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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Before We Visit The Goddess speaks of the trials of three generations of women, and how their actions affect each other’s lives.
Be it Sister Of My Heart, Vine Of Desires, Oleander Girl, or the iconic Palace of Illusions, the story of strong women and the unexpected directions their lives have taken because of the men in their life has been a central theme to all Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novels. Before We Visit The Goddess is no exception.
Like all her other books, Before We Visit The Goddess is also set against the back drop of two countries, India and the USA. But the way it differs from her other books is that the story is narrated by the three lead characters zig-zagging through time and place.
On a cursory first glance it seems that this is the story of three women, Sabitri, Bela and Tara and the only thing that connects them are that they share the grandmother-mother-daughter relationship. But soon the reader would discover that these three women are connected not just by DNA, but also by the how their actions, however insignificant it might seems from their own point of view, has monumentally affect the life of the other.
Sabitri, the daughter of a poor village priest dreams to become a teacher. But unexpectedly her life is turned around by her benefactor’s son Bijan. Sabitri in her resolve to undo the disgrace forced upon her, manipulates Bijan in to marrying her. Unfortunately for Sabitri, the realization that she is in love with Bijan and Bijan discovering her manipulation happens on the same day.
Years later Sabitri’s daughter Bela breaks Sabitri’s heart again by running away with her lover Sanjay. But it is not happily ever after for Bela. At 50 she finds herself a divorcee, addicted to alcohol and a daughter who blames her for the divorce.
Bela’s daughter Tara floats around aimlessly till a near death experience sets her back on track. And as the title suggests these women cleanse themselves of all that has been bothering them before they meet their maker.
If I have to pick a favorite, it has to be Sabitri. And if there is a character that makes you go ‘brat’, it is Bela. The jumping from one time period to another combined with the cause and effect roller coaster that has been set off in these women’s lives makes it a very clever story telling.
Often times you would read about a major incident that has happened in the life of one of the protagonist and the explanation for this would follow much later in the story when narrated by a different protagonist. Like for example the point in the story where Tara, after a long hiatus, calls her mother to reconcile only to find out that her mother is now with a male partner. Both Tara and the reader would come to the conclusion that Bela has moved on, but a chapter narrated by Bela, much later as it appears in the book, sheds a different light. Meanwhile the reader is left intrigued as to what is happening.
This creates many interesting gaps in the story as the book unfolds, but towards the end the story fits well into the big picture, barring a few instances. Like for example the character of Mrs. Mehta, the archetypical mother in law. Not only this character is severely cliched, it is evident that if the character is removed there is zero impact on the story!
What is a Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni book without a touch of magic realism?! Though the book does not abound in magic realism, like in Mistress of Spices, here it is kept to the minimal, to the interaction between Bela and the magician.
The language is quite evocative and it pulls and tugs one’s heart. Many sentences leave you in a trance, making you read and re-read to feel the beauty of the words and the poetry they create in your mind.
The books starts with a quote from Fire Of Dreams by Jean Thompson,“Everybody lives two ways. The first is simple, the second less so.” And that is exactly my grouse. After reading many Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni books, it now feels that her lead characters always live a somewhat complicated life. Many times they are designed to fail.
With Sabitri we have a typical underdog story, but every time she resurfaces from the complex web that pulls her down, she is not rewarded but is put in a new and even more complicated situation. And with three leads constantly living in misery, one can’t help cringing a bit. And though these women are mentally strong, they don’t seem to have a single optimistic bone in their body! They persevere through their adversities, but end up becoming bitter and melancholic.
A sad, slightly predictable, but a poetic read.
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Image source: three generations Indian women by Shutterstock.
Anitha Ramkumar is a teacher, librarian, a dreamer and an independent spirit. She used to
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