Photo by R.J. MunaTHERE ARE AROUND 75 PEOPLE AT CHITRA BANERJEE Divakaruni's reading at Dutton's Brentwood, among them many young Indian women in varying degrees of Western dress; students; wives; professionals; and nearly as many Indian men, some in suits, others sporting slightly nontraditional outfits. Divakaruni herself is wearing a salwaar kameez, the Punjabi tunic and pants many modern Indian women favor for both professional and casual wear (in her fiction, good traditional Bengali girls are punished severely for wearing this ensemble instead of a sari). She has club-kid glitter on her eyelids. She looks both glamorous and kind. She's no revolutionary ("Rebellion is seen as a much more positive sort of thing in Western culture," she says), but an educated consumer of tradition, and also a connoisseur of change.
Her first novel, The Mistress of Spices, was a magical-realist tale laden with pungent, descriptive detail and ersatz mythology -- the kind of multicultural novel agents love to see. It was a well-executed work of genre, but genre it was. In her second novel, Sister of My Heart, though she's incorporated the narrative structure of melodrama, Divakaruni has returned to the plainspoken style of her short stories.
"I wanted to follow the narrative format of the old stories, the myths and the legends, where enormous things happen that transform people's lives in a moment. I wanted that drama," says Divakaruni. "I do think that so much of modern fiction has moved so far away from that and deals with just internal things. Ultimately, the only reason people love stories is because things happen in them, and it's exciting to see what's going to happen."
Melodrama is the storytelling technique common to Indian epics and American soap operas. The two forms are so compatible that, when I was in India 10 years ago, the most popular show on television was a weekly serialization of the Mahabharata that looked, with its cheesy sets and endless emotional two-shots, every bit like General Hospital. This was the "exotic Orient" as seen by exotic Orientals.
Divakaruni isn't a big fan of gratuitous Orientalia. "It bothers me when people say that writing about Indian life in its detail is exotic," she says, dismayed at both Western and Indian readers' preoccupation with the silk-and-cinnamon trappings of Indian fiction. "Our culture is vibrant, it is colorful, it is dramatic, but that's just part of its daily nature."
Women in Divakaruni's fiction may scrub their faces with turmeric, they may even marry men they've never met, but under her scrutiny, the ways in which they are everywoman are as surprising as the ways in which they are different. Arranged marriage (also the title of her 1995 short-story collection), for example, turns out not to be so different, in its nitty-gritty details, from any other kind of wedlock. Instead, Divakaruni suggests, it is friendship differently conceived by persons "growing up in a traditional and sex-segregated society."
"Our deepest friendships are with people of the same sex," she says. "That's a big difference I've found between the two cultures, that with a lot of younger women, they have friends, but their real interest is in their boyfriend or spouse."
For Indian women, friendships are the object of adolescent passions, the arena of emotional risk taking. It is romantic desire that is slower to stir, and often it does so within the confines of a socially engineered marriage. It is as if the values of romantic love and friendship are transposed in the two cultures.
Divakaruni's talent and originality lie in her ability to discern these basic emotional motifs beneath the flashy "exotica" of Indian, and American, lifestyles. She finds the real points of departure between the two cultures and, in putting her finger exactly there, activates the universal.
SISTER OF MY HEART IS THE STORY OF THE INTENSE bond between two cousins, Sudha and Anju, who grow up with their widowed mothers in Calcutta after the girls' fathers are mysteriously killed during an ill-conceived ruby-hunting expedition. The girls are sheltered, indulged in the peculiarly aggressive pampering that prepares young Bengali women for marriage. Due to Anju's mother's failing health, the "sisters" are rushed into early arranged unions, forgoing college.
Anju falls instantly for Sunil, her arranged bridegroom, when he walks into the family bookstore and introduces himself to her by asking for a copy of a Virginia Woolf novel. Years later, when he casually mentions that he's actually never read Woolf, Anju feels subtly but deeply betrayed, while Sunil fails to comprehend how this white lie could possibly matter to her now. This is the kind of riving emotional detail that affects all intimate couples, everywhere.
Such observations open up Divakaruni's deeply Indian characters for Western consumption, that and her unsentimental empathy for their viewpoints. Sudha, the romantic fatalist who believes she must pay for her father's misdeeds through sacrifice, gives up a secret love to be married off to a traditional extended family where the new mother-in-law eclipses her shadow of a son.
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When Sudha's mother-in-law tries to coerce her to abort a baby girl, Divakaruni allows Sudha her indignation but never lets the reader take this turn of events as grounds for outrage: The most frightening thing here is that there is no such thing as evil, and no one gesture, however cruel or destructive, is ever construed as categorically wrong. Sudha's own mother urges her to comply, not because the mother is an insensitive monster, but because she herself has calculated the price of living without a husband, for decades, in Calcutta, and deems it greater than the loss Sudha is facing. Sudha disagrees, but there are no villains here, and no victims: At times, Sudha's own gestures of love or good faith have dire consequences for those she loves.
"I spent the first 19 years of my life in a traditional family," Divakaruni says. "Who I was when I was growing up was not separate from my family." She likens the American cult of the individual to the Indian cult of the family. In her own life, she's found a compromise, though not a simple one.
"Fifty years ago, my own parents were from the same village, but of different castes, and they eloped. Now, you would think that would make them open, but they wanted traditional marriages for us children." Her mother was very upset at her choice of husband, though he was Indian. "'You mean he's not Bengali?'" She laughs now, but despite her own "love match," she doesn't repudiate her parents' point of view. "If I had not met my husband here, I probably would have gone back into a traditional marriage," she says. "I don't think I would have minded."
It's not so difficult for Divakaruni to say, with an admiring audience at her feet and glitter at the corners of her eyes. She has a career as a novelist, a loving husband (if no Bengali), two young sons and a home in Texas. But the evidence that she means it is in her work. On paper, she has bought her (round-trip) ticket, and she continues to write it. "I grew up in many ways," she says of her migration, "but now I've lost that deep sense of home. So now I am an outsider in both cultures. But for me as a writer, that's not a bad thing."