Analysis of Bharati Mukherjee’s The Management of Grief

The Management of Grief is collected in The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. The idea of “middlemen” is central to these stories of immigrant experience; Bharati Mukherjee presents characters in fl ux as they cope with their positions: They are between cultures, between lifestyles, between the old and the new, between the persons they used to be and the persons they are becoming in their new lives. “The Management of Grief” is a fictional depiction of the June 25, 1985, terrorist bombing of an Air India Boeing 747 en route from Canada to Bombay via London’s Heathrow Airport. The crash killed all 329 passengers, most of whom were Canadian Indians. Mukherjee and her husband, Clark Blaise, had researched and written a book on the tragedy (The Sorrow and the Terror [1987]). In an interview with the scholar Beverley Beyers-Pevitts, Bharati Mukherjee reminisces about the composition of this story: “ ‘The Management of Grief,’ the one which is most anthologized, I did in two sittings. Almost all of it was written in one sitting because I was so ready to tell that story” (190).

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the tale opens in Toronto in the kitchen of Shaila Bhave, a Hindu Canadian who has lost her husband, Vikram, and two sons, Vinod and Mithun, in the crash. Through Shaila, the central character, Mukherjee illuminates not only the community’s immediate reactions to the horrific event but also the Indian values and cultural differences that the well-meaning Canadian social worker Judith Templeton struggles vainly to comprehend. Valium mutes Shaila’s own grief as she commiserates with her neighbor Kusum, whose husband, Satish, and a talented daughter were crash victims. Kusum is confronted by her Westernized daughter Pam, who had refused to travel to India, preferring to stay home and work at McDonald’s; Pam now accuses her mother of favoring her dead sister. As well-intentioned neighbors make tea and answer phone calls, Judith Templeton asks Shaila to help her communicate with the hundreds of Indian-born Canadians affected by the tragedy, some of whom speak no English: “There are some widows who’ve never handled money or gone on a bus, and there are old parents who still haven’t eaten or gone outside their bedrooms” (183). Judith appeals to Shaila because “All the people said, Mrs. Bhave is the strongest person of all” (183).

Bharati Mukherjee/The New York Times

Shaila agrees to try to help on her return from Ireland, site of the plane crash. While there she describes the difficulties of Kusum, who eventually finds acceptance of her loss through her swami, and of Dr. Ranganathan, a Montreal electrical engineer whose entire family perished. Shaila is in denial and is actually relieved when she cannot identify as hers any of the young boys’ bodies whose photos are presented to her. From Ireland, Shaila and Kusum fl y to Bombay, where Shaila finally screams in frustration at a customs official and then notes, “One [sic] upon a time we were well brought up women; we were dutiful wives who kept our heads veiled, our voices shy and sweet” (189). While with her grandmother and parents, Shaila describes their differences—the grandmother observes Hindu traditions while her parents rebelled against them— and sees herself as “trapped between two modes of knowledge. At thirty-six, I am too old to start over and too young to give up. Like my husband’s spirit, I flutter between two worlds” (189). She reenters her old life for a while, playing bridge in gymkhana clubs, riding ponies on trails, attending tea dances, and observing that the widowers are already being introduced to “new bride candidates” (190). She considers herself fortunate to be an “unlucky widow,” who, according to custom, is ineligible for remarriage. Instead, in a Hindu temple, her husband appears to her and tells her to “finish what we started together” (190).

And so, unlike Kusum, who moves to an ashram in Hardwar, Shaila returns to Toronto, sells her house at a profi t, and moves to an apartment. Once again, Judith seeks her help, this time with an old Sikh couple who refuse to accept their sons’ deaths and therefore refuse all government aid, despite being plunged into darkness when the electric company cuts off their power. Shaila cannot explain to Judith, who as a social worker is immersed in the four “stages” of grief, that as a Hindu she cannot communicate with this Sikh couple, particularly because Sikhs were probably responsible for the bombing of the Air India fl ight. Still, she understands their hope that their sons will reappear and has difficulty sympathizing with Judith’s government forms and legalities. Shaila leaves Judith, hears her family’s voices exhorting her to be brave and to continue her life, and, on a hopeful note, begins walking toward whatever her new life will present.

Analysis of Bharati Mukherjee’s Stories

Beyers-Pevitts, Beverley. “An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee.” In Speaking of the Short Story: Interviews with Contemporary Writers. Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
Carb, Alison B. “An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee.” Massachusetts Review 29 (1988–1999): 645–654.
Connell, Michael, Jessie Grearson, and Tom Grimes. “An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee.” Iowa Review 20, no. 3 (Fall 1990): 7–32.
Hancock, Geoff. “An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee.” Canadian Fiction Magazine 59 (1987): 30–44.
Mukherjee, Bharati. “The Management of Grief.” In The Middleman and Other Stories. New York: Grove Press, 1988.
Pandya, Sudha. “Bharati Mukherjee’s Darkness: Exploring Hyphenated Identity.” Quill 2, no. 2 (December 1990): 68–73.

Categories: American Literature, Indian Writing in English, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story

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