- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005

THE TREE BRIDE

By Bharati Mukherjee

Hyperion, $23.95, 293 pages

REVIEWED BY CORINNA LOTHAR

In her earlier novel, “Desirable Daughters,” Bharati Mukherjee introduced her readers to Tara Bhattacharjee, the daughter of a well-to-do Calcutta Hindu brahmin transplanted to San Francisco. In Miss Mukherjee’s new novel, “The Tree Bride,” Tara is again the central character, but this time, the author seeks not to deal with what she has described as the new American’s struggle over assimilation/cultural retention, but with a “two-way transformation” — whether traditional America is “ready to understand and accept the Hindu immigrant whose world-view accommodates without conflict ghosts and breakthrough information technology … .”

In fact, “The Tree Bride” is an onion-skinned detective story, with each subplot acting as a new layer of discovery. It is set in part in the contemporary California Bay Area and partly in 19th and early-20th century India during the years of the Raj, both at its zenith and in its decline. Contrary to the author’s premise, the mix of ghosts and contemporary technology neither shocks nor surprises, as belief in ghosts is as much a part of European Christian mythology as it is of Indian.

“The Tree Bride” begins just as Tara seems to have reconciled with her divorced husband, Bish Chatterjee, a world famous cyber-communications magnate, when a fierce bomb blast destroys her house, cripples Bish and injures Tara. Tara has been researching the story behind her name-sake, Tara Lata, a distant aunt born in 1874 in the village of Mishtigunj, known as the Tree Bride because when her childhood husband died of a cobra bite on his way to the marriage ceremony, her father married her to a tree to spare her the miserable life of a Brahmin widow.

Tara Lata was five years old at the time. “She spent the next sixty years inside her father’s compound, learning to read and write Bengali and English, then teaching and finally organizing and protesting [British rule].” Shortly after the bomb blast, the modern Tara discovers she is pregnant. Her doctor, Victoria Khanna, gives Tara a box filled with old papers acquired from Dr. Khanna’s father, the illegitimate son of Vertie Treadwell, a British administrator in India, who ended his career in disgrace in the Mishtigunj backwater.

When Tara opened the box, “[a]ll the identifiable odors of India rose from that box, a century of monsoons, sweet and rancid bug spray, dust, hot mustard oil, fried fish and vegetables, basmati rice, trapped sun, mold, and decades of uncirculated air.” Tara delves deeply into the ever more complex relationship between Treadwell, Tara Lata, and the founder of the village, John Mist, who was executed by the British, as was Tara Lata herself years later under the auspices of Vertie Treadwell, allegedly for sedition in the nascent Indian independence movement.

Miss Mukherjee has woven several apparently unrelated plotlines together, winding down into ever more complex and intertwined relationships. The most fascinating sub-plot is the one involving the founder of Mishtigunj, an orphan boy, delivered “on a cold London night in the year 1820” to the Orphans and Foundling Betterment Trust, where he was known as Jack Snow. Jack never spoke, but watched and endured. “Jack Snow, Mute, was an innocent, capable of cleaning himself and his quarters, enduring punishment, and moving through a fallen society without taking special notice of it.”

One day, when he was seven, Jack saved the life of Tom Crabbe, a hideously deformed seaman, who persuaded Jack that the only life worth living was at sea. Jack succumbed to the call of the sea with Tom Crabbe aboard the Indiaman Malabar Queen, a ship of the East India Company, sailing to Calcutta. Aboard was Olivia Todd, promised as a bride to an officer of The Company. Jack quickly became a pet of Miss Todd and an indispensable aid to the captain, but just before the journey’s end, the ship was beset by pirates.

The captain and officers were butchered; Miss Todd (who had hidden Jack in a chest) was delivered to the proverbial fate “worse than death” and a handful of the crew under Tom Crabbe managed to keep the ship and bring it into port. In Calcutta, they were treated as mutineers and thrown into the “Black Hole.” Tom Crabbe died at the end of a rope but Jack, now called John Mist, managed to escape into the jungle where he lived until 1880, speaking only in the native dialect, wearing Indian garb and rejecting his British background.

Another sub-plot involves Victoria Khanna’s grandfather, Vertie Treadwell, who had given his life as a faithful servant of the Raj, treating the Indians as incompetent, uncivilized savages, collecting hundreds of tiger pelts, and determined to “civilize” the natives at any post he held. He arrived in Mishtigunj and met the Tree Bride, a gray haired lady who was now involved in the independence movement. She too met her fate in the town prison under the auspices of Vertie Treadwell, but her body was never returned to her family for a proper burial.

There is the story of Tara Lata herself, but that is the least detailed and the author leaves the reader with only the suggestion of what happened. Was she betrayed by the Englishman she trusted? Did she fall in love with him? Was she betrayed by someone in the village whom she trusted? She remains a distant, unreal figure.

There is the stuff here of several novels. Miss Mukherjee drops each of her sub-plots at a certain point, leaving the reader to fill in too many gaps such as the life of John Mist after he fled into the jungle; the family relationships of Vertie Treadwell and what happened to the wife and daughter in New Zealand; the life of Olivia Todd whom John Mist supported until he died; what brought about hatred so intense as to warrant the bombings in California.

Despite the complex, often open-ended plot twists and some under-developed characters, there can be no doubt that Miss Mukherjee is a fine writer. Her prose is elegant, sardonic and often brilliant. She has a gift for vividly creating time and place shown in this description of the “wollen rivers [that] rush from the Himalayas through the low, flat plains to the ever-thirsty bay, pouring waters so broad one wonders how even an ocean can absorb the engorgement. They twist and tangle, as the poet says, like women’s hair spread out and drying in the sun.”

And there is this powerful condemnation of the Industrial Revolution: “Hell had climbed from the bowels of the earth and taken up residence in every port and city. This brutal new thing would soon go by the name of Industrialism. Devils of industry were running free where trout and salmon had once filled creels, in tidal basins where the poor had raked for shellfish, and on village greens where flocks had fed for centuries.”

What remains the heart and soul of “The Tree Bride” and what makes it an exciting book to read is Miss Mukherjee’s unflinching look at the rule of the British Raj, the cruelty, arrogance and incomprehension of the colonizers. It is perhaps for that reason that the story of John Mist from his childhood in the 19th-century slums of London to his death in the Bengali jungle throbs with life and passion.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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