The Unknown Errors of Our Lives by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
In nine poignant stories spiked with humor and intelligence, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni captures lives at crossroad moments–caught between past and present, home and abroad, tradition and fresh experience. A widow in California, recently arrived from India, struggles to adapt to a world in which neighbors are strangers and her domestic skills are deemed superfluous in the award-winning “Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter.” In “The Intelligence of Wild Things,” a woman from Sacramento visits her brother in Vermont to inform him that back in Calcutta their mother is dying. And in the title story, a painter looks to ancient myth and the example of her grandmother for help in navigating her first real crisis of faith. Knowing, compassionate and expertly rendered, the stories in The Unknown Errors of Our Livesdepict the eternal struggle to find a balance between the pull of home and the allure of change.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is the bestselling author of the novels Sister of My Heartand The Mistress of Spices; the story collections The Unknown Errors of Our Livesand Arranged Marriage, which received several awards, including the American Book Award; and four collections of prize-winning poetry. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Ms., Zoetrope, Good Housekeeping, O: The Oprah Magazine, The Best American Short Stories 1999, and The New York Times. Born in India, Divakaruni lives near Houston.
For further information about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, visit her Web site at www.chitradivakaruni.com.
Houston, Texas, and San Jose, California
Date of Birth:
July 29, 1956
Place of Birth:
B.A. in English, Kolkata University 1976; Ph.D. in English, University of California at Berkeley, 1984
When the alarm goes off at 5:00 A.M., buzzing like a trapped wasp, Mrs. Dutta has been lying awake for quite a while. Though it has now been two months, she still has difficulty sleeping on the Perma Rest mattress Sagar and Shyamoli, her son and daughter-in-law, have bought specially for her. It is too American-soft, unlike the reassuringly solid copra ticking she is used to at home. Except this is home now, she reminds herself. She reaches hurriedly to turn off the alarm, but in the dark her fingers get confused among the knobs, and the electric clock falls with a thud to the floor. Its insistent metallic call vibrates out through the walls of her room until she is sure it will wake everyone. She yanks frantically at the wire until she feels it give, and in the abrupt silence that follows she hears herself breathing, a sound harsh and uneven and full of guilt.
Mrs. Dutta knows, of course, that this turmoil is her own fault. She should just not set the alarm. There is no need for her to get up early here in Sunnyvale, in her son's house. But the habit, taught to her by her mother-in-law when she was a bride of seventeen, a good wife wakes before the rest of the household, is one she finds impossible to break. How hard it was then to pull her unwilling body away from her husband's sleep-warm clasp, Sagar's father whom she had just learned to love. To stumble to the kitchen that smelled of stale garam masala and light the coal unoon so she could make morning tea for them allher parents-in-law, her husband, his two younger brothers, the widow aunt who lived with them.
After dinner, when the family sits in front of the TV, she attempts to tell her grandchildren about those days. "I was never good at starting that unoonthe smoke stung my eyes, making me cough and cough. Breakfast was never ready on time, and my mother-in-lawoh, how she scolded me until I was in tears. Every night I would pray to Goddess Durga, please let me sleep late, just one morning!"
"Mmmm," Pradeep says, bent over a model plane.
"Oooh, how awful," says Mrinalini, wrinkling her nose politely before she turns back to a show filled with jokes that Mrs. Dutta does not understand.
"That's why you should sleep in now, Mother," says Shyamoli, smiling from the recliner where she sits looking through the Wall Street Journal. With her legs crossed so elegantly under the shimmery blue skirt she has changed into after work, and her unusually fair skin, she could pass for an American, thinks Mrs. Dutta, whose own skin is brown as roasted cumin. The thought fills her with an uneasy pride.
From the floor where he leans against Shyamoli's knee, Sagar adds, "We want you to be comfortable, Ma. To rest. That's why we brought you to America."
In spite of his thinning hair and the gold-rimmed glasses which he has recently taken to wearing, Sagar's face seems to Mrs. Dutta still that of the boy she used to send off to primary school with his metal tiffin box. She remembers how he crawled into her bed on stormy monsoon nights, how when he was ill no one else could make him drink his barley water. Her heart balloons in sudden gladness because she is really here, with him and his children in America. "Oh, Sagar"she smilesnow you're talking like this! But did you give me a moment's rest while you were growing up?" And she launches into a description of childhood pranks that has him shaking his head indulgently while disembodied TV laughter echoes through the room.
