The story is set in two locations: India, where Asha was brought up and married and which is presented only in her memories and California in the United States, where she now lives. As well as being two separate countries, India and the United States have two different cultures and sets of social expectations. Asha’s Indian upbringing teaches her to be a certain kind of wife and mother, whereas the United States challenges her to break away from these traditional roles and forge an independent life. The United States is presented in both negative and positive aspects: the negative, chaotic side is represented by Asha’s fear of “failing grades, drugs, street gangs, AIDS” that lie in wait for Dinesh, and the positive side is represented by the greater freedom and power that beckons to the newly divorced Asha. The plush restaurant where Asha meets Mrinal brings out Asha’s insecurity about affluent Western society: she feels that she does not belong there and that every person in the room knows it. She is more comfortable with inexpensive places like Chuck E. Cheese or the Chinese takeout.
Characterization and Point of View
Asha and Mrinal are contrasting characters who represent the different choices facing Indian women (and to varying degrees, women of all nationalities): to follow the traditional route of marriage and children (Asha) or to stay single and pursue professional success (Mrinal). Far from being stereotypes, however, both characters suffer conflicts and doubts amid their strengths and achievements that render them thoroughly human and believable. The fact that the story is told in first person from the point of view of Asha allows Divakaruni to expose Asha’s opinions and hidden feelings, while she misreads Mrinal’s appearance and what she knows about Mrinal’s life. This point of view works to emphasize the story’s point: people judge other people’s outsides by comparing them to their own inner reality, often at their own expense.
Preparing elaborate meals from fresh ingredients for the family is an important part of Indian culture, one that Asha fully embraced in her married life with Mahesh. For her, cooking has come to symbolize the unity and nourishing quality of family life; it also signifies her investment in relationships with Mahesh and Dinesh. Now that Mahesh has left, Asha cooks differently. She relies on fast food and takeouts, reflecting her new, independent life: “I’ve decided that too much of my life has already been wasted mincing and simmering and grinding spices.” However, when Asha faces a crisis of confidence, worrying about the negative influence of “failing grades, drugs, street gangs, AIDS” on Dinesh, she takes refuge in cooking once more, as if there were some protection in that very ritual, “As though the translucent rings of onions and the long curls of carrots could forge a chain that would hold him to me, close, safe forever.” Similarly, after Asha’s argument with Dinesh, which is prompted by his anger at her lying to Mrinal about the state of her marriage and family life, she tries to win him over by cooking his favorite meal. Unable to face the truth or to discuss it openly with her son, she takes refuge in the motherly rituals, casting him as a child by using his baby name, Dinoo. The tactic fails miserably, since it is also a kind of lie; Dinesh has already eaten out, is no longer a child, and sullenly refuses to be drawn into the charade. The turning point for Asha comes after she poisons herself with fumes and then vomits—a reversal of nourishing oneself with food. During this incident, she is finally able to let go of her motherly role and allow Dinesh to look after her. Only then does Asha forgo her deceptions and decide to tell Dinesh and Mrinal the truth.
With mother and son communicating openly once more, they are able to share some pistachio milk that Asha prepares. Pistachio milk is a traditional Indian drink. The final scene in which Asha and Dinesh drink to their “precious, imperfect lives” with the pistachio milk symbolizes Asha’s acceptance of her Indian tradition; Dinesh’s acceptance of his mother (he accepts her offer of the milk, unlike his previous hostile response when she cooked him his favorite meal); and Asha’s and Dinesh’s acceptance of each other as they are, not as they might be expected to be in some illusory, presumably perfect family.
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