodox taboos on leaving India are still prevalent), does not necessarily mean going beyond psychological and emotional limits. Shaila’s outer calm and composure is not the measure of her independence or autonomy as a liberated working woman who has her own life to lead but, rather, the «terrible calm», «the deadening quiet» (MG. p.183) of her dharma as widow, of a woman whose sense of identity has been obliterated by the loss of external self-defining constructs. The «fluid self», however, will always find contours to resubstantiate itself. In the epic, we find that Sita’s identity itself is a constant «différance» which takes into account, both the self as signified in this life and, the incarnations, the « signifiers », the other selves, that go back into the past and those that reach into the future. Sita is no other than Laksmi, the divine consort of Vishnu: the identities of the mythic couple change shapes and names through successive avatars. When Vishnu is Janardhana, she is Shri; when he is Hari, she is Padma; when he is Parusurama, she is Dharani; when he is Rama, she is Sita; when he is Krishna, she is Rukmini. (Hindu Mythology, W.J.Wilkins, Rupa & Co., Delhi, 1982).
7Significantly, when Shaila is shown a photograph of a body which could be that of one of her sons, she is unable to identify him. «There are five other boys who look like Vinod,» she says, (MG. p.188). How can she express her feeling that her «family surrounds [her], and that like the creatures in epics, they’ve changed shapes?» (MG. p.192), and that they, (the relatives), «have been melted down and recast as a new tribe» (MG. p.191). The days go by, and when Shaila is told by a young Irish policeman that the first sharks have been spotted at the site of the accident, she does not break down. «It is the shark’s duty. For every deer there is a hunter, for every fish, a fisherman» (MG. p.187). It is at moments like these, when Shaila is at her most vulnerable, that it is her Indianness, her real, inner self that sustains her.
8The operative word over here is ‘duty’, and it appears repeatedly in the story. Now, the concept of dharma has often been translated as ‘duty’. It is that, certainly, but it is also much more. The Sanskrit word ‘dharma’ comes from the root ‘dhr’ - ‘to hold’,’ to bear’, ‘to carry’, and thus means ‘that which holds together, supports, upholds’. In Philosophies of India, (Pantheon Books, New York, 1953), Heinrich Zimmer states that dharma refers «not only to the whole context of law and custom (religion, usage, statute, caste or sect observance, manner, modes of behaviour, duty, ethics, good work, virtue, religion or moral merit, justice, piety, impartiality) but also to the essential nature, character, or quality of the individual as a result of which his duty, social function, vocation or moral standard is what it is» and that consequently, «one’s dharma is the form of the manifestations in time of what one is» (p.163). Although she is unaware of it, it is by acting in accordance with her dharma that Shaila comes through the ordeal.
- 2 Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, eds., Women Writing in India (Oxford University Press, Delhi ,1995), 11(...)
9Shaila’s behaviour and reactions are that of the traditional Hindu widow. Her initial overriding impulse is to kill herself. The «lucky ones» are those who have died as «intact families with no survivors» (MG. p.186). She totally neglects herself: «I haven’t eaten in four days, haven’t brushed my teeth», she says (p.185). Shaila and Kusum go back to India where they go their separate ways. Shaila returns to her parents’ home. Again like the traditional widow who is enjoined to silence and to undertake a pilgrimage, Shaila, «courting aphasia» (p.190), travels to the great centres of pilgrimage - Varanasi, Kalighat, Rishikesh and Hardwar. There, on «the third day of the sixth month of this odyssey, in an abandoned temple in a tiny Himalayan village» (p. 190), Shaila has a strange and baffling experience which spans the sleazy and the mystical. In the presence of the saddhu, her husband ‘descends’ to her , takes her hands in his and says that she «must finish alone what [they] started together» (p.190.). «In the windowless altar room, smoky with joss-sticks and clarified-butter lamps, a sweaty hand gropes for [her] blouse» (p.190.). Shaila does not scream; the saddhu «arranges his robe. The lamps hiss and sputter out.»,(p.191). Hindu mythology teems with incidents where husbands and wives appear to each other and make love in different forms and guises. In fact, in the orthodox Hindu tradition, a childless widow was allowed to choose a rishi or sage in order to have a child, nor was there any stigma attached to it2 and it is only in this context that this particular episode can be interpreted.