But later he comes into her bedroom and says, a little shamefaced, "Mother, please, don't get up so early in the morning. All that noise in the bathroom, it wakes us up, and Molli has such a long day at work . . ."
And she, turning a little so he shouldn't see her foolish eyes filling with tears as though she were a teenage bride again and not a woman well over sixty, nods her head, yes, yes.
Waiting for the sounds of the stirring household to release her from the embrace of her Perma Rest mattress, Mrs. Dutta repeats the 108 holy names of God. Om Keshavaya Namah, Om Narayanaya Namah, Om Madhavaya Namah. But underneath she is thinking of the bleached-blue aerogram from Mrs. Basu that has been waiting unanswered on her bedside table all week, filled with news from home. There was a robbery at Sandhya Jewelry Store, the bandits had guns but luckily no one was hurt. Mr. Joshi's daughter, that sweet-faced child, has run away with her singing teacher, who would've thought it. Mrs. Barucha's daughter-in-law had one more baby girl, yes, their fourth, you'd think they'd know better than to keep trying for a boy. Last Tuesday was Bangla Bandh, another labor strike, everything closed down, even the buses not running, but you can't really blame them, can you, after all factory workers have to eat, too. Mrs. Basu's tenants, whom she'd been trying to evict forever, had finally moved out, good riddance, but you should see the state of the flat.
At the very bottom Mrs. Basu wrote, Are you happy in America?
Mrs. Dutta knows that Mrs. Basu, who has been her closest friend since they both came to Ghoshpara Lane as young brides, cannot be fobbed off with descriptions of Fisherman's Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge, or even anecdotes involving grandchildren. And so she has been putting off her reply while in her heart family loyalty battles with insidious feelings ofbut she turns from them quickly and will not name them even to herself.
Now Sagar is knocking on the children's doorsa curious custom, this, children being allowed to close their doors against their parentsand with relief Mrs. Dutta gathers up her bathroom things. She has plenty of time. It will take a second rapping from their mother before Pradeep and Mrinalini open their doors and stumble out. Still, she is not one to waste the precious morning. She splashes cold water on her face and neck (she does not believe in pampering herself), scrapes the night's gumminess from her tongue with her metal tongue cleaner, and brushes vigorously, though the minty toothpaste does not leave her mouth feeling as clean as did the bittersweet neem stick she'd been using all her life. She combs the knots out of her hair. Even at her age, it is thicker and silkier than her daughter-in-law's permed curls. Such vanity, she scolds her reflection, and you a grandmother and a widow besides. Still, as she deftly fashions her hair into a neat coil, she remembers how her husband would always compare it to night rain.
She hears a commotion outside.
"Pat! Minnie! What d'you mean you still haven't washed up? I'm late every morning to work nowadays because of you kids."
"But, Mom, she's in there. She's been there forever . . ." says Mrinalini.
Pause. Then, "So go to the downstairs bathroom."
"But all our stuff is here," says Pradeep, and Mrinalini adds, "It's not fair. Why can't she go downstairs?"
A longer pause. Inside the bathroom Mrs. Dutta hopes Shyamoli will not be too harsh on the girl. But a child who refers to elders in that disrespectful way ought to be punished. How many times had she slapped Sagar for something far less, though he was her only one, the jewel of her eye, come to her after she had been married for seven years and everyone had given up hope already? Whenever she lifted her hand to him it was as though her heart was being put through a masala grinder. Such is a mother's duty.
But Shyamoli only says, in a tired voice, "That's enough! Go put on your clothes, hurry."
The grumblings recede. Footsteps clatter down the stairs. Inside the bathroom Mrs. Dutta bends over the sink, gripping the folds of her sari. Hard to think through the pounding in her head to what it is she feets mostanger at the children for their rudeness, or at Shyamoli for letting them go unrebuked. Or is it shame that clogs her throat, stinging, sulfuric, indigestible?
It is 9.00 A.M. and the house, after the flurry of departures, of frantic "I can't find my socks," and "Mom, he took my lunch money," and "I swear I'll leave you kids behind if you're not in the car in exactly one minute," has settled into its placid daytime rhythms.
