Literature We want to like Mrs. Dutta, Sr. There is a Mrs. Dutta, Jr., Shyamoli. We can like her, too.
This is an immigrant story. It is an examinatio
Literature We want to like Mrs. Dutta, Sr. There is a Mrs. Dutta, Jr., Shyamoli. We can like her, too.
This is an immigrant story. It is an examination of unsuccessful cultural assimilation. Students new to the country say it parallels their experience in several ways. They often report that their parents or grandparents feel the same. Please understand that this experience is not unique to the United States.
This work is seminal to the course. It is human. It has human short sightedness. It has deflated enthusiasm.
Clearly, Mrs. Dutta, Sr. is uncomfortable to the degree that her ego entraps her. She is trapped in her way of doing things. She also has had little help in adapting. You can dislike the children, if you wish. You can dislike their parents, the neighbor, and even Mrs. Dutta, but UNDERSTAND their motivations from their perspective.
Toward this end, please offer c. 100 words of crisp, focused support of Shyamoli or the neighbor. Title in the subject line. Lead with a direct, targeted thesis. Offer detail and proof.
Do not trip yourself. See the perspective. Return to the Table of
A P R I L 1 9 9 8
The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to
go to part one.
HEN Mrs. Dutta decided to give up her home of
forty- five years, her relatives showed far less
surprise than she had expected. “Oh, we all knew
you’d end up in America sooner or later,” they said. She
had been foolish to stay on alone so long after Sagar’s
father, may he find eternal peace, passed away. Good thing
that boy of hers had come to his senses and called her to
join him. Everyone knows a wife’s place is with her
husband, and a widow’s is with her son.
Mrs. Dutta had nodded in meek agreement, ashamed to let
anyone know that the night before she had awakened
“Well, now that you’re going, what’ll happen to all your
things?” they asked.
Mrs. Dutta, still troubled over those traitorous tears, had
offered up her household effects in propitiation. “Here,
Didi, you take this cutwork bedspread. Mashima, for a
long time I have meant for you to have these Corning
Ware dishes; I know how much you admire them. And
Boudi, this tape recorder that Sagar sent a year back is for
you. Yes, yes, I’m quite sure. I can always tell Sagar to buy
me another one when I get there.”
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Mrs. Basu, coming in just as a cousin made off
triumphantly with a bone-china tea set, had protested.
“Prameela, have you gone crazy? That tea set used to
belong to your mother- in-law.”
“But what’ll I do with it in America? Shyamoli has her
Page 1 of 11Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter (Part Two)
A look that Mrs. Dutta couldn’t read flitted across Mrs.
Basu’s face. “But do you want to drink from it for the rest
of your life?”
“What do you mean?”
Mrs. Basu hesitated. Then she said, “What if you don’t like
“How can I not like it, Roma?” Mrs. Dutta’s voice was
strident, even to her own ears. With an effort she
controlled it and continued. “I’ll miss my friends, I know —
and you most of all. And the things we do together —
evening tea, our walk around Rabindra Sarobar Lake,
Thursday night Bhagavad Gita class. But Sagar — they’re
my only family. And blood is blood, after all.”
“I wonder,” Mrs. Basu said drily, and Mrs. Dutta recalled
that though both of Mrs. Basu’s children lived just a day’s
journey away, they came to see her only on occasions
when common decency dictated their presence. Perhaps
they were tightfisted in money matters, too. Perhaps that
was why Mrs. Basu had started renting out her downstairs
a few years earlier, even though, as anyone in Calcutta
knew, tenants were more trouble than they were worth.
Such filial neglect must be hard to take, though Mrs. Basu,
loyal to her children as indeed a mother should be, never
complained. In a way, Mrs. Dutta had been better off, with
Sagar too far away for her to put his love to the test.
“At least don’t give up the house,” Mrs. Basu was saying.
“You won’t be able to find another place in case … ”
“In case what?” Mrs. Dutta asked, her words like stone
chips. She was surprised to find that she was angrier with
Mrs. Basu than she’d ever been. Or was she afraid? My son
isn’t like yours, she’d been on the verge of spitting out. She
took a deep breath and made herself smile, made herself
remember that she might never see her friend again.
“Ah, Roma,” she said, putting her arm around Mrs. Basu.
“You think I’m such an old witch that my Sagar and my
Shyamoli will be unable to live with me?”
RS. Dutta hums a popular Tagore song as she
pulls her sari from the fence. It’s been a good day,
as good as it can be in a country where you might
stare out the window for hours and not see one living soul.
