“In her writing, the author explores various issues that are a reflection of the late seventies or eighties India,” writes Nikhat Mahmood.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Sister of my Heart is thematically a multi-layered novel published in 1999 by Black Swan. Although seemingly only a story of two cousins Sudha and Anju, it branches other themes of social importance. As the story unfolds, Divakaruni explores various issues that are a reflection of the late seventies or eighties India, some of those issues still relevant in the sub-continent. This is the beauty of her writing.
The book explores the relationship between the older generation represented by the mothers, absorbed in a world full of mystical tales and supernatural occurrences vis-a-vis the new generation of Sudha and Anju attracted to the western ideals. Through her characters, she questions the Indian culture and traditions and betrays skepticism for a part of it. Although primarily, she has a fondness for its customs, folklore, heritage and its oral history, her rightful objection is only when it stands in confrontation to women’s right to life and freedom. The book rummages through emotions like love, friendship, jealousy and sacrifice, and how friends keep their relation strong despite all differences.
Anju has lent the immigrant experience of the author, an oft recurring theme in her writings. There is a candid hostility towards patriarchy depicted by a change that proves to be a stumbling block, rather than an advantage in the girls’ life after the entrance of men through marriage, Sudha is the one more affected. Men in this novel are a source of problems and obstacles in the path of the women’s life. Anju’s husband though outgoing, well read, and modern, falls in love with Sudha. Sudha has to seek a divorce for her unborn daughter to take birth and live.
Divakaruni writes in simple and direct language devoid of needless philosophy and restricts the tilt of her prose from turning purple just in proper time. This lucidity and the themes in entirety attached to female fiction made it an immense popular novel among women in the first decade of 2000. Let me remind that this period was also a period of obstinate classification of gender based readership in the upper middle class Indian subcontinent. Divakaruni has skillfully weaved symbolism and imagery in her story, it appealed all my senses and this book would remain a lovable light read for me.
Divakaruni has authored other acclaimed novels, including The Mistress of Spices and Arranged Marriage. She has published four other volumes of poetry, including the Award-winning Leaving Yuba City, which includes a story awarded a Pushcart Prize, and a story which won an Allen Ginsberg Prize. Arranged Marriage, a book of short stories was awarded the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize for Fiction, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Fiction, and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. The Mistress of Spices was shortlisted for the Orange Prize (England) and chosen by the Los Angeles Times as one of the best books of 1997.
Despite everything that I fondly remember in Sister of my Heart, I think the book would have been much better without the allegory of unfulfilled desire and sacrificial love. And above all, if Divakaruni loves the Indian culture and feels a deep connection with it, her character Sudha didn’t need America for raising her daughter all by herself. Countless women have done this in India, the sub continental reel, real, or fictional women do not have to be on the mercy of the west to liberate them. It would be preferable that readers be kept away from such notions. Apart from these drawbacks, the book is compelling and a highly recommended read.
Nikhat Mahmood is an English Lecturer, an emerging poetess, an autism activist and a short story writer in English. She lives in Karachi with her two children and husband.