The Unknown Errors of Our Lives

The Unknown Errors of Our Lives by Chitra Banerjee DivakaruniChitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Doubleday ($23.95)

by Michelle Reale

Propelled by the conventional wisdom that what is unknown in our lives hurts and corrodes more than what we know, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's latest book of short stories subtly takes the possibility of good in our lives and gives it a little twist. Her human but flawed characters constantly err; they manage to find tiny pin pricks of redemption in situations that seem otherwise capable of laying the fragile human spirit to waste, but their "solutions" often become resignations.

In these nine short stories, Divakaruni focuses on the lives of women almost exclusively, no doubt traversing terrain both familiar and close to her heart. Males, when they do appear, are ancillary to the actual stories themselves, existing instead as shadowy or fragmented characters lending masculine scenery and staying close to the frayed edges.

In the opening story, "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," Divakaruni shows an aging Indian mother who has left India to live with her son and his family treading the rocky terrain of American culture. Culture shock would be putting it mildly; poor Mrs. Dutta cannot sleep comfortably on her "Perma Rest" American mattress, bought for her, with good intentions, by her aloof son and his increasingly inscrutable wife. Feeling like little more than a stranger in the house, Mrs. Dutta pens letters to her steadfast friend Roma in India. While her letters contain glowing accounts of American life, nothing could really be further from the truth. Her existence is painful and alienating. Here, Divakaruni explicates beautifully the preoccupation many immigrants have with living exemplary so-called "American" lives. Her son and his wife worrying over what the neighbor's think when Mrs. Dutta drapes her saris over the fence to dry is both poignant and amusing. Divakaruni's writing is both precise and contrived in this opening story, perhaps most realistically highlighting, at least to some sensibilities, the divide between East and West. While Mrs. Dutta brims with "smother love," tasty meals, and true involvement in the lives of the only family she has left, her efforts are spurned at every turn. Divakaruni is exceptional at slowly building a story line and quietly tearing it down in the end—an effect present in nearly every story in this collection, though to varying degrees.

Interestingly, two stories in the collection focus on brother and sister relationships; both stories place their female narrators in the familiar roles of conciliator and interpreter of emotions, not to mention the ever-present (ever needful?) mother figure to their brothers, irregardless of whether younger or older than themselves. In "The Intelligence of Wild Things" a sister attempts to heal an ever-growing rift between her brother and their mother before death intervenes. Because she cannot do this directly, the sister decides to implore her brother with a story, a fable of sorts, conceding that whether or not he "listens" and whether or not he "hears" is now a roll of the dice. She thinks to herself: "We stand side by side, shoulders touching. The wind blows though us, a wild intelligent wind. The white bird flies directly into the sun." This is a placid and surrendering image in sharp and violent contrast to the young brother and sister in "The Forgotten Children" who are alternately brutalized and loved, yet still fiercely loving of parents who fail to protect them in any fundamental way. Again, the sister attempts to forge a perverse sort of normality and shelter her younger brother, causing her to feel that "perhaps to disappear is the next best thing to being forgotten." Divakaruni describes the abuse of the children in matter of fact ways and this unemotional tone is unnerving, but achieves what she probably set out to do: enrage the reader before they even realize what is happening.

One might rightfully ask what the errors in our lives actually are. The book's epigraph, from Jamaica Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother, states: "Who you are is a mystery no one can answer, not even you." This collection does not illuminate, nor does it seek find humor in the crossing of cultures and the problem of situating oneself uncomfortably between East and West. Instead, it seems that the errors of our lives, whether known or unknown, are the great equalizers in these quiet and devastating stories. Divakaruni hits her emotional target every time, but rather than outright murder, she kills you softly—and you never see it coming.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001