No vegetable vendors with enormous wicker baskets
balanced on their heads, no knife sharpeners with their
Page 2 of 11Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter (Part Two)
distinctive call scissors- knives-choppers, scissors- knives-
choppersto bring the children running. No peasant women
with colorful tattoos on their arms to sell you cookware in
exchange for your old silk saris. Why, even the animals
that frequented Ghoshpara Lane had personality — stray
dogs that knew to line up outside the kitchen door just
when the leftovers were likely to be thrown out; the goat
that maneuvered its head through the garden grille hoping
to get at her dahlias; cows that planted themselves
majestically in the center of the road, ignoring honking
drivers. And right across the street was Mrs. Basu’s two-
story house, which Mrs. Dutta knew as well as her own.
How many times had she walked up the stairs to that airy
room, painted sea- green and filled with plants, where her
friend would be waiting for her?
What took you so long today, Prameela? Your tea is cold
Wait till you hear what happened, Roma. Then you won’t
scold me for being late —
Stop it, you silly woman, Mrs. Dutta tells herself severely.
Every single one of your relatives would give an arm and a
leg to be in your place, you know that. After lunch you’re
going to write a nice letter to Roma telling her exactly how
delighted you are to be here.
From where Mrs. Dutta stands, gathering up petticoats and
blouses, she can look into the next yard. Not that there’s
much to see — just tidy grass and a few pale- blue flowers
whose name she doesn’t know. Two wooden chairs sit
under a tree, but Mrs. Dutta has never seen anyone using
them. What’s the point of having such a big yard if you’re
not even going to sit in it? she thinks. Calcutta pushes
itself into her mind again, with its narrow, blackened flats
where families of six and eight and ten squeeze themselves
into two tiny rooms, and her heart fills with a sense of loss
she knows to be illogical.
When she first arrived in Sagar’s home, Mrs. Dutta wanted
to go over and meet her next-door neighbors, maybe take
them some of her special sweet rasogollahs, as she’d often
done with Mrs. Basu. But Shyamoli said she shouldn’t.
Such things were not the custom in California, she
explained earnestly. You didn’t just drop in on people
without calling ahead. Here everyone was busy; they didn’t
sit around chatting, drinking endless cups of sugar- tea.
Why, they might even say something unpleasant to her.
Page 3 of 11Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter (Part Two)
“For what?” Mrs. Dutta had asked disbelievingly, and
Shyamoli had said, “Because Americans don’t like
neighbors to” — here she used an English phrase — “invade
their privacy.” Mrs. Dutta, who didn’t fully understand the
word “privacy,” because there was no such term in
Bengali, had gazed at her daughter- in- law in some
bewilderment. But she understood enough not to ask again.
In the following months, though, she often looked over the
fence, hoping to make contact. People were people,
whether in India or in America, and everyone appreciated
a friendly face. When Shyamoli was as old as Mrs. Dutta,
she would know that too.
Today, just as she is about to turn away, out of the corner
of her eye Mrs. Dutta notices a movement. At one of the
windows a woman is standing, her hair a sleek gold like
that of the TV heroines whose exploits baffle Mrs. Dutta
when she tunes in to an afternoon serial. She is smoking a
cigarette, and a curl of gray rises lazily, elegantly, from her
fingers. Mrs. Dutta is so happy to see another human being
in the middle of her solitary day that she forgets how much
she disapproves of smoking, especially in women. She lifts
her hand in the gesture she has seen her grandchildren use
to wave an eager hello.
The woman stares back at Mrs. Dutta. Her lips are a
perfect painted red, and when she raises her cigarette to her
mouth, its tip glows like an animal’s eye. She does not
wave back or smile. Perhaps she is not well? Mrs. Dutta
feels sorry for her, alone in her illness in a silent house
with only cigarettes for solace, and she wishes the etiquette
of America did not prevent her from walking over with a
word of cheer and a bowl of her fresh- cooked alu dum.
