Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter, a short story by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, tells the readers about Mrs. Dutta, an elderly Indian woman who moved to California to live together with her son and his family after her husband died. The story shows how hard it is for the old woman to get accustomed to the new culture that is completely alien to her, and how she fails to find an understanding with her relatives. There are numerous details which demonstrate how difficult it is for Mrs. Dutta to comprehend the ways of the new culture, and the dirty clothes that Mrs. Dutta washes on her own and then dries on a fence is a detail that exposes the absence of mutual understanding in the relationship between her and her daughter-in-law, Shyamoli.
Problems in the Relationships between Mrs. Dutta and Shyamoli
At her new home, Mrs. Dutta does (or attempts to do) everything that she got used to doing throughout the course of her life, but the results are rather awkward. She tries to wake up early in the morning in order to prepare her family for a working day but ends up waking everyone else, including her daughter-in-law, too early. She attempts to cook food for the family, and, while everyone is initially very happy with her delicious Indian meals, as well as with the fact that someone does the cooking in the house, Shyamoli later starts being dissatisfied with it due to the high amounts of cholesterol contained in the food made by Mrs. Dutta (Divakaruni 9).
Finally, Mrs. Dutta is accustomed to doing the laundry in her own way, one that does not contradict her customs, and is shocked and embarrassed about how her daughter-in-law puts all the dirty clothes together (although they should be kept separately, according to the old woman’s beliefs) and washes them in the washing machine; so the old woman eventually decides to wash the laundry herself.
The Laundry as a Symbol of Mrs. Dutta and Shyamoli’s Relationships
The laundry is one of the bright examples of how Mrs. Dutta is unable to meet her family’s expectations regarding her, and is also a symbol of her relationship with Shyamoli. The old woman is unable to comprehend how her son’s wife can leave the dirty clothes in the bucket; she insists on washing them herself and asks her son to teach her how to use the washing machine, but she fears that she might break it or do something in the wrong way, so she does the laundry by hand. She is used to drying the clothes on the fence, so she does so, despite the fact that she “invades the privacy of her neighbors” (a phrase that Mrs. Dutta also cannot even properly understand) (Divakaruni 22) and makes her family look odd and awkward in this new, unfamiliar culture.
At the same time, the laundry is an example of how Shyamoli tries to get on with her mother-in-law, but fails. Shyamoli asks the old woman not to act according to her habits and offers that she would wash the dirty clothes herself (but then asks Sagar, her husband, to help her, which seems completely unacceptable to Mrs. Dutta, but is not a problem at all for Shyamoli).
She attempts to persuade her husband’s mother not to intervene, but Mrs. Dutta cannot get rid of her unrest, and does everything in her own way, causing problems for Shyamoli from their neighbors. Because of these problems, the young woman feels anxious and stressed, and she tells her husband that she feels as if she is not at her home anymore (Divakaruni 30).
Therefore, it can clearly be seen that the laundry is a bright example of how Shyamoli and Mrs. Dutta are unable to get along. The women make honest attempts to do it, but they are not able to understand each other, and, in spite of all their efforts, they fail; the results of this are rather depressing for both of them. It is worth pointing out that this whole situation is a fault of neither of the women; each of them tries to act in a way that would be acceptable for the other, but, being a part of their own culture, is unable to do so. It is interesting that the women have a similar reaction to this situation; because they cannot have things their way, both of them feel as if they are not at their home and they are not needed anymore.
To sum up, it should be stressed that Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter demonstrates how hard it can be for a person to adapt to and learn the ways of a completely new culture, and how difficult it can be to find an understanding for people who have completely different views on what should and what should not be done. The laundry symbolizes the complications in the relationships between Mrs. Dutta and Shyamoli, for the attitude of both women towards the clothes is typical of their general behavior, which leads to the conflict; at the same time, the situation is not anyone’s fault, and each of the women makes an honest effort to behave in a way that would be acceptable for the other.
Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter. n.d. Web.