I’m late to the party, but I’ve found a great book for the summer, or, for that matter, any time: “Before We Visit the Goddess,” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
I’d never read Divakaruni’s work before, despite her having won a 1996 American Book Award for “Arranged Marriage.” The main reason I decided to read her latest is because she’s living in Texas these days, teaching creative writing at the University of Houston, and I’m always on the lookout for fine writers in the state.
She’s one of them, for sure.
“Before We Visit the Goddess” is full of different voices, going back and forth in time, with beautifully written chapters that could stand on their own as short stories but add layer upon layer of complication, wonder, humanity and empathy when joined together.
The novel tracks the lives of three generations of Indian women, the oldest of whom, Sabitri, establishes a famous bakery back in India. Then there’s her daughter, the rebellious Bela, who runs away from home to marry a young man who’s living in California. And there’s Bela’s daughter, Tara, a troubled soul who blames her mother for her parents’ divorce.
All three women have lots of issues, all of them understandable but sometimes heartbreaking. Divakaruni, however, constantly surprises by declining to make judgments about her characters, even when they act badly. And, wow, do they have some bad moments.
Although the novel goes back and forth in time, we get most of Sabitri’s story first, and it’s inextricably tied with the story of Bela. As a young girl, Sabitri leaves her beloved mother and father to seize an opportunity: A wealthy family has offered her room and board while she pursues an education. But when Sabitri begins to form a romantic relationship with the wealthy family’s son, she incurs their wrath — and discovers a lot about class divisions.
Sabitri eventually marries another man, but her old relationship with the wealthy son, Rajiv, spells trouble in her new family, especially after young Bela makes an innocent but devastating observation after seeing her mother and Rajiv together.
Fast forward, and Bela has left India to follow her political refugee boyfriend, Sanjay, to California. He has turned out to be a bad partner, so much so that Bela has engaged in a dangerous game to make Sanjay believe she and his best friend, Bishu, are having an affair. The marital turmoil causes Tara to blame her mother for the family’s failure — and partly for the eventual divorce of Bela and Sanjay.
Tara, in some ways, is the most troubled of all. She’s not married. She’s lousy in picking men. And she has dropped out of college – a move that causes her anxious grandmother back in India to write a letter that’s never been read.
Tara, with spiky hair and a nose ring, works as a sales clerk at a secondhand Houston store called Nearly New Necessities. To earn extra money, she agrees to house-sit for a wealthy Indian couple, the Mehtas, while they take a cruise — and keep tabs on Mr. Mehta’s aging mother, who lives with them.
Amid so much turmoil and broken relationships, the episodes between Tara and the elder Mrs. Mehta bring a lot of laughter, because Mrs. Mehta is anything but a doddering old lady. Their meeting, in fact, is a hoot, with Tara walking into the home and finding Mrs. Mehta “crumpled in a heap on the kitchen floor, her glasses askew.” After seeing a glint in Mrs. Mehta’s eyes, Tara realizes that Mrs. Mehta is putting on an act.
“I’d love to empty a pitcher of ice water over her and watch her gasp and sputter and not be able to complain,” Tara tells us. “But I am not that kind of person, so I say, ‘I’m not going to call your son and force him to cancel his vacation, if that’s what you’re aiming at. However, I’ll be happy to call an ambulance. You can spend the weekend in the hospital, getting poked and prodded and having your blood drawn.’
“For a long moment, she lies there. Then, just as I’m thinking maybe she did have a stroke, she sits up and announces that she would like dinner.”
As you can tell from the wry humor, Divakaruni builds her female characters as multidimensional — highly complex, intelligent and nobody’s doormat. And as it turns out, Mrs. Mehta is a pistol.
All of these women have something wonderful to offer, even if they make messes of their own lives. And Divakaruni guides us along their journeys with beautiful writing, surprising laughter and a truly memorable ending.
The title, if you’re wondering, comes from yet another of Tara’s adventures with the elderly — this time with Dr. Venkatachalapathi, an uptight economist from India who’s visiting a Houston university. He wants a driver to take him to a Meenaskshi temple in Pearland, and Tara gets the gig. I won’t spoil what happens, but Divakaruni upends expectations yet again — in the most human of terms, revealing not only her characters’ deep flaws but also possible sources of redemption through communication.
I can’t recommend this book enough. When it comes to fiction, Divakaruni is a new goddess on the Texas landscape.
BEFORE WE VISIT THE GODDESS
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Simon & Schuster, $25