Busy in the kitchen, Mrs. Dutta has recovered her spirits. It is too exhausting to hold on to grudges, and, besides, the kitchensunlight sliding across its countertops while the refrigerator hums reassuringlyis her favorite place.
Mrs. Dutta hums too as she fries potatoes for alu dum. Her voice is rusty and slightly off-key. In India she would never have ventured to sing, but with everyone gone, the house is too quiet, all that silence pressing down on her like the heel of a giant hand, and the TV voices, with their unreal accents, are no help at all. As the potatoes turn golden-brown, she permits herself a moment of nostalgia for her Calcutta kitchenthe new gas stove bought with the birthday money Sagar sent, the scoured brass pots stacked by the meat safe, the window with the lotus-pattern grille through which she could look down on children playing cricket after school. The mouth-watering smell of ginger and chili paste, ground fresh by Reba the maid, and, in the evening, strong black Assam cha brewing in the kettle when Mrs. Basu came by to visit. In her mind she writes to Mrs. Basu, Oh, Roma, I miss it all so much, sometimes I feel that someone has reached in and torn out a handful of my chest.
But only fools indulge in nostalgia, so Mrs. Dutta shakes her head clear of images and straightens up the kitchen. She pours the half-drunk glasses of milk down the sink, though Shyamoli has told her to save them in the refrigerator. But surely Shyamoli, a girl from a good Hindu family, doesn't expect her to put contaminated jutha things in with the rest of the food? She washes the breakfast dishes by hand instead of letting them wait inside the dishwater till night, breeding germs. With practiced fingers she throws an assortment of spices into the blender: coriander, cumin, cloves, black pepper, a few red chilies for vigor. No stale bottled curry powder for her! At least the family's eating well since I arrived, she writes in her mind, proper Indian food, rutis that puff up the way they should, fish curry in mustard sauce, and real pulao with raisins and cashews and gheethe way you taught me, Romainstead of Rice-a-roni. She would like to add, They love it, but thinking of Shyamoli she hesitates.
At first Shyamoli had been happy enough to have someone take over the cooking. It's wonderful to come home to a hot dinner, she'd say, or, Mother, what crispy papads, and your fish gravy is out of this world. But recently she's taken to picking at her food, and once or twice from the kitchen Mrs. Dutta has caught wisps of words, intensely whispered: cholesterol, all putting on weight, she's spoiling you. And though Shyamoli always refuses when the children ask if they can have burritos from the freezer instead, Mrs. Dutta suspects that she would really like to say yes.
THE CHILDREN. A heaviness pulls at Mrs. Dutta's entire body when she thinks of them. Like so much in this country they have turned out to beyes, she might as well admit ita disappointment.
For this she blames, in part, the Olan Mills portrait. Perhaps it had been impractical of her to set so much store on a photograph, especially one taken years ago. But it was such a charming sceneMrinalini in a ruffled white dress with her arm around her brother, Pradeep chubby and dimpled in a suit and bow tie, a glorious autumn forest blazing red and yellow behind them. (Later Mrs. Dutta would learn, with a sense of having been betrayed, that the forest was merely a backdrop in a studio in California, where real trees did not turn such colors.)
The picture had arrived, silver-framed and wrapped in a plastic sheet filled with bubbles, with a note from Shyamoli explaining that it was a Mother's Day gift. (A strange concept, a day set aside to honor mothers. Did the sahebs not honor their mothers the rest of the year, then?) For a week Mrs. Dutta could not decide where it should be hung. If she put it in the drawing room, visitors would be able to admire her grandchildren, but if she put it on the bedroom wall, she would be able to see the photo, last thing, before she fell asleep. She had finally opted for the bedroom, and later, when she was too ill with pneumonia to leave her bed for a month, she'd been glad of it.