RS. Dutta rarely gets a chance to be alone with
her son. In the morning he is in too much of a
hurry even to drink the fragrant cardamom tea that
she (remembering how as a child he would always beg for
a sip from her cup) offers to make him. He doesn’t return
until dinnertime, and afterward he must help the children
with their homework, read the paper, hear the details of
Shyamoli’s day, watch his favorite TV crime show in order
to unwind, and take out the garbage. In between, for he is a
solicitous son, he converses with Mrs. Dutta. In response
to his questions she assures him that her arthritis is much
better now; no, no, she’s not growing bored being at home
all the time; she has everything she needs Shyamoli has
been so kind. But perhaps he could pick up a few
aerograms on his way back tomorrow? She obediently
recites for him an edited list of her day’s activities, and
Page 4 of 11Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter (Part Two)
smiles when he praises her cooking. But when he says,
“Oh, well, time to turn in, another working day tomorrow,”
she feels a vague pain, like hunger, in the region of her
So it is with the delighted air of a child who has been
offered an unexpected gift that she leaves her half- written
letter to greet Sagar at the door today, a good hour before
Shyamoli is due back. The children are busy in the family
room doing homework and watching cartoons (mostly the
latter, Mrs. Dutta suspects). But for once she doesn’t mind,
because they race in to give their father hurried hugs and
then race back again. And she has him, her son, all to
herself in a kitchen filled with the familiar, pungent odors
of tamarind sauce and chopped coriander leaves.
“Khoka,” she says, calling him by a childhood name she
hasn’t used in years, “I could fry you two- three hot- hot
luchis, if you like.” As she waits for his reply, she can feel,
in the hollow of her throat, the rapid thud of her heart. And
when he says yes, that would be very nice, she shuts her
eyes tight and takes a deep breath, and it is as though
merciful time has given her back her youth, that sweet,
aching urgency of being needed again.
RS. Dutta is telling Sagar a story.
“When you were a child, how scared you were of
injections! One time, when the government doctor came to
give us compulsory typhoid shots, you locked yourself in
the bathroom and refused to come out. Do you remember
what your father finally did? He went into the garden and
caught a lizard and threw it in the bathroom window,
because you were even more scared of lizards than of
shots. And in exactly one second you ran out screaming
right into the waiting doctor’s arms.”
Sagar laughs so hard that he almost upsets his tea (made
with real sugar, because Mrs. Dutta knows it is better for
her son than that chemical powder Shyamoli likes to use).
There are tears in his eyes, and Mrs. Dutta, who had not
dared to hope that he would find her story so amusing,
feels gratified. When he takes off his glasses to wipe them,
his face is oddly young, not like a father’s at all, or even a
husband’s, and she has to suppress an impulse to put out
her hand and rub away the indentations that the glasses
have left on his nose.
“I’d totally forgotten,” Sagar says. “How can you keep
track of those old, old things?”
Page 5 of 11Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter (Part Two)
Because it is the lot of mothers to remember what no one
else cares to, Mrs. Dutta thinks. To tell those stories over
and over, until they are lodged, perforce, in family lore.
We are the keepers of the heart’s dusty corners.
But as she starts to say this, the front door creaks open, and
she hears the faint click of Shyamoli’s high heels. Mrs.
Dutta rises, collecting the dirty dishes.
“Call me fifteen minutes before you’re ready to eat, so that
I can fry fresh luchis for everyone,” she tells Sagar.
“You don’t have to leave, Mother,” he says.
Mrs. Dutta smiles her pleasure but doesn’t stop. She knows
that Shyamoli likes to be alone with her husband at this
time, and today, in her happiness, she does not grudge her
“You think I’ve nothing to do, only sit and gossip with
you?” she mock- scolds. “I want you to know I have a very
important letter to finish.”
Somewhere behind her she hears a thud — a briefcase
falling over. This surprises her. Shyamoli is always careful
with it, because it was a gift from Sagar when she was
finally made a manager in her company.
“Hi!” Sagar calls, and when there’s no answer, “Hey,
Molli, you okay?”
Shyamoli comes into the room slowly, her hair disheveled
as though she has been running her fingers through it. Hot
color blotches her cheeks.
“What’s the matter, Molli?” Sagar walks over to give her a
kiss. “Bad day at work?” Mrs. Dutta, embarrassed as
always by this display of marital affection, turns toward
the window, but not before she sees Shyamoli move her
“Leave me alone.” Her voice is low, shaking. “Just leave
“But what is it?” Sagar says with concern.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now.” Shyamoli lowers
herself into a kitchen chair and puts her face in her hands.
Sagar stands in the middle of the room, looking helpless.
Page 6 of 11Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter (Part Two)
He raises his hand and lets it fall, as though he wants to
comfort his wife but is afraid of what she might do.
A protective anger for her son surges inside Mrs. Dutta,
but she moves away silently. In her mind- letter she writes,
Women need to be strong, not react to every little thing
like this. You and I, Roma, we had far worse to cry about,
but we shed our tears invisibly. We were good wives and
daughters- in- law, good mothers. Dutiful, uncomplaining.
