Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Before We Visit the Goddess is the first of her books that I picked up, though her Palace of Illusions is more popular. Lately, I prefer books that open a window to a specific period or a culture, so I chose this book to quench my thirst for such writing.
Stories of three generations of women are not too common, but I have read a couple of them including Andaleeb Wajid’s More Than Just Biryani and Bridges (பாலங்கள் in Tamil) by Sivasankari. This is the third of the kind and I hoped that it stood different from the others.
Sabitri, her daughter Bela and her grand-daughter Tara are the cores around whom the story wraps.
Set in the mid to late 20th century, the story opens with Bela calling her mother, asking her to advise Tara to not give up college. Tara, born and brought up in America, has never met her grandmother. In addition, she is portrayed as a rebel child, having grown up in difficult circumstances. These two factors put Sabitri in a dilemma, but eventually she decides to write to her grand-daughter outlining her travails so as to emphasize the need for education.
Sabitri, the daughter of Durga, a popular sweet-maker in rural Bengal, is ambitious and studious. When a chance encounter with her mother’s rich customer Leelamoyi in Calcutta brings her the good fortune of being able to pursue further studies while staying in Leelamoyi’s home, she grabs it with both hands, keeping aside her discomforts. However, a slip on her part gets her thrown out and that changes her life. Adding to abandoned studies and lost love, she also finds herself in an unhappy marriage with Bijan, due to force of circumstances.
Though Sabitri has made it big as the owner of a sweet store, she is shattered when her daughter Bela chooses to elope with her boyfriend, Sanjay, to America. Bela’s life also follows the same pattern of her mother’s, with abandoned studies and an unhappy marriage. Bela, jealous of her husband Sanjay’s extreme worship-like friendship with Bishu, cunningly brings about a separation between her husband and his friend. But Sanjay is never able to forgive her over this. After her marriage falls apart eventually, she too makes a career out of her culinary skills.
Tara is also shown to be in a troubled relationship and chooses to quit school. It is at this juncture that Sabitri spends her final moments writing a letter to Tara. Would she follow the same path as her mother and her grandmother? Can the experiences of the older women help guide her in a different path?
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- The complexities and nuances of the relationship between any pair of mother-daughter is difficult to capture in words, more so when the lives are unusual and filled with unpredictable turns. Ms. Banerjee has painted an intricate picture of the Sabitri-Bela relationship. In fact, I would extend this to say that all relationships of Sabitri have been chiselled out meticulously.
- My favourite character is Sabitri – strong, ambitious, sensitive, unflinching at odds.
- It is an enjoyable read – delectable often times, though, perhaps, slow at others.
- Oh, those concoctions of Durga and Sabitri! I found myself craving for a sweet after reading some of the descriptions.
I took a bite of the conch-shaped dessert, the palest, most elegant mang color. The smooth, creamy flavor of fruit and milk, sugar and saffron mingled and melted on my tongue.
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- There are some subplots into which the story unnecessarily meanders – like that of Dr. Venkatachalapathi’s daughter’s suicide, David and Tara’s weekend with Mrs. Mehta. Though these might have been included to show Tara’s life, they do not really achieve that purpose. I would have liked to see more of Tara as a person.
- The entire story is written in an interwoven fashion switching forward and backward in time, while a chronological narrative might have well served the purpose. Does this style of writing make a work more literary?
- What does the title mean? It is clear that when Tara and Dr. V visit the Meenakshi temple and before they visit the Goddess, Dr. V instructs her to cleanse herself. What is the connection of this incident to the entire story?
- The men in the story who are the chosen ones, are wrong choices, whereas there are other men around who lend huge support like Bipin Bihari, Ken and Dr. V. Do men find it easier to support unrelated women more?