”A Wife’s Story” by Bharati Mukherjee
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In “A Wife’s Story” written by Bharati Mukherjee, the narrator is an Indian woman named Panna who has left India to get a Ph. D. in special education in Manhattan. The story illustrates the relationship between Panna and her match-made husband who has come to visit her in Manhattan. Panna is drifting away from her husband because of the cultural changes she is going through. She has changed and he has not, thus the gap between them widens. My own marriage is not through match-making, and yet it has come to an end due to all kinds of differences that cannot be reconciled.
As husband and wife, Panna does understand him to a certain extent. Just by listening to his voice over the phone she can already figure out how he looks while he is telling her about the bombing at his workplace. She says, “I know how my husband’s eyes look this minute, how the eye rim sag and the yellow corneas shine and bulge with pain” (470). She also knows that he will be fine: “Tomorrow he’ll come out of it. Soon he’ll be eating again. He’ll sleep like a baby” (470). This is a kind of ability and understanding you develop with your spouse after living together for some time. I am able to know the mood of my spouse just by talking to him on the phone. I can easily “predict” his response and reaction too. For example, there are a few lecturers in our college that he hates because they serve as the panels for his final design thesis which he fails. Even after many years, he would be so annoyed and I know the exact bad words he would swear if someone mentions their names in front of him.
Panna also knows that her husband likes her to dress up in traditional Indian costume, so she deliberately changes out of her cotton pants and shirts and puts on a sari when she goes to the airport to meet him. She even puts on a whole set of jewelry: the marriage necklace, gold drop earrings and heavy gold bangles; accessories she does not wear often in Manhattan due to safety reason, as clearly stated in the sentence, “In this borough of vice and greed, who knows when, or whom, desire will overwhelm” (470). I know my husband’s preference too. He does not like me wearing long skirts and long-sleeved shirts because he thinks a woman looks old in that kind of attire. He also does not like me wearing high heels because I would be taller than him if I do so.
The relationship between Panna and her husband is traditional and male-dominant. She still “doesn’t call her husband by his first name” (470) and he “has never entered the kitchen of [their] Ahmadabad house” (472). On top of that, he gets jealous whenever other men talk to or show interest in her. He is the one who sends Panna to buy the tickets of their sightseeing tour because he thinks the Americans don’t understand his accent, and yet he blames her for attracting those men because she wears pants instead of sari. He says to her, “I told you not to wear pants. He thinks you are Puerto Rican. He thinks he can treat you with disrespect” (472). In fact, he is so uncomfortable with the attention his wife is getting from men that he wants her to go back to India with him, ignoring the fact that she has not completed her study. He says, “I’ve come to take you back. I have seen how men watch you” (474).
When Panna tells him she cannot go back with him, he picks up their food trays and throws them into the garbage, expressing his displeasure and demonstrating his male chauvinistic behavior. In my case, I call my husband by his first name, but not his “nickname” – only some of his female friends are allowed to call him by that name. He does some housework, but he is still a chauvinist. He demands me to be totally obedient. He decides we should live in Malaysia to be near his parents even though both of us work in Singapore, thus we spend six hours commuting on the road, crossing the border between the two countries every single day, for nine long years. It is really tiring and I think we can make better use of our time. But whenever I bring up this issue, he would simply ignore my point of view.
It is of little wonder that Panna finds herself drifting away from her husband. While he remains the traditional Indian husband, she has changed much. In my case, my husband and I become more distant as our difference become more prominent over the years.
First of all, Panna has started to assimilate into the American culture. She hugs Imre, a male friend, on the street, and they walk arm in arm to the bus stop. She is sure that her husband “would never dance or hug a woman on Broadway” (467) because he “[has] a well-developed sense of what’s silly” (467). Hugging a friend of the opposite sex, a normal social gesture in America is considered “silly” by an Indian! In Panna’s case, she clearly thinks of it as a social gesture now, just like the Americans. Even her vocabulary is so American now. She uses the word “trucks” (470) instead of “lorries” (470); and when her husband says “wardrobe” (471), she knows that is what the Americans call “garment bag” (471). What I experience is not the cultural difference due to assimilation into another culture.
