"The chapters may seem disjointed, even reading like short stories in an anthology, and yet, at the end, they are brilliantly connected, like silken threads woven in an elaborate stole," Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan writes.
As India and the diaspora across the globe burst into Navratri celebrations a few days ago, excitedly hopping between golus and pandals, each decorated with dainty forms of Devi in Her myriad avatars, I found myself thinking of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Before We Visit the Goddess. A tale spanning across three generations, this is a carefully crafted book, telling us the stories of Sabitri, Bela, and Tara, while exploring the numerous sacrifices, trials, betrayals and crumbling relationships that have come to define their lives.
The book begins with Sabitri spending the twilight years of her life in rural Bengal. On a lonely winter’s night, she receives a letter from her estranged daughter Bela who pleads with her to convince her granddaughter to not drop out of college. Ironically, Sabitri has fought all her life to study, while Bela’s daughter, the rebellious Tara has a lackadaisical attitude to college, and indeed to life itself. Sabitri pens a letter to Tara, tearing it to shreds, each time she feels her words to be stale and mundane. By morning, her task complete, Sabitri is found dead.
“She lifts her eyes, and there is Death in the corner, but not like a king with his iron crown, as the epics claimed. Why, it is a giant brush loaded with white paint. It descends upon her with gentle suddenness, obliterating the shape of the world.”
The book then shifts across time and space, moving between Sabitri, Bela and Tara’s lives, at times told by characters that are unrelated to them. The chapters may seem disjointed, even reading like short stories in an anthology, and yet, at the end, they are brilliantly connected, like silken threads woven in an elaborate stole.
We are told that Sabitri, the daughter of an impoverished village priest, is given a scholarship by a wealthy family, and she moves to Calcutta, where she cowers under the hawk-eyed watch of Leelamoyi, the family matriarch. Rather predictably, there is a short-lived romance with Rajiv, Leelamoyi’s son which leads to Sabitri losing her home. Gathering the shards of her dignity, she accepts a marriage proposal from her mathematics professor, and they manage to build a happy life together. A chance encounter with Rajiv years later which is witnessed by a three year old Bela proves to be a turning point in their lives, ushering in a storm that will mark the tempestuous relationship between mother and daughter for the rest of their lives.
After the death of her husband, Sabitri establishes a sweets shop named after her mother and raises Bela single handedly, who comes across as rather hard hearted and ungrateful in her teenage years. Betraying her mother’s sacrifices, Bela runs away to America, desperate not to lose the love of her life, a much-disliked student leader. Bela faces her own share of troubles and disappointments in this new world, and in a way, Tara’s coldness towards her mother is a reminder of karmic debt - what goes around comes around.
Bela’s story is explored through Kenneth, a gay man she befriends in her post-divorce loneliness. It was heartwarming to read about this friendship forged over food and drink; two lonely individuals just looking for someone to talk to. Tara’s story is explored through an Indian professor, Dr. V, who takes her to a temple dedicated to Meenakshi, the Goddess dear to the city of Madurai. Each story is deeply poignant, and while Bela and Tara are flawed, not particularly likeable characters, they are incredibly human.
In her final missive to Tara, Sabitri writes about a moment in time that she remembers with quiet pride and satisfaction - a feeling of euphoria when she finally concocted a perfect conch shaped dessert, a creamy mixture of sugar, saffron, milk and fruit that exalted the taste buds. Sabitri wishes that kind of satisfaction for Tara, a happiness that she can achieve for herself, without having to depend on anybody else.
As I read this, I remembered my own grandmother and mother. My ammaama, as I call her, is now frail and her memory often fails her; as I feed my ammaama a breakfast of puri and aloo sabzi, Sabitri springs to my mind, and she asks me to think of all the sacrifices my ammaama would have made in her lifetime so that her daughters could go to school and college, create careers for themselves, and be successful in their professional and personal lives. I think of my own mother, waking at four in the morning, the call to fajr prayers her alarm clock, slowly making her way to the kitchen to cook and clean before she leaves for work. As the sruti box in the shrine room slowly stirs awake, she lights a lamp and offers a prayer before she hops on to the daily tasks, all for her family’s sake. That is the success of Divakaruni’s book - it celebrates the unshakable resolve of strong women and makes one grateful for their presence in life.