10In his autobiography, Vladimir Nabokov states that our «existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness», (Speak, Memory, Penguin Books, 1967, p.17). This succintly expresses the monistic Western world view of one self, one life, one death, which does not correspond to the Hindu perception of life, death and the self. The Hindu self is, quite simply suspended between eternities. Shaila’s experience brings home to her the realization that «the dead aren’t cut off from us» (MG. p.189). Likewise, Kusum, when on a pilgrimage in a Himalayan village, claims to «have seen Satish» (her husband), and to «have heard her daughter sing again.» (MG. p.196). The realization and the comfort that the experience affords by reinforcing the mythic and suprapersonal overtones of her perception enables Shaila to go ahead and live out her svadharma. Instead of staying on in India as the «only child of rich, ailing parents» (p.189), Shaila decides to return to Canada.
11There, she is once again approached by Judith Templeton who is a grief management counsellor sent by the Canadian government to help the bereaved Indian families. Judith Templeton sees Shaila who is calm and controlled as a «model to other wives and hysterical relatives» (MG. p.192). Shaila is aware of the falseness of this impression and tells Judith that «by the standards of the people you call hysterical, I am behaving very oddly and very badly. (...) They would not see me as a model. I do not see myself as a model.» (MG. p.187). Nevertheless, and in spite of her true feelings, Shaila, again agrees to accompany Judith on her visits to the relatives. Ms Templeton is not a little perplexed by the Indians’ reactions. Her manual on grief management tells her that there are four stages to pass through in the process of bereavement - «rejection, depression, acceptance and reconstruction» (MG. p.192); she has compiled charts on the progress of the relatives, and insists on the fact that «remarriage is a major step in reconstruction». But, even she is «a little surprised, even shocked, over how quickly some of the men have taken on new families» (MG. p.192), for, barely four months later, several of the Indian widowers who could not «resist the call of custom have remarried young widows and returned to Canada with a new bride and partial family» (MG. p.190). How could Judith Templeton with a Masters in Social Work know that it is a man’s dharma and karma «to look after a wife»? (MG. p.190). Ms Templeton grows impatient; her charges are not falling into the textbook scheme of things; she ignores Shaila’s remark that «we must all grieve in our own way» (MG. p.183). Shaila, who has up to now ignored her own misgivings about being able to help and has gone along for appearances’ sake, abruptly abandons Judith Templeton. She will no longer go along with the falseness of grief management. It is at this point, when she gives up all outer pretences at being calm and rational that she regains her inner equanimity and peace. «The voices and the shapes and the nights filled with visions» end «abruptly» (p.196). Ironically, Shaila does go through the four stages of Judith Templeton’s manual, but she sees it in terms of a samskara (a transformative ritual).
12Shaila gives up her job, sells her house and takes a small apartment in downtown Toronto. In keeping with her sense of self which is rooted in her own culture, she looks for «a charity to support» (p.196). Release and liberation (moksha) follow from her acceptance of the inner dictates of her being :
One rare, beautiful, sunny day last week, returning from a small errand on Yonge Street, I was walking through the park from the subway to my apartment. (...). The day was not cold, but something in the bare trees caught my attention. I looked up from the gravel, into the branches and the clear blue sky beyond. I thought I heard the rustling of larger forms, and I waited a moment for voices. Nothing.
«What?» I asked.
Then as I stood in the path looking north to Queen’s Park and west to the university, I heard the voices of my family one last time. Your time has come, they said. Go, be brave.
I do not know where this voyage I have begun will end. I do not know which direction I will take. I dropped the package on a park bench and started walking.(pp.196-7)
13In keeping with her svadharma, however negative it may appear to be to the non-Indian mind, Shaila has charted a course through the bleak territory of widowhood and has reinforced her sense of self. No longer is she «trapped between two modes of knowledge» (p.189). Just as the guru-shishya paradigm rests on the freedom to choose one’s guru in order to work towards self-realization, Shaila, (albeit instinctively), chooses the traditional templates of behaviour to step over that thin white line of grief to freedom. This is highlighted by the setting of the story. It starts with Shaila indoors in her house, surrounded by friends and neighbours; it ends with Shaila alone and outdoors, prepared to face the unknown. She is her self, at home in the landscape of her mind. I have already alluded to the significance of the Laksmanarekha which to all Indian women symbolizes the limits that must be crossed and shall conclude with a few lines from a poem by Padma Gole :
Laksmana drew but one line
in front of Sita.
She crossed over it -
the result was the Ramayana.
We face Laksmanarekhas
on all sides.
They have to be crossed
- 3 As quoted by Vrinda Nabar in Caste as Woman, (Penguin Books India, Delhi, 1995), p.111.
The Ravannas confronted.3