” What is it about children? An old need twisted in Sabitri’s chest. Protect, protect.”
A friend recently told me about an American colleague’s reaction to her mother’s six month long visit. “I can’t believe you can live with your mother for six months!” was the colleague’s comment. Obviously, my friend and I were as bewildered by this reaction as the colleague was by the (subjectively speaking) long stay. It led me to start thinking about cultural differences in parent-child interactions. Indians, traditionally have much closer relationships with their parents. Not that these relationships are without conflict, but we learn to forgive and forget. The “dependence” that Americans perceive as existing in such a relationship is a actually a mutually beneficial support system. Things however are changing,and I couldn’t help wondering if in second/third generation Indian-American families a loosening of bonds would be a natural development.
It was then that I came across Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Before We Visit The Goddess.
Stories about father-son or mother-daughter relationships are tricky. On the one hand, they can turn into a cliche –a rehash of conflicts and conversations that are déjà vu. On the other hand, when told with sensitivity and a willingness to see the characters as individuals that have lives beyond the relationship, such stories become something that the reader can identify with intimately without the feeling of :been there, done that.”
Sabitri, in late 1950’s Kolkata dreams of an education but is constrained by her poverty. When a rich benefactor offers her an opportunity to study, she grabs at it, but loses it just as suddenly. Later, she works hard to give her daughter Bela every advantage to achieve something for herself. But Bela, in the grip of a young love, elopes to the United States with her lover who is a political refugee. Life and love however are unpredictable games, and Bela’s disappointments become wounds to her daughter Tara. Tara, disillusioned, rebellious and out of touch with her roots, is more like her mother and grandmother than she realizes. Chitra Bennerjee Divakaruni treats these complex lives with the delicate touch of a master painter, creating images of each character that are vivid and brilliant. These three women are truly unforgettable, and startlingly recognizable.
Within this landscape of parent-child relationships, we see glimpses of some other relationships, like that of the spunky Mrs Mehta with her son and daughter-in-law; of Dr Venkatachalapathi, whose close mindedness cost him his daughter; and that of Kenneth who rejected by his parents, finds a friend and mother figure in Bela.
The novel however goes beyond just this exploration of relationships to an exploration of identities. The way in which a woman creates a space and an environment for herself to flourish in, the process of identity building, the experimentation with a sense of self versus a sense of tradition are are beautifully dealt with.
The author plays with time in this novel, so that sometimes we see the consequences of an action or a decision before we know what the action/decision is. This inversion of cause and effect makes for a compelling story-telling technique. There are just enough gaps in the stories, just enough that is left untold, to keep the reader coming back to them long after the last page has been read. In this, the novel masquerades as a series of connected short stories. While this may be a turn-off for some readers, I personally found it captivating.
As in most of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novels, food has a place of honour in Before We Visit The Goddess as well. It is almost a living, breathing person, the way it exists in the lives of the characters, and it is impossible to read the book without craving desperately for an engorged roshogolla or a comforting mishti-doi.
The best storytellers always keep you coming back. They have their unique signatures, a unique voice, that enchants the reader and draws them back to listen to one story, then the next and then the one after that. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is one such masterful storysmith. I am done with reading Before We Visit The Goddess for now, but I keep thinking about the characters, and I know that a re-reading is in store for the future.
FTC disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher for this honest review.