Never putting ourselves first.
A sudden memory comes to her, one she hasn’t thought of
in years — a day when she scorched a special kheer dessert.
Her mother- in-law had shouted at her, “Didn’t your
mother teach you anything, you useless girl?” As
punishment she refused to let Mrs. Dutta go with Mrs.
Basu to the cinema, even though Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam,
which all Calcutta was crazy about, was playing, and their
tickets were bought already. Mrs. Dutta had wept the entire
afternoon, but before Sagar’s father came home, she
washed her face carefully with cold water and applied
kajal to her eyes so that he wouldn’t know.
But everything is getting mixed up, and her own young,
trying- not-to- cry face blurs into another — why, it’s
Shyamoli’s — and a thought hits her so sharply in the chest
that she has to hold on to her bedroom wall to keep from
falling. And what good did it do? The more we bent, the
more people pushed us, until one day we’d forgotten that
we could stand up straight. Maybe Shyamoli’s the one with
the right idea after all …
Mrs. Dutta lowers herself heavily onto her bed, trying to
erase such an insidious idea from her mind. Oh, this new
country, where all the rules are upside down, it’s confusing
her. The space inside her skull feels stirred up, like a pond
in which too many water buffaloes have been wading.
Maybe things will settle down if she can focus on the letter
Then she remembers that she has left the half- written
aerogram on the kitchen table. She knows she should wait
until after dinner, after her son and his wife have sorted
things out. But a restlessness — or is it defiance? — has
taken hold of her. She is sorry that Shyamoli is upset, but
why should she have to waste
her evening because of that?
She’ll go get her letter — it’s no
crime, is it? She’ll march right in
and pick it up, and even if
Page 7 of 11Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter (Part Two)
Shyamoli stops in mid-sentence
with another one of those sighs, she’ll refuse to feel
apologetic. Besides, by now they’re probably in the family
room, watching TV.
Really, Roma, she writes in her head, as she feels her way
along the unlighted corridor, the amount of TV they watch
here is quite scandalous. The children, too, sitting for
hours in front of that box like they’ve been turned into
painted dolls, and then talking back when I tell them to
turn it off. Of course she will never put such blasphemy
into a real letter. Still, it makes her feel better to be able to
say it, if only to herself.
In the family room the TV is on, but for once no one is
paying it any attention. Shyamoli and Sagar sit on the sofa,
conversing. From where she stands in the corridor, Mrs.
Dutta cannot see them, but their shadows — enormous
against the wall where the table lamp has cast them — seem
to flicker and leap at her.
She is about to slip unseen into the kitchen when
Shyamoli’s rising voice arrests her. In its raw, shaking
unhappiness it is so unlike her daughter- in- law’s assured
tones that Mrs. Dutta is no more able to move away from it
than if she had heard the call of the nishi, the lost souls of
the dead, the subject of so many of the tales on which she
“It’s easy for you to say ‘Calm down.’ I’d like to see how
calm you’d be if she came up to you and said, ‘Kindly tell
the old lady not to hang her clothes over the fence into my
yard.’ She said it twice, like I didn’t understand English,
like I was a savage. All these years I’ve been so careful not
to give these Americans a chance to say something like
this, and now”
“Shhh, Shyamoli, I said I’d talk to Mother about it.”
“You always say that, but you never do anything. You’re
too busy being the perfect son, tiptoeing around her
feelings. But how about mine? Aren’t I a person too?”
“Hush, Molli, the children … ”
“Let them hear. I don’t care anymore. Besides, they’re not
stupid. They already know what a hard time I’ve been
having with her. You’re the only one who refuses to see it.”
In the passage Mrs. Dutta shrinks against the wall. She
Page 8 of 11Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter (Part Two)
wants to move away, to hear nothing else, but her feet are
formed of cement, impossible to lift, and Shyamoli’s words
pour into her ears like fire.
“I’ve explained over and over, and she still does what I’ve
asked her not to — throwing away perfectly good food,
leaving dishes to drip all over the countertops. Ordering
my children to stop doing things I’ve given them
permission to do. She’s taken over the entire kitchen,
cooking whatever she likes. You come in the door and the
smell of grease is everywhere, in all our clothes even. I
feel like this isn’t my house anymore.”
“Be patient, Molli. She’s an old woman, after all.”
“I know. That’s why I tried so hard. I know having her here
is important to you. But I can’t do it any longer. I just can’t.
Some days I feel like taking the kids and leaving.”
Shyamoli’s voice disappears into a sob.
