Story Analysis of ‘The Management Of Grief’ by Bharati Mukherjee

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It’s Day 14 of the #A2ZChallenge. This year, I invite you to read and discuss short stories with me. Each day, I bring you a ‘Read of the Day,’ a short story in English, so that we can indulge in the joy of reading. You can visit my site daily for a short story with analysis and participate in the discussion in the comments.

Read of the Day 

Today, we will read The Management of Grief by Bharati Mukherjee. You can read the short story online here.

About the Author 

Bharati Mukherjee was an award-winning Indian-born American writer and academician with several novels, short stories, and essays to her credit. Some of her popular fiction include The Middleman, and Other Stories (1988), Jasmine (1989), The Holder of the World (1993), and Desirable Daughters (2002).

Story Analysis 

The Management of Grief by Bharati Mukherjee is part of the collection The Middleman and Other Stories, and the winner of the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award. 

I will not deny that I found the story an extremely difficult read as it was poignant given the subject. More so, in times like the current pandemic when death is closer to us than ever before, with people falling prey to the coronavirus and losing their lives. 

But, I’m thankful I read this nuanced portrayal of people dealing primarily with grief and secondarily with cultural and gendered ramifications of a tragedy. 

The story is narrated by its protagonist Shaila Bhave, an Indian Canadian Hindu, who has lost her family comprising Vikram, her husband, and two sons, Vinod and Mithun, in the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 by Sikh terrorists. 

There’s Kusum, who lost her husband, Satish, and the youngest of her two daughters, who had a nightingale voice. Pam, her other daughter, is Westernized and unlike the good Indian girl, her mother expects her to be. We also have Dr. Ranganathan, a secondary character who’s lost his entire family to the plane bombing like Shaila. 

“We, who stayed out of politics and came half way around the world to avoid religious and political feuding, have been the first in the World to die from it.”

We see the diverse ways each of these characters cope with grief. Shaila surprises herself with her calm and composed manner, even though she’s screaming inside and wants to die right now. She soothes her depression with medication. 

Shaila’s reaction to the tragedy catches the attention of Judith Templeton, a grief management counsellor by the Canadian government who approaches her to help her reach out to bereaved Indian families. Shaila explains to Judith that not all Indians are the same and how the bereaved Sikh families wouldn’t open up to a Hindu woman like her. And how none of the families would confide in her given her unnaturally calm response to a grave tragedy like this where she lost her family. 

Kusum takes refuge in religion, as she heeds to her swami’s counsel on how to overcome the grief. She abides by the swami’s advice that it’s fate and that she should be happy that her deceased family is in a much better place than this materialistic world. 

The story closely follows Shaila and Kusum’s journey and how they find closure on their divergent paths. Both the women return to their homeland, India, after the tragedy. Kusum severs all worldly ties, much like the Hindu widows in the yesteryears, and finds hope and refuge in spirituality. Shaila, on the other hand, is uncomfortable in India for long. She moves back to Canada where she briefly works with Judith in her work with bereaved Indian families. However, Shaila is enraged at veiled racism and otherization of the Indian community by the Canadian government. Its insincerity between the speech and intent, as they talk big about equality and tolerance, yet keeps the walls of divide and bigotry high up in the society.

On a side note, it’s for this reason that Bharati Mukherjee rejected being called an Indian and stated she was an American. 

 “I am an American, not an Asian-American. My rejection of hyphenation has been called race treachery, but it is really a demand that America deliver the promises of its dream to all citizens equally.”

In one of her interviews, Mukherjee reminisces how she detested staying in Canada as it made her feel like a “smelly, dark, alien other.”

Shaila keeps in touch with Kusum and Dr. Ranganathan even after going in different life directions. She sells her home and lives in a small apartment. Like most Indian women of that time, it’s unusual for Shaila to see themselves as a separate identity from their spouse and children. Left alone in a foreign country, she picks up the broken pieces by herself and accepts to discover and live for herself. This is her svadharma. 

The Management of Grief touches upon uncomfortable truths such as race, gender, and the immigrant experience. It portrays how diversity manifests across ethnicities within India, and the world, and even in the way each individual copes with grief. Mukherjee also brings an otherworldly dimension to the story as we witness how the deceased contact their loved ones.

Bharati Mukherjee has written The Management of Grief with admirable sensitivity and empathy. I highly recommend this outstanding story despite it being a discomforting read. 

* I’m participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge.

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Tina Sequeira
Tina Sequeira is a marketer and moonlighting writer. She is passionate about tech, creativity, and social justice—dabbling in and writing about the same.