It could be argued that in our gendered world of letters, it is only typical that books about mothers and daughters – and grandmothers with a lover or two, if we’re lucky – get pigeon-holed into what is roughly referred to, I kid you not, as the “mother-daughter” genre. Novels about fathers and sons, au contraire, merely go by “literary fiction”.
But today is not the sort of day I will get cranky about this business, unfortunate though it is. For one, it is Mother’s Day. And while my mother and I have looked down robustly upon the global export of American holidays (except a brief phase between the ages of ten and thirteen when I wrote my parents annoyingly sugary short stories on Father’s Day and Mother’s Day), we have a soft corner for the novels that go by the I-kid-you-not moniker – such as The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, A Day Late and A Dollar Short by Terry McMillan, Browngirl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall, or Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells. Moreover, sometimes a mother-daughter novel is exactly what the doctor – or in my case, the housekeeper – ordered.
I pick up the picture and peer at it. My grandmother looks out at me, her gaze lovely and cryptic. It bothers me that I know so little about her. I search the photos for clues to her character. Is she pressing down on her lip to keep it from trembling? ...I want to keep staring until the photo yields its secrets to me.
Maybe now that her own end flickers like a shadow in the corner of her eye, my mother will be ready to tell me more about my grandmother.
“Mom,” I begin. “Did Grandma – “
“Let’s begin looking at the clothes, shall we?” she says, cutting me off. “Here, give me the photo.” He holds the photo delicately by its edges so as to prevent finger smudging.
“Mom.” My voice shakes. I’m nervous as a girl. “Can I keep it?”
My mother replaces the photo in the album and snaps shut the cover. “Tara! I’ve just found it. I want to keep it with me for a while, look at it. You’ll get it soon enough, once I am dead. Come on, now. I have some nice saris that I won’t wear again. I want you to take them.” She rises and wakes her lurching way into the bedroom.
But I hang back. A familiar tingling begins in my hands and rises into my wrists, my forearms. I feel feverish and shivery. I want that photo. I want it so badly that my mouth goes dry. I must have it.— 'A Thousand Words: 2020'
Mothers and mothers and daughters and daughters
Before We Visit the Goddess, acclaimed novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest offering is, since we may as well be all obvious about it, the story of three generations of women: Sabitri, Bela and Tara.
In the early 1950s, young Sabitri, the daughter of a village priest and a talented sweet-maker, moves to Calcutta to pursue an undergraduate degree, staying as a hapless dependent in the house of the wealthy Mittirs. The heir of the Mittir fortune, the only son, falls in love with Sabitri – and the consequences leave their imprint on the family for years to come.
In the 1970s, defying her mother, Sabitri’s daughter Bela emigrates to the US following in her revolutionary lover’s footsteps – and never returns. Bela’s daughter, Tara, drops out of college when her beloved father decides to leave her mother, and follows her own trajectory like a rolling stone.
But instead of a multi-generational saga that would portray their interlocking stories, thwarted love and curdled regrets over five hundred or so pages, what Divakaruni does is to reduce the bulk of it – without sacrificing any of the rich detailing – to nine elegant, connected but standalone narratives, drawn from across the decades. The year is provided helpfully in the title. The result is deeply satisfying.
A different form
It is a celebration of a looser, more cyclical form of story-telling. And the consequent jigsaw puzzle solving, to arrive at the shimmering canvas of eighty-and-odd years, lends to one’s own search for the shadows and valleys and sunlit coves in our mother’s gardens (to borrow a phrase from Alice Walker) a certain playful dignity.
The points of view change, of course, and this introduces an element of eccentricity. While Sabitri’s story uses letters as a major device (Fortunate Lamps: 1995), we learn one large chunk of Bela’s story from her gay American neighbour, Kenneth, and the other from the medical journal of her long-estranged husband, Sanjay. Tara’s accounts mostly deploy the first person, except for a moving intervention by one Dr Venkatachalapathi, who, in the course of a remarkable afternoon – of, among other things, visiting the goddess – is able to stem her free fall since she left university after her first year.
One of the themes running through the book is the use of food as a central motif both in expressing one’s own voice and in healing, using the wisdom coded in hand-me-downs of the maternal line. Sabitri adapts her mother’s recipes to suit Leelamoyee’s citified tastes, Bela turns her minimum-wage job as a shelf stacker in the supermarket around when she starts cooking. Later, her food blog and her cookbooks become very successful. And, finally, Tara also discovers a flair for cooking unfamiliar Bengali recipes – almost as though she has a genetic predisposition to dramatic kitchens. Food is memory in an immigrant kitchen, and Divakaruni uses this trope cleverly to say much more about immigration, navigating two cultures and coping with the loss of familiar landscapes than socio-political theses ever do.
The book reminded me of this short poem by Gauri Deshpande:
Sometimes you want to talk— ‘The Female of the Species’
about love and despair
and the ungratefulness of children
A man is no use whatever then.
You want then your mother
or your sister
or the girl with whom you went through the school,
and your first love, and her –
first child – a girl –
and your second.
You sit with them and talk.
She sews and you sit and sip
and speak of the rate of rice
and the price of tea
and the scarcity of cheese.
You know both that you’ve spoken
of love, despair and ungratefulness of children.
It is a warm, moving book, occasionally humorous. The minor characters are memorable, whether the old Mrs Mehta, whom Tara has to watch for a weekend, Sanjay Dewan, the avowed ex-communist who holds on to his atheism but has no compunction in turning capitalist in America and clinging to the American Dream, the loyal Bipin Bihari, or the imperious Leelamoyee.
A few lines soar (“She lifts her eyes, and there is Death in the corner, but not like a king with his iron crown as the epics claimed. Why, it is a giant brush loaded with white paint. It descends upon her with gentle suddenness, obliterating the shape of the world”) and reminded me of my two favourite Divakaruni novels (Queen of Dreams and Vine of Desire).
I wish to pick a major quarrel with the publishers over the cover. It depicts a Rajasthani girl rushing through a desert at sunset. It is so spectacularly silly – and declares its intentions to go straight to the “Exotic” sub-section within the “Mother-Daughter” rack, I presume, that even Amitav Ghosh’s fine endorsement cannot rescue it. Next time, the author should absolutely put her foot down. This sort of lazy cover art (Indian = Rajasthani = Veiled Girl = Something Exotic-y) snuffs out the very notion of diversity of – and in – the American project that books like this have long fought to represent.
Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels and the co-author, with Saurav Jha, of a book called The Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat.