Reading 17

The following passage is taken from the short story “Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter” by Chitra Divakaruni (© 1998 by Chitra Divakaruni).

  1. When the alarm goes off at 5:00
  2. A.M., buzzing like a trapped
  3. wasp, Mrs. Dutta has been lying
  4. awake for quite a while. She
  5. still has difficulty sleeping on
  6. the Perma Rest mattress that
  7. Sagar and Shyamoli, her son
  8. and daughter-in-law, have
  9. bought specially for her,
  10. though she has had it for two
  11. months now. It is too
  12. American-soft, unlike the
  13. reassuring solid copra ticking
  14. she used at home. But this is
  15. home now, she reminds
  16. herself. 
  17. She reaches hurriedly to turn
  18. off the alarm, but in the dark
  19. her fingers get confused among
  20. the knobs, and the electric clock
  21. falls with a thud to the floor.
  22. Its angry metallic call vibrates
  23. through the walls of her room,
  24. and she is sure it will wake
  25. everyone. She yanks frantically
  26. at the wire until she feels it give,
  27. and in the abrupt silence that
  28. follows he hears herself
  29. breathing, a sound harsh and
  30. even and full of guilt. 
  31. Mrs. Dutta knows, of course,
  32. that this ruckus is her own fault.
  33. She should just not set the
  34. alarm. She does not need to get
  35. up early here in California, in
  36. her son’s house. But the habit,
  37. taught to her by her
  38. mother-in-law when she was a
  39. bride of seventeen, a good wife
  40. wakes before the rest of the
  41. household, is one she finds
  42. impossible to break. How hard
  43. it was then to stumble to the
  44. kitchen that smelled of stale
  45. garam masala and light the coal
  46. stove so that she could make
  47. morning tea for them all – her
  48. parents-in-law, her husband,
  49. and his two younger brothers. 
  50. After dinner, when the family sits
  51. in front of the TV, she tries to tell
  52. her grandchildren about those
  53. days. 
  54. “I was never good at starting that
  55. stove – the smoke stung my eyes,
  56. making me cough and cough.
  57. Breakfast was never ready on
  58. time, and my mother-in-law—oh,
  59. how she scolded me, until I was
  60. in tears. Every night I’d pray to
  61. Goddess Durga, please let me sleep
  62. late, just one morning!“Mmmmm,”
  63. Pradeep says, bent over a model
  64. plane.“Oooh, how awful,”
  65. Mrinalini says, wrinking her nose
  66. politely before she turns back to
  67. a show filled with jokes that Mrs.
  68. Dutta does not understand. 
  69. “That’s why you should sleep in
  70. now, Mother,” Shyamoli says,
  71. smiling at her from the recliner
  72. where she sits looking through
  73. the Wall Street Journal. With
  74. her legs crossed so elegantly
  75. under the shimmery blue skirt
  76. she has changed into after work,
  77. and her unusually fair skin, she
  78. could pass for an American,
  79. thinks Mrs. Dutta, whose own
  80. skin is brown as roasted cumin.
  81. The thought fills her with
  82. an uneasy pride
  83. From the floor where he leans
  84. against Shyamoli’s knee, Sagar
  85. adds, “We want you to be
  86. comfortable, Ma. To rest. That’s
  87. why we brought you to America.” 
  88. In spite of his thinning hair and
  89. the gold-rimmed glasses that he
  90. has recently taken to wearing,
  91. Sagar’s faced seems to Mrs.
  92. Dutta still that of the boy she
  93. used to send off to primary
  94. school with his metal tiffin box.
  95. She remembers how he crawled
  96. into her bed on stormy monsoon
  97. nights, how when he was ill, no
  98. one else could make him drink
  99. his barley water. Her heart
  100. lightens in sudden gladness
  101. because she is really here, with
  102. him and his children in
  103. America. 
  104. “Oh Sagar,” she says, smiling,
  105. “now you’re talking like this!
  106. But did you give me a moment’s
  107. rest while you were growing up?”
  108. And she launches into a
  109. description of childhood pranks
  110. that has him shaking his head
  111. indulgently while disembodied
  112. TV laughter echoes through the
  113. room. 
  114. But later he comes into her
  115. bedroom and says, a little
  116. shamefaced, “Mother, please
  117. don’t get up so early in the
  118. morning. All that noise in the
  119. bathroom – it wakes us up, and
  120. Molli has such a long day at
  121. work…”
  122. And she, turning a little so that
  123. he won’t see her foolish eyes
  124. filling with tears, as though she
  125. were a teenage bride again and
  126. not a woman well over sixty,
  127. nods her head, yes, yes.