Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni returns to short fiction after two best-selling novels, The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart. In The Unknown Errors of Our Lives, her second collection of short stories after Arranged Marriage (which won the National Book Award), Divakaruni once again depicts the dilemmas of immigrant Indian women in America as they struggle to balance their lives in a new country with immense potential and freedom, with the values that they have grown up with in the old country, and live with the consequences of their choices. Their choices affect not only them, but also those who live in India or have moved to America to live with their loved ones. There are journeys back and forth that reveal the memories of one’s roots, and serve as a touchstone for testing the immigrant’s sense of self. Each short story deals with a poignant emotion, and shines like a finely cut gem, iridescent.
A certain insensibility creeps up on us when we have stayed too long in the West. In “Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter,” Shyamoli is more worried about offending her white American neighbor in a yuppie neighborhood than about the feelings of her mother-in-law, Mrs. Dutta, who overhears her gripe about the embarrassment caused by hanging clothes over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. This is a shock for Mrs. Dutta, coming from a neighborhood in Calcutta where Mrs. Basu, her closest friend, cares enough about her to warn her to keep her house after her husband’s death, in case … In spite of a Perma Rest mattress to sleep on and a washing machine that she is not allowed to operate, Mrs. Dutta doesn’t wish to let her friend know that things are not peachy in America. Asked whether she was really happy in America, Mrs. Dutta gives a diplomatic answer without deviating from the truth.
Some of the short stories are vignettes delicately etched. “The Intelligence of Wild Things” portrays the breakdown of communications in families. Tarun had been hustled into coming to the U.S. against his will by his mother. The hurt and anger he feels result in his alienation from his family. His mother is dying in Calcutta and Tarun’s sister finds out. Even though a wall has come between brother and sister during these years, she decides to visit him and break the news to him.
There is an awkward distance between them till one day it is broken down by a memory. It is the language of their childhood in rural Bengal that miraculously restores their relationship.
A similar theme of connection is treated in “Lives of Strangers.” Leela, a sophisticated young woman who has always shunned intimacy in America, accidentally discovers the magnetic bond of humanity when destiny brings her close to the ostracized widow Mrs. Das on a pilgrimage to Amarnath. When Leela nurses Mrs. Das’ bruised feet, the lonely widow utters the word “eksangay” (together) to describe their plight. It is an epiphany that opens inside Leela “like a word in a dictionary.”
Monisha questions the validity of her mother’s belief that the love of a good man can save your life in the short story of that title. Her own father had abandoned her and her mother when he took off to America. Soon after he left, Monisha’s mother died of cancer, proving ironically that the loss of love even if it is not a good man’s, can kill you. But the truth of her mother’s belief about love is borne out in America by Monisha’s husband. After many years, when her father shows up at her own son’s birthday, she struggles to accept the fact that her father may have had his reasons for leaving them.
Divakaruni explores some bold themes in her short stories. In What the Body Knows, Aparna has a crush on the surgeon who saves her life after her son’s birth. She pulls back from a mild flirtation some time later, when she meets him at Macy’s.
The title story “The Unknown Errors of Our Lives,” highlights the dilemma that many of us face when we have to choose between the time-tested Indian method of arranged marriages and the Western method of dating in choosing a lifelong partner. Neither system is error-proof. Ruchira has tried dating without success and decides to try the Indian method. She meets Biren, suggested to her by her aunt in India as a desirable match. Even though Biren has been fairly open about admitting that he has known women before her, the reality of this admission hits her hard when she actually confronts the woman that he has impregnated and offered money for an abortion. One is never prepared for the known and unknown errors of one’s life.
Lakshmi Mani is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.