A Writer Adds Spice
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni--a mouthful of a name to remember for this Texan, but well worth the effort when searching for her many books.
"Queen of Dreams" and "Before We Visit the Goddess" are two I've read recently. Both possess an inherent awareness of the spiritual. In "Queen of Dreams," a young Indian-American woman wants her mother's advice on her failed marriage and failing business. But her mother's dedication to her own calling gets in the way. The mother dreams the dreams of others and can interpret these dreams. That ability allowed her to escape poverty as an orphan in the slums of India. She is taken in by a sect who live in caves, where the visions are strong. Then love draws her away to America. In California, her daughter grows up to struggle with American problems. Misunderstandings and questioned choices cloud relationships. The conflicts are at once real-world, while standing at the edges of what we think of as reality.
"Before We Visit the Goddess" begins with the elderly Sabitri writing a letter from India to her granddaughter, who plans to drop out of college. Sabitri has never met this granddaughter because of the strained relationship between Sabitri and her own daughter. Sabitri dies of a heart attack before she can post the letter that tells her story. The narratives of Sabitri, her daughter, and her granddaughter are twined together to paint a picture of inter-generational struggles.
Some plot details are common to the two books--a young woman runs away to America to pursue romance, tensions between mothers and daughters ignite conflict, and cultural tug-of-war creates tension. Perspective is provided by the passage of time and a quote from Mark Twain: "I've lived through some terrible things. Some of them actually happened."
In both books, Indian food is featured in mouthwatering scenes of cooking and eating. Food anchors recalled memories and adds to the cultural charm. Indian food adds spice. Just as the stereotype of the stodgy Brit is underlined by the plain boiled egg he has for breakfast, the emotional depth and volatility of a Bengali is presented in the exotic names and spices of Indian fare. And the humor comes from all sides--the irony, the absurdity, and the self-discovery of the main characters.
Along with the food is the joy and pain of love--the disappointment, cruelty, excitement, and warmth of human interaction. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni works through the characters to portray life in search of love as a cleansing process: priorities, grudges, the misread intentions of others--all get filtered through a fine net of truth to reveal what's important. Before entering a Hindu temple close to Houston, a young woman who is a generation removed from Indian temple practices hears this explanation: "Before we visit the goddess, we must cleanse ourselves."
Divakaruni gave a memorable presentation at the 2019 Writers' Conference in Honor of Elmer Kelton at Angelo State University. She was the keynote, of course, and she confirmed her status as a great speaker, writer, and teacher, and person of insight with a sense of humor. I look forward to reading every single one of her books.