Literary Review

A hit about Misses

Before We Visit the Goddess; Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Simon and Schuster, Rs. 499.  

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest offering traces the stories of three resolute women across generations. It explores the relationship that Sabitri, Bela and Tara — grandmother, mother and daughter — share with each other and the men in their lives. Complex familial relations across borders are presented in an empathetic way, giving us more of an understanding of love, loss, and Bengali culture, like Divakaruni's earlier books.

Sabitri, resilient and ambitious, is the daughter of a sweet-maker in rural West Bengal. An intelligent young woman from a poor household, she dreams of being educated. The dream is realised when she accompanies her mother Durga one day to deliver sweets to a rich and imperious woman, Leelamoyi, who agrees to pay for the girl’s education. Under Leelamoyi’s wings as “neither servant nor master”, Sabitri, who is grateful for this kindness but unhappy in the unfamiliar and grand surroundings, goes to college. But one blunder costs her this cherished dream. With education out of the question now, the young girl, inheriting the skills of her mother, earns fame in Bengal by concocting mouth-watering sweets, even as her relationship with her husband and daughter frays beyond repair.

Bela is as rebellious as her mother is strong-willed. Unable to discern what is good for her, she flees to the U.S. with the man she loves, an unlikeable student leader, despite her mother’s warnings and pleas. But life in the U.S. is no easier, she realises. Just as she allowed her relationship with her mother to fall apart, Bela’s relationship with her daughter Tara is equally, if not more, rocky. Her messy personal life takes a positive turn when she befriends a gay man half her age, who encourages her to take refuge in her cooking. Just as Sabitri threw her soul into Durga Sweets, Bela, with no “degrees or training”, also finds respect and purpose the way her mother had.

Divakaruni seamlessly takes us from rural India to modern life in Houston and Austin. If Sabitri is Bengali in her passionate love for sweets and Bela straddles two cultures, Tara is as far removed from her roots as one can imagine. The author paints her as the stereotypical rebel — a drug-addict with an eyebrow piercing and spiky dyed hair, with no knowledge of gotras and temples and Indian culture. Tara is strangely the opposite of her grandmother. While Sabitri yearned to be educated, Tara throws away education to find herself a monotonous job instead. It’s a topsy-turvy world where previous generations look forward while the present generation looks backward. But we learn later that Tara’s dreams are not regressive; they are just different.

Divakaruni’s characterisation is artwork; as is her languorous and beautiful prose. Sentences remained in my head days after I read the book — the reference to the past as “the vessel in which all emotions curdle to regret”; the room of “congested loneliness”; the “palest and most elegant conch-shaped dessert” with its “smooth, creamy flavour of fruit and milk, sugar and saffron mingling and melting on the tongue” (pray, where do you get these?). The book focuses on the women even though the men in their lives play an important part in shaping them. But none of these women crumbles despite the betrayal of trust — by lover, by husband, by father. Unexpected friendships and circumstances change the course of their lives and their personalities in startling ways. Sabitri remains my favourite of the three: her letters to her granddaughter are the most heart-warming parts of the book.

However, Divakaruni’s style of narrative — a pendulum swing across time — is laboured. Reading what seems like a deliberate attempt to go back and forth so that all the loose threads can be tied together deftly in the end can get quite confusing. Also, the book’s title and cover remain a mystery. Why the title matters to Sabitri or Bela, or why a Rajasthani girl is walking across mountains in a book set in Bengal, Assam and the U.S., is puzzling.

Before We Visit the Goddess is a highly recommended read for all those who are fans of Divakaruni, or for those who love beautiful prose and stories of identity and migration.

Before We Visit the Goddess; Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Simon and Schuster, Rs. 499.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 5:54:21 AM |

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