- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 23, 2002

By Bharati Mukherjee
Hyperion/Theia, $24.95, 310 pages

In "Desirable Daughters" Bharati Mukharjee tells the story of Tara Bhattacharjee, born into a strictly traditional Hindu family in Calcutta, but at 36 living a 21st-century life in San Francisco. Two tales, or rather a scrap of family biography and a poem, infuse Tara's story, suggesting the disruptive power of hidden forces and the wondrous work of transformation possible in human lives.
The biographical scrap is that of Tara's ancestor, Tara Lata, introduced as a gold-decked five-year-old being carried to her wedding in 1879. The bridal procession reaches the wedding house, but the 13-year-old groom is dead, victim of a poisonous snake bite. His father blames the inauspicious Tara Lata, demanding that her dowry be immediately handed over. Outraged by this greed, her father refuses. But the boy's death dooms his daughter to an unmarried life for who would wed such an agent of death? so he takes her into the forest and marries her to a tree.
"It seems all the sorrows of history, all that is unjust in society and cruel in religion has settled on her," writes the younger Tara. "Even constructing it from the merest scraps of family memory fills me with rage and bitterness."
In contrast to the 19th-century child bride, the contemporary Tara apparently has it all. Youngest of three sisters, born with beauty and brains, she grew up both restricted and cushioned by her family, yet has little trouble winning the conventional freedoms of Westerners. Like her namesake, she had an arranged marriage, accepting "not unenthusiastically" Bishwapriya Chatterjee, who took her to Silicon Valley, where he invented a operating system that made him a millionaire many times over. They have a house in a gated community and a son Rabi, but Tara does "the unthinkable" in her culture: She divorces her husband, charming and brilliant though he is. Five years later, she is settled in San Francisco with Rabi and her Hungarian boyfriend, "The Zen Master of Retro Fit," who specializes in fixing houses to make them earthquake-safe.
An earthquake of sorts hits Tara when a young man turns up, claiming to be son of her sister Padma and the brother of a former schoolfriend. Unimaginable. How could one of the three Bhattacharjee sisters have had a child out of wedlock? Convent-educated, they were never allowed alone in male company. Dating was unheard of, and since the imputed father was a Christian, there would have been no question of marriage into such a proud Brahmin family. Enraged at the suggestion, Tara calls both of her sisters. Padma doesn't return her calls, but amazingly, her other sister Parvati gradually pieces together memories that suggest that, yes, Padma may indeed have given birth.
But is the man who claims to Padma's son an impostor? Tara begins exploring, recalling Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "The Kraken," an evocation of a slumbering sea-monster, who "hath lain for ages and will lie … Until the latter fire shall heat the deep; Then … In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die." It suggests to her that, "The protective parents, the loving daughters, the Brahmins' pride, the Bengali arrogance, the Calcutta sophistication seemed now the darkest cave, and we, blind stumbling creatures." Events will justify this judgment, though not in ways that Tara anticipates.
The book ends with Tara back in India, visiting both her family and the ancestral village where Tara Lata lived her life. It is, then, a "roots" novel, the kind of coming-of-age narrative, in which discovering one's origins or appreciating them anew is a step on the road to self-knowledge or maturity. Such labels have that taxonomical neatness which can diminish by classifying a varied multitude into one category. In this case, the category usefully suggests the attractions of the form. In an age of emigration, when millions of people around the world live their adult lives in a country other than the one in which they were born, unraveling identity compels attention. So too does mapping those fault lines where cultures edge up to each other, creating unacknowledged pressures that can erupt as startlingly as the roaring Kraken.
Fiction has fine tools for exploring these territories, few authors can handle them as deftly as Bharati Mukherjee because few avoid nostalgia the abiding temptation of the roots novel as fastidiously as she does. She neither sentimentalizes nor berates the Hindu restrictions of Tara's young life or the Californian laissez-faire of the years since she married, and while the values of the two societies are in many ways antithetical, the author is not irritated into preaching the virtues of one against the vices of the other. A clear vision of history is at work here. Though the briskly plotted action of the book springs from the here and now of the 21st century, the lives of its characters are shaped by history and history doesn't stand still.
The Hindu world of Tara Lata is not the same as the Hindu world of the three sisters' childhood in Calcutta, and their world is different now than the one they grew up in and that is as true for Parvati, who lives in India, as it is of Tara and Padma, who settled in the United States.
This kind of history is drawn on the time-line measured by clocks. Thee author also suggests another kind of time: Hindu time that measures in eons and sees transforming patterns. As Tara realizes, this way of looking at the world has riches on which she can draw for the future.
And as she also realizes, history alone is not destiny. The book ends as it begins with Tara Lata. The time is 1943 and Tara Lata is in her father's house, whose doors she never crossed since returning there as Tree Bride. Untrammeled by the duties of the Hindu wife, who must worship her husband, she has cut her hair and is working for Indian independence. Her tale is a parable about playing the hand that fate has dealt. As Tara realizes, such tales should be cherished for their beauty. As for Bharati Mukherjee, her subtle novel invests the stories of both the Taras and of Padma and Parvati with meanings for other times and people.

Claire Hopley is a writer in Amherst, Mass.

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