Rather, it is the difference that exists since the beginning. My husband goes through the public school system in Malaysia and does not learn Chinese. On the other hand, I attend Chinese elementary school and hold on to my Chinese culture and value. He scorns and calls me “old-fashioned” and “conservative”, saying that it is common for his girlfriend to send intimate electronic messages like “miss you very much, my dear” to him and that it is absolutely “all right” for them to send erotic online images to each other. I feel he has carried the word “liberality” a little too far.
Secondly, Panna has gained exposure to a lot of new things after living in Manhattan. Things that amaze and excite her husband, like the giant size of the Perdue hens, pizzas, burgers, Mcnuggets, hair rinses and high-protein diet powders, to her, are something already taken for granted (471). When they go shopping, she is startled to see that so many things delight him. She feels that she is “just getting to know him” (471) because the husband she regards as “prudent” (472) is “[r]ecklessly…sign[ing] away traveler’s checks” (472). In my case, my husband lives on a very tight budget during his student days and only begins to get the taste of a lot of fine things in life, like going for vacation, after he starts working. To me, vacation is a time to unwind and relax. I don’t mind spending a lazy afternoon just sitting at a sidewalk café and watching the world go by. To him, we have to make the most out of each trip. Our holiday together becomes a tiring experience for me because he wants to visit every place, to see everything, as everything fascinates him; thus we have to leave the hotel early in the morning and only return late at night.
After coming to Manhattan, Panna’s ability to appreciate art has been brought up to a new level by her friend, Imre. She thinks of him as a “natural avant-gardist” (471) who “always tells [her] what to see, what to read” (471). Panna enjoys this. She can walk and talk with Imre from Columbia to Chelsea without feeling tired at all (474). Imre invites Panna and her husband to watch Numero Deux directed by Godard. Obviously Panna’s husband is a total alien in this. Like an idiot he asks, “Is it a musical?” (471) which makes Imre winks sympathetically, probably feeling pathetic at how little he knows about art.
After the film, Panna’s husband calculates in rupees the money they have “wasted on Godard” (471), which clearly indicates that that film is not his cup of tea at all. I have similar experience as well. My husband and I have distinct taste in the appreciation of arts. He enjoys Hollywood blockbusters especially those action-packed movies, songs by Spice Girls and Britney Spears but shows no interest in any local theatre group’s performance or classical music concert – which I enjoy. He is also more interested in visiting Euro-Disney than Musee d’Orsay when we are in Paris during our honeymoon.
Panna’s lack of affection toward her husband is reflected when she notices the changes in her husband the moment she sees him but makes no comments about it. “He has lost weight, and changed his glasses. The arm, uplifted in a cheery wave, is bony, frail, almost opalescent” (470), she observes. Under normal circumstances, it should be very natural for her to say something about the changes, after not seeing her husband for some time. But she says nothing, which makes the husband sulky and finally voices his displeasure, “You’ve said nothing about my new glasses” (471). This has happened to me before. When we both resent each other, we just try to reduce our conversation to the minimum, avoiding interaction because it is no longer a pleasure talking to each other.
Besides, Panna seems rather irritable and embarassed by some of her husband behavior. He “[carries] a bottle of red peppers in his pocket” (471) as he thinks the American palate is bland and he wants her to go for guided sightseeing tour which she is “too proud to admit” (473) to Charity or Imre. I feel embarrassed as well, when my husband shows off the complimentary box of facial tissue, coffee sachets and slippers he takes from the hotel room or the cutlery set and blanket he collects from the airplane as “souvenirs”.
“A Wife’s Story” touches my heart as I can really empathy with Panna and understand how she feels in her relationship with her husband. Hers is a marriage through match-making. In my case, I choose my life partner. Nonetheless, we both drift away from our husband. Our affection and love fades. Panna’s exposure to a new culture transforms her, which changes her feelings toward her husband. For me, the various unresolved conflict between my husband and I accumulating over the years finally result in our split. We unite through our marriage. But when the difference is too great to be reconciled, there seems to be no better choice than to go on our separate ways.