Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's short story, "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter", published in the Atlantic Monthly, April 98 issue, is a story about a mother coming to terms with her age, her widowhood, her place in her son's household. It is a story about an old woman's loneliness in an alien culture. It is also a story about a lady's courage to defy her own conditioning, a lifetime's worth of conditioning, and her determination to meet an unknown, unprepared for fate with courage and honesty. Mrs. Dutta's is as much a story of renewal, rediscovery, rejuvenation, rebirth as it is of the passing of an era, the changing of times.
The story revolves around Mrs. Dutta who stakes everything to come to the US to make her life with her only son and his family. She has lost her husband to death, she has said her goodbyes to lifelong neighbors and friends, she has sold her flat in Calcutta, she has completely uprooted herself, for tradition and conditioning, both demand that she move in with her son. And above all, there is this small matter of what will the world say to any other choice. So she comes determined to be happy and to run her son's family as in the ways of the old world. She comes convinced that she is needed. That her place is with her son, and she is still the center of his existence as she once was.
A few months later, she finally acknowledges and comes to terms with her observation that she really is at the periphery of her son's efficiently run household. That she really is not needed, she is superfluous. She fears and worries over what people will make of her choice if she were to return, how they will talk of her and her relationship with her son and yet she decides to return. She asks those very friends whom she had left behind, whether they will rent her their "barsaati" upstairs. The story ends here. We do not know where Mrs. Dutta's journey will take her but for now it is enough to witness those very first, those very fragile steps towards autonomy.
The crux of the story, to me, is Mrs. Dutta's painful journey and her emerging sense of autonomy , her honesty and her courage to defy a life time's worth of conditioning. In those very first faltering steps, we see her victory, both moral and real. There is courage in her vulnerability as there is honesty in her doubt about her ability to live on her own. Her hesitation and thereafter her subsequent decision captures the strength in this story which has been criticised for painting stereotypic characters. I find the characters very human, limitations, strengths and all. It is true that both the daughter in law and the son appear two dimensional, one bad and the other good, but that is so because they stand at the periphery of the story, more spectators than participants. It is not their story. Much as it appears, it is not even a story of relationships or interactions between the eternal mother-son-daughter in law nexus that looms so large in the Indian psyche. It is a story of a woman's journey, an old woman's journey into her inner core, her baggage, her conditioning, her reckonings, her perceptions, her decisions. I know there are many who will vehemently disagree with this assessment of "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter".
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