The award-winning poet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s first collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage , was published in 1995, and in 1996, it won the American Book Award, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Fiction, and the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize for Fiction. The collection was well received by the public, quickly becoming a bestseller, and met with critical acclaim. Paul Nathan’s review in Publishers Weekly is typical of those who affirmed Divakaruni’s first foray into prose: “The name Chitra Divakaruni is one that more and more people are going to learn to recognize, pronounce and remember.” Donna Seaman, in her Booklist review of Arranged Marriage , hails Divakaruni as “a virtuoso short story writer” and comments that “these are ravishingly beautiful stories, some profoundly sad, others full of revelation, all unforgettable.” Seaman draws attention to the main theme of the collection (and of “Meeting Mrinal”), “the vast differences between women’s lives in India, the country of her birth, and in the U.S., her country of choice.” An anonymous Publishers Weekly reviewer’s description of the central conflict of these stories applies to “Meeting Mrinal”: “Divakaruni places her characters at the volatile confluence of two conflicting pressures: the obligation to please traditional husbands and families, and the desire to live modern, independent lives.”
For Seaman, the message of the stories is predominantly feminist and pro-Western society, as they “revolve around the attempt to maintain traditional gender roles in the free-wheeling U.S., where even the most obedient and self-negating Indian women discover they can live a far more fulfilling life.” This theme is echoed by Robbie Clipper Sethi Studies in Short Fiction . Sethi notes that the women in the stories, far from being defeated by their ordeals, “prepare to battle the conventions they have left behind to take full advantage of their new lives in America.” Francine Prose, writing in Women’s Review of Books , observes a more ambiguous tone in the stories, commenting that the young Indian protagonists are “learning to cope with the unsettling novelties of life in the United States,” performing a “strenuous balancing act.” Sandra Ponzanesi, in Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writings in English , notes that Divakaruni “does not offer readymade solutions” to the confused roles and emotional turmoil of her heroines. She cites the final line of “Meeting Mrinal” about “Drinking to our ‘precious, imperfect lives’” and comments, “No real catharsis is found but only adjustments and compromises.” Prose cautions against what she perceives as a weakness of some of the stories—that they depend too heavily on a certain sort of “hot-button, up to the minute, highly contemporary and instantly recognizable” social problem, rather than on character. Examples of such problems featured in the stories include divorce, abortion, and spousal abuse. But she adds, “Divakaruni’s work is strongest when her characters exhibit a surprising and truly moving intensity of response to their situations.” The anonymous Publishers Weekly reviewer is one of many critics who see much emotional intensity in the stories, calling them “emotionally fraught” and singling out “Meeting Mrinal” as “particularly poignant.” Seaman, in her Booklist review, also notes that Divakaruni “conveys emotions with stunning accuracy,” calling the collection “deeply affecting.”
Robinson is a former teacher of English literature and creative writing and, as of 2006, is a fulltime writer and editor. In the following essay, she examines how the mirage of the perfect life is explored in “Meeting Mrinal.” Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s “Meeting Mrinal” opens on a scene in which Indian-born and newly divorced Asha prepares a meal for herself and her teenage son, Dinesh. Food and cooking identify a central theme of the story. Here, they symbolize how far Asha has departed from her accustomed wifely practice of preparing elaborate Indian meals from fresh ingredients. Now, Asha and Dinesh make do with ready-made pizza and whatever remnants of moldy vegetables Asha can find in her refrigerator. Dinesh often eats at Burger King, where he works. The scene is loaded with significance. It is traditional for an Indian wife to cook complex meals from scratch for her family and for the family to sit down to eat together. Now that Asha’s husband, Mahesh, has left her for a younger white woman, Asha has left off cooking in the old way: “I’ve decided that too much of my life has already been wasted mincing and simmering and grinding spices.” Instead, she is spending her time training for a new full-time job, which she will need as a single mother who is trying to build an independent life.
Another aspect of the scene is that the limp and moldy vegetables that Asha finds in her refrigerator suggest the rot that, unnoticed by Asha, had set into her marriage and that now threatens to infect what remains of her family life, her relationship with Dinesh. The convenience food and lifeless vegetables that she now serves up, somewhat guiltily, also reflect the lack of time, attention, and nourishment she is giving to her relationship with Dinesh. Since his father left, Dinesh has withdrawn to his room and into his music and now looks at her with “a polite, closed stranger’s face.” Asha’s omissions regarding Dinesh will soon prompt a crisis between mother and son—not relating to food, but to the truth in and substance of their relationship.
The barrier between Asha and Dinesh is the same as that which arises between Asha and Mrinal: Asha’s inability to openly acknowledge the failure of her marriage. When Mrinal telephones Asha, Asha cannot bring herself to tell her the truth about her situation. Instead, she keeps up the pretence of a happy family life, complete with invented, respectable activities for Dinesh. Witnessing his mother constructing a fake veneer of perfection over the ruins of his family life is too much for Dinesh to bear. He angrily demands, “I’m not good enough for your friend just the way I am, is that it?” This is an unintentional, yet relevant comment on Asha’s feelings about herself: She does not feel good enough for Mrinal, for Dinesh, or for society in general, just the way she is. She has worked hard at being the perfect wife and mother and feels that she has failed. Her feelings of shame deepen when, in fury at Dinesh’s challenge to her to tell the truth— that Mahesh “got tired of you and left you for another woman,” she slaps him. However, she loses the opportunity to be truthful with Dinesh when she falsely claims that her anger stems from his swearing rather than the uncomfortable truth that he voiced. In the ensuing coldness between Asha and Dinesh, she tries to win him round by cooking his favorite food and calling him by his baby name, Dinoo. This tactic fails miserably because it is another lie; Asha is no longer the all-capable, all-nourishing mother, and Dinesh is a young man, not a child.
