Short Stories for Students

The Management of Grief

The Management of Grief

Bharati Mukherjee 1988

Author Biography

Plot Summary

Characters

Themes

Style

Historical Context

Critical Overview

Criticism

Sources

Further Reading

“The Management of Grief” is a poignant fictional account of one woman’s reaction to the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182. It was first published in 1988 in the collection The Middleman and Other Stories, winner of the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award. “The Management of Grief” tells the story of Shaila Bhave, an Indian Canadian Hindu who has lost her husband and two sons in the crash. In third person narration, Shaila recounts the emotional events surrounding the event and explores their effects on herself, the Indian Canadian community, and mainstream Euro-Canadians. The clumsy intervention of a government social worker represents the missteps of the Canadian government in the general handling of the catastrophe.

Mukherjee herself had a deep personal response to the crash, having lived in Canada from 1966 to 1980 with her husband, Clark Blaise. She was enraged by the Canadian government’s interpretation of the crash as a foreign, “Indian” matter when the overwhelmingly majority of the victims were Canadian citizens. In a book-length investigation and account of the incident, The Sorrow and the Terror, co-written with Blaise, Mukherjee pieces together the bombing and events leading up to it, charging the government with ignoring clear signs of Khalistani terrorism cultivated on Canadian soil. Mukherjee argues that the government dismissed the escalating Indian Canadian factionalism (e.g. Canadian Khalistanis vs. Canadian Hindus) as a “cultural” struggle that would be best settled among the “Indians.” She blames Canada’s official policy of “multiculturalism,” which ostensibly encourages tolerance and equality but effectively fosters division and discrimination across racial boundaries.

The Sorrow and the Terror is a moving, non-fictional precursor to “The Management of Grief,” articulating the human costs of the escalations of intra-ethnic Indian conflict whose reach does not exempt the country’s North American emigrants. As Shaila laments: “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.”

Author Biography

Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, India on July 27, 1940. Her father was a renowned chemist with connections around the globe. She and her two sisters were educated in India, England and Switzerland. At the age of three she spoke English along with her native Bengali. Mukherjee received her B.A. in English Literature from the University of Calcutta in 1959 and an M.A. in English and ancient Indian culture from the University of Baroda in 1961. She received her M.F.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1963 and 1969 respectively. In 1964 she married Clark Blaise, a fellow writer in the Iowa Writers Workshop. The “culture shock” of the midwest, not to mention America in general, profoundly affected Mukherjee; many of her works, like Jasmine (1989) and The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), dramatize the uniqueness of the immigrant’s struggle in the “heartland.”

Mukherjee’s academic resume is impressive: she has taught literature and writing at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, McGill University, Skidmore College, Mountain State College, Queens College and Columbia University. She is now Distinguished Professor at the University of California at Berkeley. She is also an award-winning writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her first novel, The Tiger’s Daughter (1975), was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award of Canada, and The Middleman and Other Stories (1988) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction that year.

Mukherjee remembers Canada bitterly as an angry, racist nation. In a 1989 interview with The Iowa Review, she remarks that in her nearly 15 years of residence there, the country never ceased making her feel like a “smelly, dark, alien other.” Mukherjee blames Canada’s policy of “multiculturalism” for engendering this atmosphere of thinly veiled racism. “The Management of Grief” speaks out against the social ills generated by this policy. In this story, the tragedy of the Air India Flight 182 brings the racial divisions of Canadian society into sharp relief. Shaila Bhave’s perspective is much like Mukherjee’s own, criticizing the government for dismissing the catastrophe as an “Indian” incident when over 90% of the passengers were Canadian citizens. The clumsy treatment of crash victims’ relatives by Judith Templeton, the government social worker, represents mainstream culture’s ignorant perception of ethnic citizens as “not quite,” second-class, Canadians.

