Beyond the Clichés of Colonialism
Mukherjee infuses an old genre with new mystery and life
Desirable Daughters is the tale of Tara Chatterjee, an Indian woman living in San Francisco in the late 1990s. She has divorced her billionaire tech-mogul husband and lives with her teenage son, Rabi, and her Hungarian “mistri,” Andy. Mukherjee carefully weaves among various incidents in Tara’s past and the unfolding drama of her present. Each foray into the past peels away another sari, unveiling heretofore unknown layers of meaning in Tara’s life.
Mukherjee creates Tara’s unique relationship with each of her two sisters through the establishment of a history of hushed conversations overheard through Calcutta doors. Into this mixture she stirs a mystery: an uninvited guest arrives one day and claims that he is Tara’s oldest sister’s bastard son. This possible imposter sends Tara on a search that leads her to discover the uninvited and unknown within her own past. The journey allows Tara to unmask the characters of her personal play—her parents, her sisters, her son, and, eventually, herself.
Tara’s journey is not the only venture into uncharted territory; the novel itself treads on virgin soil. It is one of the few recent books about the experiences of immigrants to the United States that does not read as trite or contrived. For the most part, this is due to Mukherjee’s ability to craft characters that maintain a fullness of personality and an independence of action that is only rarely encountered. Like any immigrants, Mukherjee’s characters find themselves in a new world faced with new problems. However, the issues with which Tara, her husband Bish, and their son Rabi must deal confront many typical Americans, and not just non-natives. Mukherjee develops multiple plots and subplots, which serve to infuse both the protagonists and the supporting actors with a brilliant dynamism.
Now, back to the cover. Mukherjee’s publisher seems to be drawing on the popularity of the exotic and on the willingness of the American public to shell out at even the suggestion of a curry-flavored tale. Assistant Professor of English and American Language and Literature Sharmila Sen has commented that books by Indian authors get placed on Literature shelves rather than in Fiction sections. Desirable Daughters has been coached to play this role. The saris on the cover seek to entice those readers seeking a little spice. The requisite quote from Amy Tan, the goddess of the Asian-American immigrant experience, leaps off the back cover to suggest a more predictable tale. Just above that, the brief description of the book as “a stirring novel of three women, two continents, and a perilous journey from the old world to the new,” serves the same purpose.
All of these promotional tools are highly inaccurate and paint a skewed picture of Desirable Daughters. This is not a spicy bit of the subcontinent to be consumed at leisure and washed down with a Kingfisher. It is a story both of cultural acclimatization and assimilation and of the once-immigrant’s journey to rediscover the homeland and family abandoned long ago.
A more telling indicator of this novel’s flavor is the Sanskrit epigraph with which the author, herself, chooses to begin the tale:
No one behind, no one ahead. / The path the ancients cleared has closed. / And the other path, everyone’s path, / Easy and wide, goes nowhere. / I am alone and find my way.
This is the central theme of Desirable Daughters. Mukherjee has crafted a tale of one woman’s solitary journey to find her way along a private path forged through her own trials. At the same time, Mukherjee follows a new path as well. Her novel, while dealing with Indian immigrants, is not restricted by that category. She has created a truly original work of literature that is much spicier than any predigested powder could be.
By Bharati Mukherjee
320 pp., $24.95