Mrs. Dutta was not unused to living on her own. She had done it for the last three years, since Sagar's father died, politely but stubbornly declining the offers of various relatives, well-meaning and otherwise, to come and stay with her. In this she had surprised herself as well as others, who thought of her as a shy, sheltered woman, one who would surely fall apart without her husband to handle things for her. But she managed quite well. She missed Sagar's father, of course, especially in the evenings, when it had been his habit to read to her the more amusing parts of the newspaper while she rolled out rutis. But once the grief receded, she found it rather pleasant to be mistress of her own life, as she confided to Mrs. Basu. She liked being able, for the first time ever, to lie in bed all evening and read a new novel of Shankar's straight through if she wanted, or to send out for hot brinjal pakoras on a rainy day without feeling guilty that she wasn't serving up a balanced meal.
When the pneumonia hit, everything changed.
Mrs. Dutta had been ill before, but those illnesses had been different. Even in bed she'd been at the center of the household, with Reba coming to find out what should be cooked, Sagar's father bringing her shirts with missing buttons, her mother-in-law, now old and tamed, complaining that the cook didn't brew her tea strong enough, and Sagar running in crying because he'd had a fight with the neighbor boy. But now there was no one to ask her, querulously, Just how long do you plan to remain sick, no one waiting in impatient exasperation for her to take on her duties again, no one whose life was inconvenienced the least bit by her illness.
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Unknown Errors of Our Lives. In this collection, the award-winning poet, novelist, and storyteller depicts with great sensitivity the universal truths about both the limits and the expansive possibilities of human relationships.
I. For discussion of "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter"
1.Despite being manifested in very different ways, how do Mrs. Dutta's and Molli's approaches to life in America essentially reflect the same pride in their Indian heritage? What else do these two women have in common?
2.Is Mrs. Dutta motivated on some level by revenge or jealously when she defies Molli's household rules? What does Mrs. Dutta's fleeting thought: "Maybe Shyamoli's doing the right thing, after all. . . ." [p. 28] reveal about how she views her own life?
II. For discussion of "The Intelligence of Wild Things"
1.What does the "intelligence of wild things" symbolize?
2.Can the characters find their "way back across the immigrant years, across the frozen warp of the heart" [p. 50]? If so, how?
3.How much of what Didi is trying to recapture is lost childhood, and how much is lost culture? How does this compare to what the mother is looking for in "The Names of Stars in Bengali"?
III. For discussion of "The Lives of Strangers"
1.What is Leela afraid of? Is it this fear or something else that drives her to break up with Dexter? To attempt suicide? To reject Mrs. Das?
2.What is Leela hoping to find in India? Is she on a private pilgrimage of a different sort than the Hindu women?
3.How does the concept of "destiny" [p. 74] differ in America and India? What does this mean to Leela?
IV. For discussion of "The Love of a Good Man"
1.Does Monisha finally come to terms with her mother's death by forgiving her father?
2.Does the phrase that Monisha overhears her father say to Dilip"except regret" [p. 111]serve as an apology or as a warning to her?
3.Who is the "good man" to whom the title refers, and does it perhaps refer to more than one man? And what does it mean to be "good"?
V. For discussion of "What the Body Knows"
1.What is Dr. Michaels to Aparna, and what is she to him? Is there more to their relationship than is immediately apparent?
2.This is the only story of the collection that does not directly mention the characters' Indian heritage or refer to India at all. Are the characters different from those in the other stories? In what ways might they be described as more American? Are there distinctly Indian characteristics that Aparna and Umesh possess?
VI. For discussion of "The Forgotten Children"
1.Was Didi's mistake her betrayal of her brother, or how she fooled herself? Was it just inevitable that her brother not be allowed to live the "fantasy"?
2.How is the title of the story ironic?
3.In contrast to "What the Body Knows", this is the only story set solely in India and in which America is not mentioned at all. In what thematic or stylistic ways does this feature set this story apart from the others?
VII. For discussion of "The Blooming Season for Cacti"
1.Why does Mira sleep with Ajit? What are the different roles women play vis-a-vis men and society as represented by the different female characters in this story? How does society treat women differently in Bombay, Texas, and California? Is Mira's relationship with Radhika the only way for them to become truly liberated from the traditional roles they are expected to play?
VIII. For discussion of "The Unknown Errors of Our Lives"
1.How does Ruchira's and Biren's imminent marriage reflect a combination of traditional Hindu and modern American practices? Where does Arlene fit into this unique mixture and what does she represent?