Plot Summary

“The Management of Grief” opens with the chaos at Shaila Bhave’s Toronto home. Her house is filled with strangers, gathered together for legal advice, company, and tea. Dr. Sharma, his wife, their children, Kusum and “a lot of women [Shaila] do[esn’t] know” are trying to make sense of the crash of Air India Flight 182, simultaneously listening to multiple radios and televisions to catch some news about the event. The Sharma boys murmur rumors that Sikh terrorists had planted a bomb. Shaila narrates the scene from a haze, speaking with detached, shell-shocked calm. The Valium she has been taking contributes to her stable appearance, but inside she feels “tensed” and “ready to scream.” Imagined cries from her husband and sons “insulate her” from the anxious activity in her house.

Shaila and Kusum, her neighbor and friend, are sitting on the stairs in Shaila’s house. Shaila reminisces about Kusum and Satish’s recent house-warming party that brought cultures and generations together in their sparkling, spacious suburban home: “even white neighbors piled their plates high with [tandoori]” and Shaila’s own Americanized sons had “broken away” from a Stanley Cup telecast to come to the party. Shaila somberly wonders “and now . . . how many of those happy faces are gone.” Implicitly Shaila feels “punished” for the good success of Indian immigrant families like hers and Kusum’s. Kusum brings her out of her reverie with the question: “Why does God give us so much if all along He intends to take it away?”

Shaila regrets her perfect obedience to upper-class, Indian female decorum. She has, for instance, never called her husband by his first name or told him that she loved him. Kusum comforts her saying: “He knew. My husband knew. They felt it. Modern young girls have to say it because what they feel is fake.” Kusum’s first daughter Pam walks into the room and orders her mother to change out of her bathrobe since reporters are expected. Pam, a manifest example of the “modern young girls” that Kusum disdains, had refused to go to India with her father and younger sister, preferring to spend that summer working at McDonald’s. Mother and daughter exchange harsh words, and Pam accuses Kusum of wishing that Pam had been on the plane, since the younger daughter was a better “Indian.” Kusum does not react verbally.

Judith Templeton, a Canadian social worker, visits Shaila, hoping Shaila can facilitate her work with the relatives of the deceased. Judith is described as young, comely and professional to a fault. She enlists Shaila to give the “right human touch” to the impersonal work of processing papers for relief funds. Judith tells Shaila that she was chosen because of her exemplary calm and describes her as a “pillar” of the devastated Indian Canadian community. Shaila explains that her seemingly cool, unaffected demeanor is hardly admired by her community, who expect their members to mourn publicly and vocally. She is puzzled herself by the “calm [that] will not go away” and considers herself a “freak.”

The story moves to Dunmanus Bay, Ireland, the site of the crash. Kusum and Shaila are wading in the warm waters and recalling the lives of their loved ones, imagining they will be found alive. Kusum has not eaten for four days and Shaila wishes she had also died here along with her husband and sons. They are joined by Dr. Ranganathan from Montreal, another who has lost his family, and he cheers them with thoughts of unknown islets within swimming distance. Dr. Ranganathan utters a central line of the story: “It’s a parent’s duty to hope.” He scatters pink rose petals on the water, explaining that his wife used to demand pink roses every Friday. He offers Shaila some roses, but Shaila has her own gifts to float— Mithun’s half finished model B-52, Vinod’s pocket calculator, and a poem for Vikram, which belatedly articulates her love for him.

Shaila is struck by the compassionate behavior of the Irish and compares them to the residents of

Toronto, unable to image Torontonians behaving this open-heartedly. Kusum has identified her husband. Looking through picture after picture, Shaila does not find a match for anyone she knows. A nun “assigned to console” Shaila reminds her that faces will have altered, bloated by the water and with facial bones broken from the impact. She is instructed to “try to adjust [her] memories.”

Shaila leaves Ireland without any bodies, but Kusum takes her husband’s coffin through customs. A customs bureaucrat detains them under suspicion of smuggling contraband in the coffin. In her first public expression of emotion, Shaila explodes and calls him a “bastard.” She contemplates the change in herself that this trauma has wrought: “Once upon a time we were well-brought-up women; we were dutiful wives who kept our heads veiled, our voices shy and sweet.”

