"Sister of My Heart"by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni 322 pages. Paperback.
Review by Poonam Srivastava
Hello! Sister of My Heart, the 1999 novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, (C.B.D.), is Reading Nirvana. Here are 322 pages, paperback, that remind every one who's ever loved a good story, the pleasure of a master story teller. The characters grow, walk, talk, fall down flat on their faces or butts and get back up in the most expected and unexpected ways. The plot careens forward into dreams, fears and hopes of the ego; and backwards into secrets, traditions, and the collective sub-conscious. We hang suspended as the voice of Sudha - the daughter of a mystery (at best) or a murderous lie (at worst) - gives way to the voice of her "sister"-- whom she loves more than all others. Anju - the true heir of the ruined fortunes of the Chatterjees-- and Sudha pull, push, coerce, and seduce us until bemused, anguished, outraged, inspired we are left dancing at the wonder that is the human heart; love; sweet painful life, in all its guises. Through these two girl children, young women, adults, we experience the revelation of the souls that surround them, as well as their own. We travel the road of the handsome imposter fortune seeker who seemingly masterminded the ruin of this established Calcutta family. We sink deep into the three widow mothers who fight and follow society to raise these fatherless girls to par, who collectively and individually grow beyond our wildest imaginings of where widow white can take them. We gaze at a larger society with its frowning face, the chattering gossip of the group of aunties; and its lighter free-er face, the forbidden love of a boy with a white shirt, from a lower caste, met in a movie hall.
Through these lives, C.B.D. weaves a play, as in'un jeux' in French, of the real and the imaginary; of history and myth; of divine and human into a tale of the heart. This is anyone's story as they fight the dictates of what's said, Fate, in order to speak in their own voices, Freedom. It is a story of love, and guilt, and envy, and the struggle to be an individual in a society that demands conformity. Sudha is the center of this tale, this wink of Shiva as he dances eternally, this smile from Shashti, this revelation of the writings of the Bhidata Parush. For the gods and goddesses frolic and find their own three dimensional space in the world of Sister of My Heart. Sudha, the keeper of the secret that sealed the previous generation of dead fathers, widow mothers, and a burnt faced servant driver, takes us from infant girl child in an all female household to a single mother flying to America. Pishi, Gauri and Nalini-the widow mothers-- find increased freedom in reduced circumstance, Singhji finds his love and admiration for the little girl his heart centers on. And Anju finds that sweet as it is, this liberation she finds in studying literature in an American university and earning her own money, only the love and the stories of her Sudha-sister of her heart-- will rescue her when the world turns dark and cold.
C.B.D. cooks up this novel in two parts-The Princess in the Palace of Snakes, and The Queen of Swords. Each is an expression from a rich primordial subconscious stew that is unabashedly woman and unabashedly south Asian. So the spice of Indian life comes from within and is not thrown at us, after thought-ish. The result is a satisfying experience for all readers, Desi, or not. In particular I give it my own stamp of South Asian, Desi, Woman Reader approval. Gone is the cryptic western perspective that leaves a cringe in the back of my throat -- as in Jumpa Lahiri's rendering of the driver that lusts after the mehmsaab from America. Gone is my drop jaw disbelief of characterization of Indian lives in a pandering to western audience -- as in Meera Nayar's painful bedroom scene of the newlyweds in the film Mississippi Masala, or the substance-less sensuality of KamaSutra. C. B. D. serves up a tale as rich and mesmerizing as Kamla Markanday's Nectar in a Sieve. Her language flows, poetic and potent. Her words are brushstrokes that dab a touch of the comic wink in the tragic and cold critique in the throws of young lust. Her voice does not falter as she evokes the trembling of young forbidden love, the surprise of hidden passion in an arranged marriage, the loyalty of an old friend, the long suffering of a woman widowed at the age of 19, or the broken heart of a man who was abandoned as a child. Sister of My Heart is a tale that is a world without apology or footnote.