For various reasons, both personal and professional, I have had to neglect my blog for the past few months. I apologize. However, there is one very sad circumstance I feel I cannot neglect—the passing of a short story writer whose work I respect. When such a person dies, I feel honor bound to reread some of his or her stories and write a brief tribute on what I admire about their work. Last month it was William Trevor. Today it is Bharati Mukherjee, who died last week of a heart condition in New York City.
I met Bharati many years ago at one of the International Short Story Conferences in Iowa City, at which I was making a presentation about the form and she was reading one of her stories. I sat and watched her working hard at her large laptop one day while having a cup of coffee at the cafeteria. She looked up and smiled shyly, saying, “We have to take what time we can find, don’t we?”
The headline for the obit in The New York Times stated:” Bharati Mukherjee, Writer of Immigrant Life, Dies at 76.” Since subject matter rather than style is more accessible and recognizable to most readers, especially if it is timely subject matter, I suppose it was inevitable that “Immigrant” was the key word in the headline. It would hardly attract much attention if the key words had been “Writer of Perfectly Constructed Short Stories.”
Bharati and I shared greetings in the halls of various conferences on the Short Story over the years. We did not know each other well; we simply knew each other’s work. The last time I shared the platform with her was in Lisbon, Portugal a few years ago, when she and I and Francine Prose talked about the short story. When I was making my presentation, elevating the form of the short story above cultural content, the cantankerous writer Amira Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones) stood up, waved his arms at me impatiently, and stormed out. Later at his own luncheon presentation, he snuffed and snorted about me as if I were the epitome of racist white conservatism. At a cocktail party that night, Bharati came up to me, put her hand on my shoulder, and told me not to fret, for everyone encountered the raging resentment of Baraka at one time or another.
I won’t summarize the facts of Bharati’s life; you can find bios in various online places. Instead I want to discuss briefly one of her best-known short stories—“The Management of Grief”—from her collection The Middleman and Other Stories,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1988.
Twelve years ago in an interview in the Associated Writing Programs Chronicle, Mukherjee stated emphatically: “I’m an American writer who happens to be from South Asia. I hope no one sees me or my fiction as representing the entire Indian community…. I think minority writers are particularly prone to turning characters of fiction into representations in a political agenda. The result is that you may produce novels that are useful as texts in social studies or women’s studies courses, but they will never be fine literature.”
This suggestion that writing directed toward a political agenda is often incompatible with fine literature is the position I expressed in Lisbon that raised the ire of Amira Baraka. It goes against a popular academic position expressed ten years earlier by the highly respected theorist/critic Frederic Jameson in his essay “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Jameson declared that third world literatures were necessarily national allegories. “The story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third world culture and society.”
In an essay in The Journal of Modern Literature in 1996, critic Thomas Palakeel argued that Jameson’s theory not only attributes a false sense of power to the literatures of the Third World, “but also reduces all the writings of the non-Western world to a tidy, one-dimensional aesthetic.” He insists that it is the “close reading” that scratches off the allegorical and political and reveals the literary.”
This position was Bharati’s view also, as it is the view of many short story writers, who value the precise way short stories focus on the personal and the universal, rather than the local and the social.
“The Management of Grief” focuses on Shaila Bhave’s efforts to deal with the death of her entire family—her husband and two sons—in the 1985 Air India crash over Ireland that killed over two hundred. The title of the story has a certain wry bitterness, for to suggest that grief of such magnitude can somehow be “managed,” as if it were a business deal is ludicrous and heartless. However, it seems to be the only way that a government can try to help its people “manage” grief. Judith Templeton, a government appointee, has her textbooks on grief management that outline the stages of grief. She has come to seek Mrs. Bhave’s help because she seems to have dealt with her loss with such calm acceptance. But Shaila says her reaction is that of a freak—that the “terrible calm” she feels will just not go away—that she can be no help to others, for, “We must all grieve in our own way.
And this is what the story is about. Although it may be true that death can be “managed” in a social ritual of a funeral or wake in which people gather together to mark the passing of someone. But it is probably also true that “grief” is purely personal. It is why we feel so helpless to do anything when we witness its external manifestations in another person. As opposed to the government way of managing grief, the Indian way is that of denial, insisting that it is a parent’s duty to hope. The Irish, whose dependence on government has never been very strong, hug the widows and mothers, and bring them flowers.
At the end of the story, Mrs. Bhave says she flutters between two different worlds, two modes of knowledge. She does not know how to tell Templeton that her family surrounds her in her mind like shape-shifters in epics. When Templeton despairs of ever convincing the Indian families that the government is there to help them, Shaila wants to tell her, “In our culture, it is a parent’s duty to hope.” And then she walks away from Templeton, determined to find her own way to grieve. The story ends with her hearing the voices of her family telling to be brave, and her admission that she does not know where her voyage will end and which direction to take. There is no resolution to loss, no management of grief; if one can, one simply goes on.
I extend my sympathies to Bharati Mukherjee’s family and friends. I admired her greatly and shall remember her always. There is no way to “manage” my profound sense of loss.