"Desirable Daughters"by Bharati Mukherjee
A review by Ruchi Mital
Reviewing Bharati Mukherjee's Desirable Daughters In her latest novel, Desirable Daughters, Bharati Mukherjee continues to explore the transformation an immigrant undergoes in leaving the physical, cultural, and mental space that is the motherland, for America. Once again she traverses this sliding scale of being and becoming and how it affects the individual, the family, and the larger idea that is being "American."
Desirable Daughters is the story of three sisters, Tara, Parvati, and Padma, born and raised in Calcutta in the 1950s, and the different paths they travel from this nexus. The narrative is told from the perspective of Tara, the youngest sister who has moved the furthest away. Now divorced from her parent-selected husband, Tara lives in San Francisco with her adolescent son Rabi and lover Andy, an ex-biker/ hippie Buddhist carpenter. Tara sees herself as an American, but is constantly aware of the India that is always with her. When a young man, Chris Dey, shows up at her doorstep and announces that she is his "mashi" and he the illegitimate child of her older sister Padma, Tara must reevaluate. She is forced to look at her the relationships she has with her sisters, and their past: three different people within a specific upbringing and rigid cultural context. The novel shows that the past is not something that stays in a neat frame or album, but one that collides with and influences the present, as well as how the present is one that can color and illuminate the past. Mukherjee has often said in interviews how she has been influenced by the Hindu epics and myths in which animals can transform into gods and monsters and gods can transform into people. She applies this tradition of changing forms to the mythology of America in which people are allowed to think of themselves as American, undergoing their own sort of transformation. As concepts these come through in the novel. Bengali words and ideas are intermingled with English prose and American norms. This style reflects the fluid and changing nature of the American immigrant. However, in many places it seems that the concepts are more important than the characters that become representatives of an idea rather than incarnate individuals. Andy, Tara's lover is almost a cartoon character, saying things like "Zen's a bummer, babe." His complexity as a character is never allowed for.
There are also overblown plot turns that seem to coming from nowhere and then disappear back there. For instance, it is discovered that Chris Dey is not who he says he is, and actually belongs to a large Indian organized crime ring that is after Tara's ex-husband's money. This seemed more of a vehicle to comment upon related issues of immigration and crime, to connect Tara and her ex-husband Bish, and to take Tara and Rabi back to India, rather than an event in the lives of the characters.
There are some wonderful images in the book, ones of earthquakes especially, and how they apply to family structure and events. There are also many moments of humor, and pointed observations and criticisms of both Indian and American stereotypes, and especially of the Indian immigrant community in America. Those familiar with these groups will smile at much of the commentary. Mukherjee's writing is strong, and there are a lot of things brought up in the book to think about, as far as what it means to be an immigrant in America. There is also much to enjoy in the descriptions of life in India, life in Jackson Heights or "Little India", and the interweaving of old Indian tales. It is just unfortunate that the people in this story are never fully people, but devices used to convey concepts in a way that is not wholly convincing.
Ruchi Mital - Tribes ¬© July 2002