‘The Boss Came to Dinner by Indian Hindi writer Bhisham Sahni is a realistic short story about how an executive son uses his illiterate elderly village mother to please his American boss. Eastern Indian values and Western values are highlighted in the story as well as the social issue of ill-treatment of the elderly by modern-day westernized Indian sons. For his own worldly gain, Mr. Shamnath forces his mother to do things which is humiliating, degrading, and hurtful to her sentiments. Bhisham Sahni’s short story was first penned in Hindi in May 1975 and was called ‘Chief Ki Dawat’. It is a classic story of Sahni that brings out humanism as seen in everyday situations. Bhisham Sahni was born in India in 1915, and after the Partition, he shifted base to Delhi, where he wrote his fiction in Hindi. He passed away in the year 2003 after receiving the Sahitya Akademi Award.
The main characters of this short story titled ‘The Boss Came to Dinner’ or ‘Chief Ki Dawat’ are Mr. Shamnath, his modern wife, his elderly mother, and the American boss. Shamnath and his wife were preparing that evening for the boss to come to dinner along with some of his office colleagues with their wives. It was supposed to be an evening of gaiety, drinks, and flattering. However, Shamnath did not know what to do with his elderly mother, who he felt, because of her old-fashioned way of life and illiteracy, could spoil the evening and the impression his boss had of him in the office. He treats his mother like an outcast by trying to prevent her from confronting his American boss. He forces her to sit on a chair out of sight on the house’s veranda and not meet the boss. He strictly warns her not to fall asleep because when she does, she tends to snore terribly, which could make a mockery of him by his colleagues. Thus, he leaves his mother, and the dinner guests arrive. However, his mother eventually falls asleep due to the lateness of the hour and starts snoring, which is laughed upon by the office staff’s wives. The American boss, however, takes to Shamnath’s mother, greeting her and shaking her hand genially. This is because of his free spirit and because he was quite drunk. Shamnath forces his mother to sing a folk song and makes her promise to make a phulkari for the American boss, which endears her to the big chief. At the end of the dinner party, Shamnath is overjoyed by his mother and is reduced to tears by her humiliation. She asks to go and spend the rest of her life in Haridwar, the temple town, but Shamnath prevents it because of his ego and because she has to make a new phulkari for the American boss. Shamnath’s mother, in the end, is coaxed and brainwashed into staying back and making the phulkari even though her eyesight is poor. Thus, the short story by Bhisham Sahni ends on a satirical note.
In this short story, Sahni focuses on the emotional turmoil the elderly mother goes through at the hands of her inhumane son. She is made a spectacle of in front of the American boss and their office colleagues and their wives. The American boss is benevolent and kind to her, not realizing the way Shamnath has used her as a toy to his advantage. The following topics and themes can be studied and analyzed in relation to this short story titled ‘The Boss Came to Dinner’:
East Versus West
We can see here evidently the meeting of eastern Indian values and western American modern values. Where in India, we are taught to respect our elders, Shamnath, who is now quite westernized in a newly independent India, treats his mother like an antique or an unwanted toy which is more of a burden to him than a blessing. He feels his chances of gaining a promotion, pleasing his boss, or even finding acceptance in the American’s eyes will be hampered by his village mother’s presence at the party. He, therefore, tries to keep her away from the party. He first lies to her and tells her to get to bed one hour early before the guests are due to arrive. He wanted her to stay in her room but was afraid the American boss might encounter her because her room was within the place which connected the veranda with the drawing room. Thus, he tries to tell her how to maneuver from the drawing room to the veranda and vice versa without being seen. The elderly woman is seen, however, sleeping on a chair on the veranda, snoring away. The westernized Indian office wives giggle on seeing her, but the American boss sympathizes with her and gets into a conversation with her. Being a typical Indian village woman, Shamnath’s mother was illiterate and could not shake the boss’ hand because she did not want to transfer her holy rosary beads to her left or unclean hand. She does not feel free like the boss or his wife and is hesitant to sing a folk song like an entertainer or pet monkey. She, however, is dutiful to her son and wants only to see his betterment even though he treats her according to his whims and fancies.
On the other hand, the American boss is free-loving, as well as his lively and sensual wife. Their introductions to this short story are starkly different from the behavior of Shamnath’s backward and orthodox mother. The American boss, like most Americans depicted by Indian fiction writers like Sahni, is friendly and makes the elderly mother feel at home. He is not shy to converse with her and is probably the only person at the party who shows the elderly woman some respect. Ironically, instead of an Indian treating his elderly mother well, it is the westernized boss who treats her well. He encourages her to sing, is ready to have her make a phulkari for him, and is willing to be in her company while she does so. He, however, treats people like the elderly mother as a tribal, saying that since she was from the village, she would know a lot of folk dances, folk songs, and folk art. He treats her as a zoo animal or a curiosity that does not belong to the westernized world.