From Ireland, many of the Indian Canadians, including Shaila, go to India to continue mourning. Shaila describes her parents as wealthy and “progressive.” They do not mind Sikh friends dropping by with condolences, though Shaila cannot help but bristle. Her grandmother, on the other hand, has been a prisoner of tradition and its gender expectations for most of her life. She was widowed at age sixteen and has since lived a life of ascetic penitence and solitude, believing herself to be a “harbinger of bad luck.” Shaila’s mother calls this kind of behavior “mindless mortification.” While other middle-aged widows and widowers are being matched with new spouses, Shaila is relieved to be left alone, even if it is because her grandmother’s history designates her as “unlucky.”

Shaila travels with her family until she is numb from the blandness of diversion. In a deserted Himalayan temple, Shaila has a vision of her husband. He tells her: “You must finish alone what we started together.” Knowing that her mother is a practical woman with “no patience with ghosts, prophetic dreams, holy men, and cults,” Shaila tells her nothing of the vision but is spurred to return to Canada.

Kusum has sold her house and moved into an ashram, or retreat, in Hardwar. Shaila considers this “running away,” but Kusum says it is “pursuing inner peace.” Shaila keeps in touch with Dr. Ranganathan, who has moved to Montreal and has not remarried. They share a melancholy bond but are comforted to have found new “relatives” in each other.

At this point, Judith has done thorough and ambitious work observing, assessing, charting and analyzing the grief of the Indian Canadians. She matter-of-factly reports to Shaila that the community is stuck somewhere between the second and third stage of mourning, “depressed acceptance,” according to the “grief management textbooks.” In reaction to Judith’s self-congratulatory chatter, Shaila can only manage the weak and ironic praise that Judith has “done impressive work.” Judith asks Shaila to accompany her on a visit to a particularly “stubborn” and “ignorant” elderly couple, recent immigrants whose sons died in the crash. Shaila is reluctant because the couple are Sikh and she is Hindu, but Judith insists that their “Indian-ness” is mutual enough.

At the apartment complex, Shaila is struck by the “Indian-ness” of the ghetto neighborhood; women wait for buses in saris as if they had never left Bombay. The elderly couple are diffident at first but open up when Shaila reveals that she has also lost her family. Shaila explains that if they sign the documents, the government will give them money, including air-fare to Ireland to identify the bodies. The husband emphasizes that “God will provide, not the government” and the wife insists that her boys will return. Judith presses Shaila to “convince” them, but Shaila merely thanks the couple for the tea. In the car Judith complains about working with the Indian immigrants, calling the next woman “a real mess.” Shaila asks to be let out of the car, leaving Judith and her sterile, textbook approach to grief management.

The story ends with Shaila living a quiet and joyless life in Toronto. She has sold her and Vikram’s large house and lives in a small apartment. Kusum has written to say that she has seen her daughter’s reincarnation in a Himalayan village; Dr. Ranganathan has moved to Texas and calls once a week. Walking home from an errand, Shaila hears “the voices of [her] family.” They say: “Your time has come, . . . Go, be brave.” Shaila drops the package she is carrying on a nearby park bench, symbolizing her venture into a new life and her break with an unproductive attachment to her husband and sons’ spirits. She comments on her imminent future: “I do not know where this voyage I have begun will end.” Nevertheless, she “drops the package” and “starts walking.”

Characters

Shaila Bhave

Shaila is the central character of “The Management of Grief.” Her third person voice narrates the story and offers poignant reflection, provocative implications and subtle irony. Her tone can be described as understated and detached, but it is by no means dispassionate. Like the appearance of calm that masks her “screaming” within, the even, often soothing tone of the narrative voice stretches thinly over Shaila’s rage and pain. She is shell-shocked by the rapid succession of devastating events.

