By Emily Sarid
Shobha Rao’s “Kavitha and Mustafa” is an empowering short story that explores the subjects of identity, trust and the power of restricted emotions. The story takes place in a tiny train on the way to Pakistan where the protagonist, Kavitha, along with her husband, Vinod, and 9 other people are victims to a violent robbery. Kavitha continually shifts between describing her failed marriage and the suspenseful robbery occurring in the present moment. Rao writes with a descriptive style and uses contrast to convey the main idea that when confronted with a situation of great intensity, one’s true nature and desires surface.
The readers were exposed to two fronts of Kavitha’s identity: that in which she portrayed for her marriage as well as the brave and fearless self she displayed in the berth. These were continually juxtaposed throughout the story as the narrator integrated pieces of her marriage during the suspenseful journey on the train. Kavitha’s true thoughts regarding her marriage were continually expressed throughout her journey, where she describes clenching onto her husband’s hand as an act that was done simply “out of habit” (Rao 262). Furthermore, the phrases “He’d seemed handsome enough” and “Just be happy he doesn’t beat you”, allow the reader to recognize the fact that Kavitha had accepted the mediocrity and comfort of her marriage (262). Through Kavitha’s constant urge to justify her actions, I get a sense of the insecurity that she has concerning her marriage. However, we also learn about her thirst for excitement and something more: “but she secretly wondered if perhaps that is what it would take to bring his gaze to life: violence” (262). I felt both frustrated and confused reading this, as it’s as though she says the word “violence” with a sense of hope, wishing to see more life in her husband.
Similarly, Kavitha’s desperation to be in touch with, and subsequently act on her feelings become extremely prevalent on the train ride:
“Vinod, who was sitting next to Kavitha, reached over and patted her hand, as if to calm her, but she was already strangely calm. Even with one of the guards standing right next to her, on the other side of the door, close enough to touch, so close that his metal rod was within Kavitha’s arm’s reach” (267).
This passage provides a similar understanding of Kavitha’s desperation to escape. Vinod attempts to comfort her; however, she realizes that she doesn’t need him as she’s already calm, highlighting the disconnection in which she feels. The word “strangely” makes me understand that this sense of independence is new to her. The emptiness portrayed in that moment of her marriage is immediately contrasted by her yearn to act on this sense of assurance and reach out for the guard’s rod, symbolizing her desire to escape. Additionally, the guard’s “rod” can be seen as a phallic symbol, once again underlining the contrast between her two situations. At home, she expressed her disinterest in having sex with her husband, attributing it to the loss of their child. However, with this subtle comment regarding the guard, I question whether her sexual desires were repressed due to the fact that she didn’t love her husband, or if this is how she truly felt. With the presence of the men around her, she may be reminded of an aspect of her life in which she’s been deprived of for a long time. Kavitha’s internal conflict was conspicuous to her striking decision on the train to grab the young boys hand rather than her husbands. Kavitha mapped out a plan to escape the berth, and used this opportunity to also escape her marriage. At home, Kavitha settled for her submissive self and feelings of numbness but on the train, she proved herself to be swift, smart and decisive. This passage is filled with a sense of uncertainty in Kavitha’s desires and we gain a sense of the very unfulfilling atmosphere at home. This creates a dissimilarity from the rest of the story, in which action, suspense and passion are all prevalent on the train.
Although Kavitha continually addresses her dissatisfaction in her marriage, she also demonstrates that she doesn’t need much to be happy. She was envious of the simple yet admirable tenderness that the couple across form her apartment shared, in which she desperately craved. She describes their love for one and another not by physical affection, but by mutual and reciprocated sweetness. For example, the wife’s effort to change into a nice dress to impress her husband, and the thoughtfulness of his simple gesture of bringing biscuits (264). The author makes it seem as though Kavitha is daydreaming by interrupting her anecdote with the harsh voice of a guard: “Your jewels”, ultimately contrasting the two situations and giving insight into the mindset she’s in (264). Kavitha mentally escapes the conflict on the train by thinking about her neighbor’s marriage rather than her own, which she fails to seek comfort in. Similarly, when the brother on the train simply reaches out for the woman who is being touched inappropriately by the guard, Kavitha views this as an immense and heroic gesture. This further demonstrates Kavitha’s displeasure in her marriage, as she never describes her husband with this sense of astonishment.
With the use of imagery, the author further encapsulates the contrast between Vinod and Mustafa’s characters, allowing us to understand the reasoning behind Kavitha’s final decision. When describing her husband, Kavitha focuses on the “dullness in his eyes” and Rao uses repetition to highlight the persistence in the husband’s dreariness (262). When Kavitha glances at the boy, she quickly recognizes the “intention in his gaze” (266). It’s as though she saw more hope looking into someone’s unfamiliar eyes rather than her own husband’s. I find the symbol of eyes is extremely powerful as looking into someone’s eyes is often associated with a deeper and more insightful meaning. I have always found that eyes are special in the way that they have a distinct way of telling the truth. You can lie with your words and actions; however, your eyes will always reveal your true nature. Kavitha communicated with Mustafa by simply looking at him, symbolizing the powerful connection that they shared. Over the course of a train ride, Kavitha built a more meaningful and exhilarating relationship with this young boy than she had with her husband in the span of a 10-year marriage. In a moment of such intensity, her husband simply held her hand, which she ultimately accepted at the time as it was what she expected of him. However, the boy’s fearless actions and strong will to escape contrasted the husband’s insipidness. This is further symbolized in terms of materials, when the boy hands her his belongings:
“Again, nothing was quite clear in her mind, but never had two rocks and a piece of twine seemed to hold so much promise. The contents of her shoes – a necklace, some rings and a set of matching bracelets – held none” (269).
Jewelry is most typically associated with sentimental worth and is viewed as highly valuable. Here, Kavitha attributes no worth to her necklace and is more intrigued by a simple piece of twine that belonged to the young boy. She in fact feels a sense of pleasure and relief when the guard takes away her possessions as it symbolizes that she is no longer attached to or held back by her marriage to Vinod.
When reading this story for a second time I noticed an aspect of the author’s writing that I was completely oblivious of at first. Rao guides our thoughts in a particular direction and very slyly foreshadows the final outcome by the manner in which she presents Kavitha’s thoughts. As soon as Kavitha seems to be having some sort of revelation, Rao follows this what seems to be a distracted or different thought but can also be seen as a close association. After failing to think of a way out of the berth, she says “The answer must lie in the body, in its unquenchable will to live”, which is immediately followed by: “Her gaze fell on the little boy’s feet” (269). This connects the boy’s body, which is currently suffering to live, with the answer she claims she is looking for. The diction used by Rao throughout the story is an additional element that exemplifies the contrast between Vinod and the young boy. When she describes Kavitha looking at the boy, she repeatedly used the word “gaze” rather than eyes or sight, which evidently makes it seem more sentimental. Rao eloquently uses this tactic again near the end of the story as Kavitha courageously stands up to go to the washroom as part of her plan to escape, and is “thinking only of the little boy” (270). This thought directly transitions into the subject of her stillbirth, in which we are hearing about for the first time. Subconsciously, I associated the young boy with Kavitha’s stillbirth, leading to the idea that the boy fills a void for Kavitha that she has been longing for so long. When Kavitha describes the stillbirth, she states: “I wanted to love the child that way, without a name”, which makes me reflect upon the fact that she doesn’t even know Mustafa’s name, yet is in part entrusting him with her future (271).
Boyle, T. C., editor. “Kavitha and Mustafa”. The Best American Short Stories 2015. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015.