2.Is Ruchira's decision to go forward with her marriage after having met Arlene understandable? Why does she choose to do so? How does this choice affect her?
3.If Ruchira could get back her "book of errors" [p. 211], what might she write in it now?
IX. For discussion of "The Names of Stars in Bengali"
1.How does the different narrative style that Divakaruni employs for this story, e.g., the anonymity of the characters, the frequency of phrasing sentences as questions, affect the tone?
2.What is the role of religion in traditional Indian village life? Has the mother lost her faith in this religion entirely?
3.The mother in this story wants to ask: "How does one remake oneself?" [p. 266] What is she hoping to learn?
X. For discussion of The Unknown Errors of Our Lives
1.How does each story reflect the paradox conveyed by the title phrase "unknown errors"? How much control do the characters in the stories have over the directions their lives take, and how much is predetermined by fate?
2."Families were not for fun. They were for feeding and clothing and teaching children, so that they would, in turn, be adequately equipped to feed and clothe and teach their children" [p. 259]. Does this statement accurately reflect the portrait of Indian family life that emerges in this collection, and how does it translate into the portrait of family life experienced by American immigrants? Which elements of family life in India are preserved and which are lost? How do family ties and the nature of family loyalty change in the process of immigration?
3.In "The Names of Stars in Bengali," the mother laments over "what America had leached away from her" [p. 255]. Does this describe the process of assimilation? Is it necessary for an individual to lose something of his or her original culture in order to adapt to a new culture and, once immersed, are the old ways lost for good? How do the first-generation immigrant characters contrast with those born in America, such as Ajit, who had "a certain trustfulness about him that makes it clear he has never lived anywhere except America" [p. 189]? Can the characters reconcile the tension between their burden of legacy and their desperate need to preserve roots?
4.How does the concept of "home" vary for the different characters? For example, what does "home" mean for Didi in "The Intelligence of Wild Things" or Khuku in "The Names of Stars in Bengali"? Is "home" a physical place, an intangible feeling, or possibly a combination of both?
5.How do the different moods of each of the stories change with the various geographical settings of the stories: from Calcutta and Bombay, to the villages of India, to California, to Vermont? How do the characters' emotions reflect the shifting landscapes of their lives?
6.A recurring theme in each of the stories is fantasy versus reality. How do the characters' fantasies illustrate what each person wants to remember about her life and what she wants to forget? What are their different motives for hiding certain truths from themselves or others? How do the main characters choose to respond to their own fantasies, and what does this choice say about their characters? Compare, for example, Leela's fantasies [p. 75] with Aparna's [pp. 135-6].
7.Many of the characters also have difficulty communicating with the people closest to them. Why is bridging this communication gap so challenging for Mrs. Dutta and her son ("Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter"), Didi and her brother ("The Intelligence of Wild Things"), Leela and her parents ("The Lives of Strangers"), Monisha and Dilip ("The Love of a Good Man"), and the mother visiting her village ("The Names of Stars in Bengali")? How is the breakdown of communication caused or affected by the immigrant experience? By geographical distance? By generation gaps? What finally opens the gates of communication for these characters?
Unknown Errors of Our Lives 4.8 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
This book is a must have!!! I read many books from 'Indian-American' genre, and this is my favorite. Author has also written a book called Arranged Marriage, which is also equally heartwarming. The best thing about this book is that it contains short stories so there no commitment to the chapters like a traditional book. She blew me away in each short story!!
More than 1 year ago
Loved the stories. Nice flowing style. Great read on the subway to and from work.
More than 1 year ago
Absolutely LOVED this book! Each story can be read in a very short time, but each is just filled with such emotion and so easily communicates the true essence of lives - experience!
More than 1 year ago
I think i finished this book in under 24 hours. Each story was beautiful and moving in its own way. She captures the pain of the identity crisis that only people trapped between two worlds and two cultures can understand - but never articulate. She is one of my new favorite writers.
More than 1 year ago
I love this book of short stories. This is the 3rd Chitra Banerjee book I've read and loved them all. Its a quick and easy read too, I intended to read one story a night but read the first three on the first night, finished the whole book in two days! Now I need another book to read.
More than 1 year ago
Well written and an enjoyable read, but left me feeling a little down. I liked 'Arranged Marriage' better.
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