Asha’s situation is particularly perilous because she has no firm foothold in her old life or in her new life. Though she has made her first brave steps towards establishing an independent life in a harsh and alien Western culture in the form of her training and her fitness classes, she feels that she is not up to the task. When she drives to her meeting with Mrinal, she finds that she is not used to negotiating city traffic, a reference to her uncertainty about negotiating her way through Western culture. When she arrives at the plush restaurant, she feels dowdy and awkward. She reflects, “I knew I didn’t belong here, and that every person in the room, without needing to look at me, knew it too.” Asha’s feelings of inadequacy are strengthened by the images of perfection against which she has chosen to measure herself. First, there is the image of wifely perfection that, it is suggested, comes with the territory of traditional Indian marriage. Asha pursues this ideal even after Mahesh has told her that the marriage is over, buying a sexy negligée to try to tempt him back. When Mahesh leaves, she blames herself, as is clear from the shame that prevents her from speaking openly about his decision.
The second image of perfection that plagues Asha is her idealized picture of her friend Mrinal: She has the perfect existence—money, freedom, admiration . . . and she doesn’t have to worry about pleasing anyone .” It is easy for Asha to project an idea of perfection onto Mrinal because Mrinal has succeeded in the areas in which Asha feels weak: She is glamorous, has a successful career, a lovely home, and power over men in her work. The competitive nature of their relationship is given an added edge by the fact that Mrinal warned Asha against contracting an early arranged marriage, advising her instead to finish college and get a job, but Asha ignored her friend’s suggestion. Not only does Asha think that she has failed to measure up to Mrinal, but she is convinced that she has been proved wrong and, understandably, is reluctant to admit it.
The third image of perfection is James Bond, who, with his “golden guns and intricate machines and bikini-clad beauties,” represents an idealized Western image of male sophistication and success that young Asha and Mrinal admired while they were growing up in India. They vowed that if they got to the West, they would celebrate with Bond’s favorite drink, vodka martini, shaken, not stirred. Indeed, when Mrinal meets Asha in the restaurant, she orders this drink for them both. For Asha, Mrinal is part of James Bond’s world, with her perfect grooming and sophisticated manners. What Asha fails to bear in mind is that Bond is a fictional character.
The edifice of perfection that Asha has created crumbles when Mrinal bursts into tears and admits that she is unhappy and lonely. She envies Asha her husband and child as much as Asha has envied her. Once again, Asha avoids telling the truth, but inside, she is plunged into a crisis by Mrinal’s revelation: “I feel like a child who picks up a fairy doll she’s always admired from afar and discovered that all its magic glitter is really painted clay.” In Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s “Meeting Mrinal,” it transpires that for Asha, images of perfection are not only her torment, but her sustenance, compensating for her own messy and confused life. She wonders, “What would I live on, now that I knew perfection was only a mirage?” In despair, Asha drives home and makes a halfhearted attempt at suicide by gassing herself with car fumes in the garage. When she changes her mind and staggers out of the garage, Dinesh appears and helps her to the bathroom where she vomits; he looks after his mother as if he were the adult and she were the child. He seems, she remarks, motherly .” Allowing Dinesh to see her at this, her lowest point, and to help her, is a breakthrough for Asha. She finally lets go of her need to be perceived as the perfect wife and mother and realizes that her role models were (unhelpfully) the superhuman heroines of Indian mythology and a hero of Western mythology. She thinks with compassion of Mahesh, noting that perhaps he had the same idealized notions when they married. She sums up her situation in brutally honest words: “I’ve lost my husband and betrayed my friend, and now to top it all I’ve vomited all over the sink in my son’s presence.” Far from sounding like a defeat, her words have an air of integrity. At last, Asha has allowed herself to be helped and faced her frailty; she can move forward into a future guided by truth and self-knowledge rather than false images of external perfection.
In her moment of resolution, Asha has a vision of a simple clay bowl from her art appreciation class. She remembers her teacher explaining that the master potter who made it always left a flaw in his later works, in the belief that it made them more human and more precious. The image is a positive transformation of the negative image she held in her disillusionment about the “painted clay” of Mrinal’s life. The clay bowl, beautiful yet flawed, is a symbol of Asha’s life, and, by extension, of Mrinal’s and Dinesh’s and Mahesh’s life—indeed, of everyone’s life: far from perfect, but infinitely precious.
In Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s ‘Meeting Mrinal,’ it transpires that for Asha, images of perfection are not only her torment, but her sustenance, compensating for her own messy and confused life.” The resolution unfolds into a new truthfulness in Asha’s relationship with Dinesh. She freely admits that she “made a mess” of her meeting with Mrinal and offers to tell him about it over a glass of pistachio milk. It is significant that Asha is here breaking her new habit of convenience food and returning on this occasion to a nourishing and traditional Indian drink; it is a reconciliation with her Indian roots and with the motherly role that she turned her back on after Mahesh’s departure. Dinesh smilingly accepts her offer, a sign that he is ready to be reconciled with his mother. As Asha and Dinesh solemnly raise their glasses to their “precious, imperfect lives,” the final image that readers are given is optimistic: “The glasses glitter like hope.” Asha recognizes and, more importantly, accepts that she and Dinesh will have other arguments. Liberated from false notions of perfection, Asha plans the letter she will write to Mrinal to tell her the truth.
Claire Robinson, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Published by Gale Group, 2006