Shaila’s husband and two sons have been the killed in the crash of Air India Flight 182. Some consider her callous and insensitive for not openly grieving, but Judith Templeton, the government social worker, hears that she is a “pillar” of the community and solicits her help. Shaila scorns Judith’s textbook methods of “managing” grief but agrees to play the cultural liaison out of politeness. Shaila wishes she could “scream, starve, walk into Lake Ontario, [or] jump from a bridge.” She considers herself a “freak,” helplessly overtaken by a “terrible calm.”

Like many others, Shaila harbors hopes that her family is still alive. She travels to Ireland to identify and possibly recover the bodies of the deceased. When called by the police to identify a body thought to be her son, Shaila insists that it is not him. She is unable to provide a positive identification of any of her family members.

From Ireland, Shaila goes to India. Her “progressive” parents encourage her to avoid falling into self-destructive depression and mourning, the “mindless mortification of her grandmother.” She is discomfited by Sikh friends who pay their condolences and admires her parents’ unprejudiced attitude, noting that in Canada the crash will likely revive Sikh-Hindu animosity. In a Himalayan temple, Shaila sees Vikram in a vision. He commands her to “finish alone what we started together.” Taking this as an injunction to resume a forward moving life, she returns to Canada. Unlike many of the others, Shaila does not remarry. She assumes that friends and relatives in India avoid matching her up because of her “unlucky” history (her grandmother’s husband died when he was nineteen). For this, Shaila is relieved.

Shaila accompanies Judith to a ghetto tenement to visit a helpless Sikh couple whose sons have died in the crash. Shaila is struck by the poverty and concentrated ethnicity of their apartment building. Just as Shaila could not bear to identify any of the bodies in Ireland, the couple refuses to sign Judith’s documents, even though they entitle them to relief funds. Despite Judith’s urgings, Shaila does not press them to sign, remembering Dr. Ranganathan’s adage: “It is a parent’s duty to hope.” They leave the apartment without signatures, and in the car Shaila can no longer tolerate Judith’s complaints about “stubborn” and “ignorant” Indian Canadians, recalcitrant textbook subjects, and asks Judith to stop so that she can get out.

Shaila has made a tolerable life for herself with the profits from the sale of her and Vikram’s house. But she is living joylessly and mechanically; she “waits,” “listens,” and “prays.” She is falling prey to the “mindless mortification” of her grandmother. The turning point is when Shaila hears the voices of her “family.” They tell her: “Your time has come . . . Go, be brave.” Shaila drops the symbolic “package” on a park bench and “starts walking” toward a life of healing and hope.

Vikram Bhave

Vikram is Shaila’s husband and is killed in the Air India crash. In a vision, he tells Shaila: “You’re beautiful” and more importantly, “What are you doing here? . . . You must finish alone what we started together.” He appears to her healthy and whole, “no seaweed wreathes in his mouth” and speaking “too fast, just as he used to when we were an envied family in our pink split level.”

Vinod and Mithun Bhave

Shaila and Vikram’s two sons, Vinod and Mithun, were also killed in the crash. Vinod was going to be fourteen in a few days. His brother, Mithun, was four years younger. The boys were going down to the Taj with their father and uncle for Vinod’s birthday party.

Elderly Couple

Because their sons have been killed in the crash, the elderly couple that Judith and Shaila visit are entitled to government relief funds, including air-fare to Ireland. They speak little English and live in a tenement building inhabited by Indians, West Indians, and a “sprinkling of Orientals.” Judith Templeton has visited them several times, imploring them to sign government documents that will entitle them to the funds. Because they are poor and unable to write a check, their utilities are being cut off one by one. Notwithstanding, they refuse to sign Judith’s papers. The husband places his faith in God, uttering: “God will provide, not [the] government.” The wife believes her sons will return to take care of them.

Kusum

Kusum has lost her husband, Satish, and her unnamed second daughter in the plane crash. …