Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Before We Visit the Goddess
New York: Simon and Schuster. 2016
ISBN 978-1-4767-9200-2-6 (e-book)
Pages 208 | Hardcover Price Rs 499
A Book to Treasure
When it comes to writing, the award-winning veteran Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni never shies away from trying something new. In her latest book Before We Visit the Goddess, she opts for the genre of the multigenerational novel but moulds it in her own way – making it transcontinental and shifting between perspectives to delineate the story. The result is a deftly wrought product that is engaging to the core.
This novel explores the intricacies of the relationships between mothers and daughters but does not confine itself to these alone. It primarily revolves around three women – Sabitri, the daughter of a poor sweet-maker in rural West Bengal who, through a stroke of luck, goes to Kolkata to get an education; her daughter Bela who grows up sullen and difficult and then flees to America with her political refugee lover; and her daughter and Sabitri’s granddaughter Tara who has to fight her own unique battles when her anchor of security gives away. Adding to the diversity and wholeness of the tale, Divakaruni wedges in the chapters the points of view of Bipin Bihari, Sanjay Dewan and Kenneth, men who are crucially involved in one way or the other in the lives of the central characters. We get an insight into how each character thinks and acts which define his/her persona and demeanour to the outer world. At times, a certain incident – as when Sanjay broke the news of his divorce to Tara – is revisited from the minds of different persons, thereby lending depth and completeness to it. It is very much like placing the camera at conflicting angles on the same scene to gain a perception beyond the usual, complacent one.
It is Tara’s voice that frequents the most but Sabitri’s tale comes across as the most captivating. Indeed, in many ways the picture of the young Sabitri going out of her way to help in spite of being neglected in Leelamoyi’s large, rich household where even the servants take a dislike to her is reminiscent of the Cinderella story. This is especially evident in the scene where she unknowingly bedazzles Rajiv, Leelamoyi’s son and sole family heir, with her blue silk sari and is assailed by his pleas to stop when she embarrassedly rushes back to the staircase. However, Sabitri’s cruel brush with reality does not quite turn out her story like that of a fairy tale and instead, compels her to become a mature, astute woman ready to grapple with the vicissitudes of life.
Each of the women has to struggle with changes that are both unprecedented and tumultuous. They fumble, fall and flounder only to rise again with renewed strength and vigour. And in the process, they come to terms with the self.
The time period of the novel is expansive – ranging from a few years after India’s independence to the future in 2020. Therefore, a wide number of incidents, events and character developments are able to be covered. The pages also sweep across the countryside of Bengal, the busy, congested Kolkata, exotic Assam and the streets of Houston, Texas.
Certain issues are adroitly touched upon. For example, Leelamoyi’s sharp comment to Durga to marry off her daughter Sabitri while she is young (as an old maiden would get no prospective grooms) reflects the sexist society in which we live. Similarly, though it is Rajiv who has seduced Sabitri and lured her into a relationship with him, it is she who has to stomach invectives for fastening her ‘witch-claws’ on him. Prejudices against unconventional sexual orientations also comes to the fore from time to time. For example, we learn that Dr Venkatachalapathi’s anger at his only daughter Meena for her romantic love for a woman drove her to suicide – an act that haunts him with intense guilt. Also, Kenneth’s revelation to his parents about being gay is met with cold disapproval and the awkward distance between them ultimately leads him to stop visiting home.
The characters are realistic and haunt us long after the book is over. Each one is crafted with careful detail and comes alive on the pages. However, certain characters are stereotypical such as Leelamoyi, the rich, capricious woman who basks in the flattery showered on her and can be ruthless to protect the family honour (reminiscent of Mrs Vani Balan in One Amazing Thing), Bishu, the good-natured, dependable friend who takes risks for those he loves and Bipin Bihari, the lover who remains loyal in spite of knowing that he can never claim his woman in public.
Divakaruni also dabbles with magic realism at one point when in Assam, Bela happens to meet a magician who can appear and disappear within seconds and who performs incredulous tricks such as helping her to memorise an English poem. However, the magician incidentally appears only when nobody is around and it is Bela alone who interacts with him. This makes us wonder whether he is real or simply a figment of her disturbed mind and evokes a sense of disorientation, which is in sync with the insecurity Bela feels after her family’s move to the wild environs of Assam and her parents’ newfound, precarious peace. The technique is both effective and laudable.
Another particular that deserves mention is the reason that drove Sanjay to a divorce. Though it is common knowledge that the grounds for dissolution of every relationship are different, the author arduously works out the forces that lead to the feeling of betrayal and highlights the intricacies of the human mind. The treatment, in some ways, reminds us of the complex thought processes of the characters in D H Lawrence’s fiction.
As is common in Divakaruni’s novels, Before We Visit the Goddess abounds with memorable, philosophical lines. For instance, after an emotional setback Tara muses on the stars, “Ebb and flow, ebb and flow, our lives. Is that why we’re fascinated by the steadfastness of stars?” At another point, Kenneth misses a loved one and thinks to himself, “What is more painful, the misplaced past or the runaway future? I did not know.”
The title of the book takes its name from the eponymous chapter where Tara drives an Indian economics professor to the temple and is awed and humbled on entering its silent premises. She, who has believed that religion is the opium of the people and does not have any remembrance of visiting temples before, is touched both by Dr Venkatachalapathi’s invitation to enter the shrine and his gesture of cleansing her feet before his own with the hose. It is Tara’s experience here that marks a turning point in her life for the better.
On reading the novel, however, one cannot help feeling that certain things fall into place too conveniently (for example, Bijan’s death, Bishu’s death) which robs some of the credibility. Some absorbing plot threads are also left unexamined.
Another oddity that arrests attention is the cover of the book, which shows a Rajasthani girl (dressed in the typical attire) walking along hilly terrain – absolutely unrelated to the storyline involving three Bengali women and set across Bengal, Assam and the USA. This is a trifle baffling.
Nevertheless, on the whole, the book is an enjoyable read and an item to treasure. The journey that Divakaruni embarks on here, poignantly enfolds and uplifts the mystery of life.