Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Management of Grief

A couple of days ago, when referring to two of Michael Cunningham’s short stories, I said I liked the tempo of “Pearls” better than that of “White Angels,” probably because “it’s a tale of yearning, rather than of mourning.” I don’t want to give the wrong impression that I think there is something inherently wrong with tales of mourning. A good candidate to dispel that impression came to mind. It’s Bharati Mukherjee’s short story “The Management of Grief,” which excels in its tempo (and in many other things, too). It’s been anthologized often, and one of those anthologies offers the only full-length version I found online, here.


This is a good story. It’s about a woman called Shaila Bhave, who lost her two sons and her husband. They were all from India, but lived in Toronto. Her husband (Vikram) was taking the boys to India when a Sikh terrorist blew the plane up. The story recounts how Bhave (and other grieving relatives) cope. Bhave and others travel to Ireland to identify the bodies (some of them were not found), then to India for proper burials. People cope with grief differently: some deny the deaths of their relatives, some crumble, some remarry. Bhave becomes curiously withdrawn, which give people the appearance of aplomb, and thus some come to her for relief. The use of the present tense throughout the story underscores the uncertainty of the future.


The scenes that take place in Ireland are particularly unsettling. Bhave walks out to the beach, and recalls “what good swimmers my boys were,” expecting them to turn up any time, alive. While this hope may sound deranged, a fellow in grievance, a renowned engineer, tells Bhave that “‘[i]t’s a parent’s duty to hope.’” And they all do this, at least those unlucky enough to not have identified their relatives (“The lucky ones flew here, identified in multiplicate their loved ones, then will fly to India with the bodies for proper ceremonies”). One suspects Bhave’s hope has blinded her when she is shown snapshots of bloated, disfigured corpses thought to show one of her sons; she insists they are not pictures of her son. After that, “[t]he nun assigned to console me rubs the picture with a fingertip. ‘When they’ve been in the water for a while, love, they look a little heavier.’ The bones under the skin are broken, they said on the first day—try to adjust your memories. It’s important.”


Trying to adjust the relatives’ memories, their whole lives, in fact, is a central concern in the story. Life back in Canada becomes disfigured. The government appoints an officer to help people through the tragedy, in all its multicultural implications. The officer is young, and can quote “textbooks on grief management” without having had experience in a “tragedy of this scale.” The relationship between Sikhs and Hindus becomes terribly strained. Some of the relatives of the victims don’t know how to get by without those who died; the growling pace of normality threatens to leave them homeless and without food or utilities.


Bhave, as I said, seems to have managed with sang-froid. She is not well, though, unlike the appearances. Bhave has several visions of her family, daubed in Hindu religion. I cannot retell some of the more compelling ones without completely ruining the story, as I almost have done already. The ending of the story picks up this theme again.


“The Management of Grief” is not only about grief, and about how a person and a community manage it. The story is also about how a short story can manage the thorny subject of grief, and how it can do it so well, without being maudlin or insensitive, without lapsing into platitudes and without offering easy ways out.

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