Women Caught between Two Cultures
“Meeting Mrinal” shows the predicament of Asha, a woman who grew up in India, had an arranged marriage according to Indian tradition, and then had to adapt to a new lifestyle and culture as a divorced woman. The first change, taking place before the story opens, comes when she immigrates to the United States, a harsher culture full of “failing grades, drugs, street gangs, AIDS.” However, the cultural shock is cushioned by the fact that she is able to sustain the traditional Indian role of wife and mother, albeit with a part-time job. This cushion is suddenly taken away from her when her husband informs her that their marriage is over. In the Indian tradition, the family is a woman’s support system. If the family is no longer intact, she loses that support and must make decisions on her own—a situation that is much more the norm in Western society. The divorced Asha faces both external and internal challenges.
Externally, she considers moving out of the marital home and trains for a full-time job; she joins a fitness class and gives up cooking elaborate Indian meals for herself and her teenage son, relying instead on takeouts. Internally, she must come to terms with the failure of her marriage, a role to which she had committed her entire being for years, and become an independent woman in her adopted country. The prospect daunts her because she feels poorly equipped for her new role. Comparing herself with Mrinal as the epitome of what she must become, she finds herself lacking. She feels dowdy, incompetent, and ill-at-ease with the hustle and sophisticated gloss of life in the West. Mrinal has made the opposite life choices to Asha. Mrinal remained in India, yet she rejected the traditional Indian wifely role and acquired the trappings of the successful westernized woman. She has a powerful and lucrative job, beautiful clothes, and a lovely home. However, her achievements have come with a price: she is lonely and childless.
In the flawed lives of Asha and Mrinal, Divakaruni shows that both the traditional Indian female role and the modern Western female role entail their own sacrifices, problems, and uncertainties; neither choice is better or more complete than the other. She also dramatizes a basic irony: the Indian woman who remains in India actually develops a more Western-style life for herself; the Indian woman who comes to the United States attempts to sustain a traditional Indian lifestyle and only departs from it when her marriage fails and she is forced to be on her own.
On her website, Divakaruni writes, “Women in particular respond to my work because I’m writing about them, women in love, in difficulties, women in relationships. I want people to relate to my characters, to feel their joy and pain, because it will be harder to [be] prejudiced when they meet them in real life.” “Meeting Mrinal” shows the richness, conflicts, and complexities that mark Asha’s relationships with her female friend, with her husband and child, and with Western society in general. Asha’s relationship with Mrinal is particularly loaded with significance. Though Asha loves her friend, her perception of Mrinal as someone who has succeeded in all the ways in which she herself has failed adds a level of competitiveness, defensiveness, and dishonesty to their relationship. Each woman wants to be admired by the other. At their meeting, Asha cannot admit that her marriage has failed, and Mrinal tries to resist admitting that she is unhappy with her single, childless state, only giving in when her emotions break through her resolve to maintain the veneer of perfection.
The pursuit of acceptable appearance which fails in both cases illustrates how people are aware of being judged by others by certain exterior characteristics and how the fear of judgment prevents them from being honest about the realities of their lives. Asha’s relationship with Dinesh is also compromised by a lack of truth: mother and son no longer talk. The more Dinesh withdraws, the more Asha attempts to compensate for what she sees as her failure as a mother by engaging in traditional motherly behavior such as preparing his favorite meals. The cycle of deception is broken by Asha’s acceptance of Dinesh’s support when she reaches her lowest point of half-heartedly trying to commit suicide and by her admission to him that she “made a mess” of her meeting with Mrinal. When she promises to tell him about it, it is clear that she is ready to trust him with the truth and move into a more equal relationship with him. The irony here is that openly admitting to personal limitations enhances relationships, while pretending to be something one is not prevents intimacy.
Familial, Cultural and Social Expectations of Women
Why is Asha determined to project an image of the perfect life? It would be unfair to blame the men in her life for imposing their expectations onto her. Neither man is a demanding tyrant: Dinesh does not worry where his meals come from; Mahesh, in love with his secretary, has become tired of the husbandly role of choosing outfits for his wife and pretending to desire her sexually. Asha tries so hard to be the perfect wife and mother not because of her husband and son want that but because the culture in which she developed conditioned her to do so. As a girl and young woman, Asha was taught that she should cook elaborate meals for Mahesh and Dinesh, put her family before her career, dress to please Mahesh at social engagements, and keep him happy in the bedroom. Also, Asha makes her own choices. She is no longer in India, and even if she were, many Indian women now choose to ignore gender-linked cultural conventions, as Mrinal does. In reality, Asha is both a product of her culture and a person who reacts to it. She has chosen to focus on pleasing and nourishing her family. Her choice is backed by centuries of cultural conditioning, but it is still her choice.
Asha is as free as Mahesh or Mrinal to act independently, but doing so would entail moving out of her comfort zone, as is made clear from her response to the plush restaurant where she meets Mrinal: “As I awkwardly followed the maître d’ I knew I didn’t belong here, and that every person in the room, without needing to look at me, knew it too.” Eventually, she is forced by Mahesh’s departure to drop the Indian wifely role and to see more deeply into the vagaries of her own experience. She has to learn the hard way that nothing assures one of happiness, and unforeseen events require one to adapt. As the example of Mrinal shows, Western culture brings its own set of expectations which are just as onerous, in their own way, as those of traditional India. Many women feel that they are expected to be glamorous, physically fit, financially successful, and polished in social situations. Mrinal has achieved these traits, but at the price of loneliness. Finally, both women admit that they are unable to fulfill all the expectations they have embraced, but these admissions, far from being defeats, have the cautiously optimistic air of new beginnings, and they provide for greater intimacy and sincerity within their relationships.
When Asha and Mrinal were childhood friends, they were both fans of James Bond, the suave, all-powerful, and womanizing fictional spy created by the English novelist Ian Fleming (1908–1964) and popularized in a series of Hollywood films. For Asha and Mrinal, Bond was a symbol of a romanticized image of the West, full of “golden guns and intricate machines and bikini-clad beauties.” They vow that if they ever make it to the West, they will celebrate by drinking Bond’s favorite drink: vodka martini, shaken not stirred. Indeed, when Mrinal meets Asha in the restaurant, she orders this drink for them both. At the beginning of the meeting, Mrinal seems to Asha to belong to this idealized world of affluence and power. Only when Mrinal bursts into tears and admits that she is not happy does the truth begin to push its way through the fiction. Mrinal has been forced into this revelation by her realization of the lack of love in her life, an element that Asha does have in her relationship with Dinesh. One of James Bond’s defining characteristics is his lack of a love life (as opposed to a sex life, which he does have) or a family. Mrinal’s story suggests that Bond is a character deserving of pity rather than blind admiration. Moreover, in using Bond as a desirable image, Divakaruni cautions people not to measure their own lives in terms of the slick ideals promoted by any culture.
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