By Luka Vaguidov
Shoba Rao’s “Kavitha and Mustafa” is a short story about Kavitha and her husband, Vinod, who are stuck together on a Pakistani train that is being robbed. In this story, Rao tries to demonstrate that when it comes to relationships with people, what matters most is the connection that you have with them, not the amount of time spent together. Though the author uses many ways to demonstrate this, I will focus on how the imagery that is spread throughout the story helps us better understand why Kavitha made the decision that she did and left her husband behind on the train.
At the very beginning of the story, we are already immediately greeted with details such as where the train is located as well as imagery: “Kavitha looked out of the window, in the heat of afternoon, and saw only scrubland, an endless yellow plain of dust and stunted trees as far as the eye could see” (Rao 261). Just this beginning itself is interesting, because we are already given this dry, empty image, which ends up being how Kavitha saw her relationship with Vinod. The word “endless” here might represent how she feels helpless in it, like there’s no way out. Another interesting word is “stunted.” I feel like Kavitha is somewhat like those stunted trees. She had the potential to grow, her relationship had the potential to grow, but Vinod stopped that from happening. We can already tell what kind of character we’re going to be introduced to from this. Kavitha is a very observant woman and seems almost detached from everything that’s happening. Throughout the whole thing, she provides us a description of everything, making everything seem so clear that it’s almost as though we are there with her. I think this fact alone contributes to explain why Kavitha left Vinod on the train. All of the descriptions that she gives us really contribute in showing that she has no strong emotional connection to her husband. She is much more preoccupied with what’s actually going on than she is with her husband and how he might feel. You’d think that in a story like this, we would get flashbacks to the good or emotional times that they’ve spent together, but we get none of that. The flashbacks that we do get are mostly of just her being unsatisfied about the situation that she’s in. She goes back to tell us about a time where she had talked back to him, which resulted in her getting slapped. However, she only ended up being disappointed in Vinod’s lack of emotion: “Not a sign of anger, or regret, or even satisfaction [in his eyes]. She looked down. She, too, felt empty. That was years ago” (264). The way she was desperately looking for any emotion in him after getting slapped is so telling. It tells us that she didn’t even feel upset that he did it. All she wanted was to see something in his eyes for once. The fact that she was even looking to see if he may have been satisfied also says a lot. It implies that Kavitha might have been happier if her husband was violent with her as long as he showed that he was content. Her relationship was dry to the extent that even being abused would have been more interesting for her. In a situation like this, not many people are as observant as she was, therefore proving how little emotional involvement she had in it.
The other way that imagery helps us understand her better is when it comes to the more intimate things and what they tell us. It involves the fact that she craves intimacy, but also that she’s estranged from it in a way. When Ahmed goes up to her and demands that she hands him her wedding necklace, she can’t but feel some sort of excitement:” It must still hold the warmth of my skin, she thought. And then she felt a thrill, a rush of heat, flooding her body, to think that a man, any man, held in his hand the warmth of her body” (266). Her relationship with Vinod was so lacking in intimacy that even just the thought of a man holding her warmth made her feel that way. The use of the word “skin” makes the whole passage a lot more erotic, and that’s something she’s never really had with Vinod. In their ten-year relationship, you would naturally assume that there must have been some sort affection and closeness, but there clearly wasn’t any. After the whole event, when she is recalling her last moments with him, “she knew that on the train, when she’d laid her head on his shoulder, and had felt the roundness and knobbiness of a bone so funny, so irreverent, so unlike him” (273). When you see somebody lay their head on someone’s shoulder, it would make you think that these people are close, that the person who’s lying their head has trusts the other. The description of the bone is pretty curious to me, how it can be “funny” and “irreverent,” but especially “unlike him.” It’s interesting how she compares him to the bone, and then it ends up being more human than the man himself. Knowing her thought process from when she was laying her head on his shoulder, though, gives us a whole different perspective. She is once again proven to be unattached from him. All she’s thinking about is how his bone feels, and not the Vinod himself. The imagery given for these small moments shine more light onto how she barely felt any closeness to him.
The final bits of imagery that help us understand why Kavitha left the train with the boy, Mustafa, and left Vinod behind are related to the boy himself. When she starts to interact with the boy, he helps her understand that there could be a way out for them. The two almost immediately had some sort of connection together. When she understood what he was trying to convey to her, she was so overwhelmed with happiness: “She nearly reached out and hugged the boy. And he seemed to know it because he smiled” (268). The fact that she wanted to hug this boy, one that she barely even knew, tells us to what extent she suddenly felt grateful to him. Despite not getting a clear description of his smile, we can still tell what kind it is. It’s the knowing kind, the kind that you share with someone who you know will understand you. In fact, both of them seem to know what’s going to happen as Kavitha get’s up to go to the bathroom: “The boy looked at Kavitha. She looked back at him” (270). It’s like they’re both devising a plan just from sharing looks alone. They both ended up putting all of their trust into each other, and that trust that she had with the boy is something that she never had with her own husband.
Despite not getting to know everything that Kavitha had went through with Vinod, we were still able to tell that whatever it was, it wasn’t enough for her to chose him over Mustafa. Sometimes you have a better connection with a stranger than with someone you’ve known for a long time, and when you have to chose, you need to go for who will be able to bring more into your life.
Shobha, Rao. “Kavitha and Mustafa.” The Best American Short Stories, edited by T. C. Boyle, Mariner Books, 2015, pp. 261-273