by: Mireille Jauvin
A Relationship’s Impact on Identity in “Kavitha and Mustafa”
Every single human being has a personal identity. It can be based on a number of factors such as family, our surroundings, the way we were raised, etc. Our life experiences shape the person we are and there is a constant evolution of this identity throughout our entire life. In this short story, the narrator alternates between the train robbery and the protagonist’s flawed marriage. For many years, Kavitha has felt oppressed in her relationship and undermined. She now has a chance to escape and the choice is entirely up to her. In Shoba Rao’s “Kavitha and Mustafa”, through characterization, the narrator shows the effects of a toxic relationship on one’s identity. This is done through emptiness, neglect and obliviousness.
Feeling ‘empty’ is common and the only thing that can truly fill this void is love. Vinod and Kavitha’s marriage lacks love which is evident throughout the story. Notably, Kavitha considers the benefits that could come if Vinod were to be physically abusive towards her:
“she noticed that the dullness persisted … Dull eyes? Her friends had exclaimed. Just be happy he doesn’t beat you. True, true, Kavitha had agreed, but she secretly wondered if perhaps that is what it would take to bring his gaze to life: violence” (Rao 262).
This piece of dialogue reminds us that Vinod seems to be lifeless and this causes the protagonist to think of drastic measures to get something out of him. She would be willing to get hurt to see if that might spark something in him and make him care. Similarly, in another part of the story, Vinod does get physically abusive: “She looked down, in the instant after the slap, into his eyes. They were empty. […] She looked down. She too felt empty. This was years ago” (Rao 264). This passage implies that Vinod’s emptiness has affected his wife to the point where she too feels empty. This void isn’t only caused by lack of love from others but from an absence of self-love. Vinod is an unhappy man who doesn’t love himself and is unable to love his wife which causes tension in their marriage. It is also interesting to note the way the narrator decided to describe how she feels. Emptiness in itself isn’t really a feeling and seems irrational because we could never truly be empty. However, it is something most people can relate to because at some instant during our lives, we get this feeling that everything is wrong and that there is something missing. The most frustrating part is that most of the time, we can’t identify what exactly is missing nor do we know how to get it back. Her marriage developed a void that wasn’t there before and as long as she is with Vinod, it can never be fulfilled.
The author uses aspects of the story to show the neglect Kavitha is feeling. Vinod is failing to provide the affection and emotional support she needs which causes her to be distant and uninterested in him. This is apparent when she looks at her neighbors, longing and wishing for a relationship like theirs: “it was just that there was such sweetness between them. She could tell just by their gestures, by how they moved, by how their bodies seemed to lighten the moment the other walked through the door” (Rao 264). This passage projects a strong imagery that is very sweet and joyful. She refers to the gestures and the harmony between them which is very simple. The reason she envies them is not because they are very romantic but the mutual love they have for each other is something she cannot relate to. This implies that Vinod neglects her and doesn’t appreciate Kavitha. Another aspect of the story that shows her husband’s neglect is the passage where Ahmed finds her necklace and holds it. Kavitha admits that 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” (Rao 266). From this thought we can tell that the lack of attention causes her to feel a rush when a man so much as holds her necklace. Even though there is no physical contact, it is the thought and the anticipation of a man that is thrilling to her. There is a significant contrast to be made between Vinod and Ahmed. He represents a strong male figure whilst Vinod represents a weak man and having a ‘real man’ holding her belonging makes her feel excited. I think this was one of my favorite aspects of this short story. The characterization wasn’t solely based on their personal development but the author used contrast to bring out certain traits of the characters.
Being oblivious is another trait that causes a lot of problems in a relationship and it is present in Kavitha’s marriage. As the narrator takes us back to the relationship, we learn about the person Kavitha was before the wedding and the things she has had to sacrifice. Notably, she stops doing certain activities such as night walks and she even compromises on superstitions she believed in for years because of Vinod. The narrator says,
“In fact, in the time since they’d been married, it seemed to her that she’d lost most of her preferences. […] When she noticed fallen eyelashes on her cheeks, she’d put them on the back of her palm, close her eyes, and make a wish. […] He noticed her once, collecting the eyelash, blowing it away, and asked her what she was doing. He hardly ever asked her about herself, so Kavitha looked at him, astonished, then talked for ten minutes […] That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, he said. It’s just plain silly” (Rao 263).
This passage is significant to this story because it represents their entire relation and how little importance Vinod accords to her feelings. Kavitha hasn’t lost her preferences, the issue is that her husband’s preferences were more important than hers to him so she got used to them and convinced herself she made that change. This is a way of feeling comfort and convincing herself that the relationship isn’t as bad as it seems. When he notices her with her eyelash, he is completely oblivious to her superstition and her ‘traditions’. He makes her feel so much shame and humiliation that she stops doing it. When in a relationship, people are meant to gain from it and develop together and as individuals. In contrast, this story shows a case where someone is losing her preferences and ultimately who she is because her emotions are being repressed. Furthermore, the language used by Vinod shows even more carelessness and lack of compassion. He says it is the most ridiculous thing he’s ever heard which is obviously not true. Rather than stating his opinion in a nice way, he talks down to her and makes her feel small and irrational. All these years of condescendence made her doubt herself rather than blaming her husband and it isn’t until the end of the story that she finally admits what has been true all along. As Mustafa and Kavitha sit in silence, she realizes that “(she) was widowed long ago” (Rao 273). This passage implies that Kavitha already felt like she lost her husband a long time ago and now that she is free and independent she can finally embrace it. To a certain extent, this passage is the character’s epiphany. She realizes that she is free of Vinod and can now get back to finding herself and growing as an individual.
This story is effective in that most readers can relate to Kavitha at some point or another. At some point in their life, most people have felt undermined and empty because of someone else. I think connecting to a story makes it possible to really get into it and feel all the emotions the protagonist is feeling which was so important in this story. One aspect that was interesting was the complicity between Kavitha and Mustafa. I wonder if Kavitha would have been able to escape by herself since she was escaping the train, her husband and herself all at once.
Rao, Shobha. “Kavitha and Mustafa.” The Best American Short Stories 2015, edited by T.C. Boyle, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, pp. 261-273