This is a sensitive and delicately rendered tale of love and longing, of pain, misunderstandings, exile, self-inflicted isolation and of reaching out for affection.
The novel spans 3 generations of women protagonists. Grandmother Sabitri flounders in search of love, blaming her daughter Bela for driving a wedge between her and her husband. Finally, she finds her true calling as the creator of delicious sweets, just like her own mother before her. Bela, the truant daughter, elopes to the US with a man who ultimately fails her. Bela’s daughter Tara turns out to be another rebel without a cause.
Flawed, rebellious and often inconsistent, they make mistakes and suffer, and irreparably wound the ones who love them most. They “appear so ordinary”. Yet their lives are “filled with violence and mystery”. Proud and stubborn, these women are so like each other. If they had had anyone else to turn to, they would never have called their mothers for help. Yet they are also eminently capable of giving and receiving love.
The characters are memorable, and finely etched. “Why, you could be acquainted with a person for years, thinking you knew them. Then suddenly they’d do something that showed you there were layers to them you hadn’t ever suspected.” Minor characters like Mrs Mehta, whom Tara helps to transform from a frumpy, lonely old woman to a lively person, who happily fits herself into the American way of life, add interesting touches to the story. However, Bela’s gay friend Kenneth crops up as more of a detour from the main path of the story.
Sabitri grows up in poverty in a village in Bengal, helping her mother Durga make delectable sweets in order to eke out a living. Her dream of going to college appears to be coming true. A wealthy client is impressed with the sweets and the girl who delivers them. She offers to support Sabitri if she does well in her exams and gets admission in a college in Kolkata. Sabitri succeeds. But once in Kolkata, she becomes infatuated with the wrong man, and cannot wholeheartedly reciprocate the right man’s love. From being the good daughter and fortunate lamp brightening her family’s name, Sabitri strays into becoming the firebrand, who blackens the family’s fame.
The novel opens with the ageing Sabitri receiving a desperate phone call from her wayward and estranged daughter Bela, from the distant US. Bela pleads with Sabitri to persuade her granddaughter Tara against dropping out of college and ruining her life. “What can she write in her rusty English to change Tara’s mind? She cannot even imagine her granddaughter’s life, the whirlwind foreign world she lives in.” The only link Sabitri has to a granddaughter she has never seen, is a handful of photos. They remind her of the pang she felt when she received them, “because she had so wanted to be present at Tara’s birth. But she hadn’t been invited.” The author deftly uses clear, simple yet powerful images to bring home the character’s deepest and most aching emotions. Everyday things like photographs and photo albums capture life’s turning points, and show new facets to those we think we knew and understood.
Elsewhere, the author uses beautiful, poetic descriptions to evoke deep feelings. When little Bela goes to Assam with her parents, she misses her friend Leena, and realises early on how physical distance can pull the dearest friends apart. “Bela tried to write back, but she was struck by a strange paralysis. How to describe the riot around her: the night-blooming flowers with their intoxicating odor, the safeda tree with its hairy brown fruit, the oleanders with their poisonous red hearts? She wanted Leena to be here, to run hand in hand with her across a lawn so large it was like a green ocean. But what was the point of wanting the impossible? She never answered the letters... But inside loss, there can be gain too. Like the small silver spider Bela had discovered one dewy morning, curled asleep in the centre of a rose.”
The plot is aesthetically structured around Tara’s life-changing visit to the temple of an accepting Hindu goddess. “The goddess doesn’t care how many minutes you spend in front of her... Only how much you want to be here... The goddess does not care about what we are wearing, only what is in our hearts.” Throughout the novel, small and apparently ordinary incidents change lives. “How she got back at her one-time hosts but learned that revenge extracts its price. How the problems between (Sabitri) and (Bela) began, with words of deadly innocence spoken in a car, and a slap that echoed through the years.”
The persistent and frequent shifts to and fro in time can distract and confuse the reader, however.Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable, memorable read rife with insights. Before We Visit the Goddess Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Simon & Schuster 2016, pp 208, Rs 499