The wives of the Indian office colleagues are half-westernized like Shamnath and so giggle when the elderly woman snores, speaks to the American boss, shakes his hand wrongly, and sings in a hoarse voice. They quieten down when they see jealously that the American boss is enjoying her company. Shamnath, who first hated his mother’s presence, is thrilled that she has made a hit with the boss. He otherwise only kept her with him because of his ego hassle; he honestly did not care for her or her feelings. He even prevents her from going to the holy temple town of Haridwar because of his pride. He wants to live life like a westerner but, at the same time, wants to be known at least to the world as a dutiful Indian son to his mother. Thus, we see a degradation of old values, social customs, social norms, and decency concerning the treatment of the elderly in a contemporary 20th-century Indian scenario.
Ill-treatment of the Elderly
Ill-treatment of certain sections of society is one of the key elements in social issue fiction literature and the Hindi literature of Bhisham Sahni. The elderly mother is ill-treated by her son and is like an antique showpiece that he wants to use as per his moods. He may not physically abuse her, but he does abuse her mentally, psychologically, and emotionally. This is especially seen when after the elderly mother is left on her own in her room, she weeps profusely as if a dam of her tender emotions had broken. Her heart was tempted to think ill of Shamnath, but she controlled herself from cursing him and instead prayed for him in all her simplicity. Whenever she speaks her mind or has an opinion, she is misconstrued by her son or accused of trying to hurt him. This is an irony because it was he who was harassing his mother. She is not allowed to spend her time and company with her elderly neighbor, and Shamnath controls her movements inhumanely. On the other hand, only the boss or the chief respects the elderly mother and tries to interact with her. He does not ridicule her but treats her like any ordinary elderly American woman of her age. Westernized Indian sons in the mid-20th century tended to ill-treat their elders or elderly dependents. Shamnath is no different and makes a mockery of his mother and feigns affection for her only after the dinner party goes well. For Bhisham Sahni, in this short story penned in a satirical format, there is no excuse for the ill-treatment of the elderly. There is a line in the text where Shamnath tells his mother that he will one day pay back all the money she has spent on his education. She remains quiet, which is a hint given to us by the author that, in reality, a mother’s love can never be repaid. Shamnath even uses the mother’s eyes to make the phulkari even though her eyes are weak. He ridiculed her snoring even though the cause of it was because she had had a recent illness, and he made her sing even though he knew she never sang in her life. Thus, he abused his elderly mother for selfish purposes.
Worldly Life and Materialism
The young Westernized Indians of huge companies run by Americans or other westernized foreigners, according to Sahni, lived lives that were very materialistic, worldly, and not based on the old Indian values in which the country grew up with. This is subtly hinted at with the way the dinner party only began at an odd hour of past-8:00 pm and went on till the ungodly hour of midnight. There were drinks served at the party, which quite inebriated the American boss to such an extent that though otherwise, he was a strict boss, now he was genial. The American boss’s wife was free with the men at the party and was sensuous. The Indian westernized wives drank liquor with their husbands and forgot their old customs and traditions, thus, ridiculing the elderly lady. Sahni was very proud of Indian values and customs and, in this way, ridiculed the worldliness of Shamnath, the American boss, and their guests. Shamnath was so keen on flattering his boss that he was ready to make a mockery of his mother and make use of her weak eyes to make the phulkari. In his value system, the way to rise up the economic and social ladder was to use unnecessary flattery and abuse the vulnerable. Shamnath’s mother didn’t need to make the phulkari or sing a song, but Shamnath did not want to leave any stone unturned in trying to gain the most from the American boss’s good humor.
Irony and satire are strongly a part of the plot of ‘The Boss Comes to Dinner’. The shameless use of a helpless but dutiful elderly mother at the hands of her cruel son is painful to read, and yet Sahni uses dark humor in the text, especially when alluding to the comical way of the poor mother’s bald scalp, her comical way of sleeping on the chair, her muttering to the American boss, her terribly hoarse voice while singing, etc. The story ends on an anticlimactic note when even after seeing how badly Shamnath treated his mother, she still is brainwashed by him to make the phulkari for the boss or chief for her son’s raise or increment. The hollowness of Shamnath’s affection is not evident to her but certainly to the reader. This is how the educated use the illiterate for their own selfish purposes, even if the illiterate are of their own families.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story penned by Indian writer Bhisham Sahni titled ‘The Boss Comes to Dinner’ or ‘Chief Ki Dawat’. I hope to re-read and review more of Bhisham Sahni’s novels and short stories in the coming days. I first read this short story when I was in the 10th standard studying at Bombay Scottish School, Mumbai in 2004. If you were helped by this short story analysis and want to learn more about my life, then you can check out my memoir, Scenes of a Reclusive Writer and Reader of Mumbai. If you want to read some multiple award-winning Indian novels, then you can check out my books titled Amina: The Silent One or Nirmala: The Mud Blossom. I hope to read and analyze more Indian short stories soon.
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