A shadow stumbles across the wall to her, and then
another. Behind the weatherman’s nasal tones, announcing
a week of sunny days, Mrs. Dutta can hear a high,
frightened weeping. The children, she thinks. This must be
the first time they’ve seen their mother cry.
“Don’t talk like that, sweetheart.” Sagar leans forward, his
voice, too, anguished. All the shadows on the wall shiver
and merge into a single dark silhouette.
Mrs. Dutta stares at that silhouette, the solidarity of it.
Sagar and Shyamoli’s murmurs are lost beneath the noise
in her head, a dry humming — like thirsty birds, she thinks
wonderingly. After a while she discovers that she has
reached her room. In darkness she lowers herself onto her
bed very gently, as though her body were made of the
thinnest glass. Or perhaps ice — she is so cold. She sits for
a long time with her eyes closed, while inside her head
thoughts whirl faster and faster until they disappear in a
gray dust storm.
HEN Pradeep finally comes to call her for dinner,
Mrs. Dutta follows him to the kitchen, where she
fries luchis for everyone, the perfect circles of
dough puffing up crisp and golden as always. Sagar and
Shyamoli have reached a truce of some kind: she gives
him a small smile, and he puts out a casual hand to
massage the back of her neck. Mrs. Dutta shows no
embarrassment at this. She eats her dinner. She answers
questions put to her. She laughs when someone makes a
Page 9 of 11Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter (Part Two)
joke. If her face is stiff, as though she had been given a
shot of Novocain, no one notices. When the table is
cleared, she excuses herself, saying she has to finish her
Now Mrs. Dutta sits on her bed, reading over what she
wrote in the innocent afternoon.
Although I miss you, I know you will be
pleased to hear how happy I am in America.
There is much here that needs getting used to,
but we are no strangers to adjusting, we old
women. After all, haven’t we been doing it all
Today I’m cooking one of Sagar’s favorite
dishes, alu dum. It gives me such pleasure to
see my family gathered around the table,
eating my food. The children are still a little
shy of me, but I am hopeful that we’ll soon be
friends. And Shyamoli, so confident and
successful — you should see her when she’s all
dressed for work. I can’t believe she’s the
same timid bride I sent off to America just a
few years ago. But Sagar, most of all, is the
joy of my old age. …
With the edge of her sari Mrs. Dutta carefully wipes a tear
that has fallen on the aerogram. She blows on the damp
spot until it is completely dry, so the pen will not leave a
telltale smudge. Even though Roma would not tell a soul,
she cannot risk it. She can already hear them, the avid
relatives in India who’ve been waiting for something just
like this to happen. That Dutta-ginni, so set in her ways,
we knew she’d never get along with her daughter-in-law.
Or, worse, Did you hear about poor Prameela? How her
family treated her? Yes, even her son, can you imagine?
This much surely she owes to Sagar.
And what does she owe herself, Mrs. Dutta, falling
through black night with all the certainties she trusted in
collapsed upon themselves like imploded stars, and only
an image inside her eyelids for company? A silhouette —
man, wife, children, joined on a wall — showing her how
alone she is in this land of young people. And how
Page 10 of 11Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter (Part Two)
She is not sure how long she sits under the glare of the
overhead light, how long her hands clench themselves in
her lap. When she opens them, nail marks line the soft
flesh of her palms, red hieroglyphs — her body’s language,
telling her what to do.
Dear Roma, Mrs. Dutta writes,
I cannot answer your question about whether
I am happy, for I am no longer sure I know
what happiness is. All I know is that it isn’t
what I thought it to be. It isn’t about being
needed. It isn’t about being with family either.
It has something to do with love, I still think
that, but in a different way than I believed
earlier, a way I don’t have the words to
explain. Perhaps we can figure it out together,
two old women drinking cha in your
downstairs flat (for I do hope you will rent it
to me on my return) while around us gossip
falls — but lightly, like summer rain, for that is
all we will allow it to be. If I’m lucky — and
perhaps, in spite of all that has happened, I
am — the happiness will be in the figuring out.
Pausing to read over what she has written, Mrs. Dutta is
surprised to discover this: now that she no longer cares
whether tears blotch her letter, she feels no need to weep.
The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to
go to part one.
Chitra B. Divakaruni received the 1995 American Book
Award for fiction for Arranged Marriage, a collection of
short stories. Her most recent novel is The Mistress of
Illustrations by Gérard Dubois
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1998; Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter; Volume 281, No. 4; pages 88-
Page 11 of 11Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter (Part Two)