Friday, January 07, 2011

Review: Desirable Daughters

The first post of 2011 is a part of the 2011 South Asian Challenge that I am participating in. This is the review of the book Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee. I've read more than my fair share of Indian authors, so I'm very familiar with the 'diaspora' genre. And I do think that this is one of the better books of that genre. The book is written with a lot of erudition!

This story begins in the house of one of Calcutta's bhadra lok, the brahmins with their books, strict rules, lakshman-rekhas, and inbred insularity. It begins with three sisters, all of whom eventually go their different paths, two to the US and one to Mumbai. The story focuses mostly on the third and youngest sister, Tara, and is also narrated by her. Life happens to them all- parents, sisters, husbands and kids, both in the US and India. Tara, the narrator-protagonist gets married at nineteen and comes to the US, has no clue about anything, and divorces her start-up billionaire pati because he's too busy making money. She's then moving in and out of relationships (both with random men and her sisters).

Throw into this potpourri the worst thing that can happen to an Indian mother - Tara's teenage son announcing that he's gay. If that isn't enough masala for you yet, a Muslim terrorist is thrown into the mix, targeting the most successful South Asian of all time- the ex-husband! The book ends with a bomb effecting a reconciliation of the couple.

So what do I tell you? Yes, it is a very well-written book. The use of language is effective, captivating, powerful. She uses her words very well. The book is so engrossing that I read it for seven hours straight (with bathroom breaks). I really liked the way she brought the old Calcutta to life. She also captures the Silicon Valley Indian immigrant ethos and life very well- with the engineers and their wives and their over-performing "heading to Stanford" kids and houses in the suburbs. San Francisco comes to life in her words, and I could imagine the narrator and her son riding the MUNI back from school.

The power and impact of this book lies in the details. Her sketches of the characters, the places, the thoughts are impactful. How a single woman will live in the City (San Francisco) as the suburbs are too claustrophobic to live alone in. Why all the Indian immigrants kids' have straight A's. Yes, she is good at emphasising and bringing out the stereotypes that we Indians will empathise and identify with.

What I did not like was the overarching story. The details were great, and make the book well worth the read, but I did not like the masala thrown in for masala's sake. The divorce seemed completely unnecessary, with no real reason or justification behind it. It is just there because otherwise there would be no story! I find it hard to imagine that given what Bharati Mukherjee tells us about the strict upbringing and conditioning of the protagonist and her sisters- and given that I am Indian enough to know the stigma and horror associated with it- Tara would divorce her husband because she wasn't fulfilled enough. That is an American reason to separate (and Bharati Mukherjee says so herself in the book), not an Indian one.

Secondly, I did not like the unnecessary fact of the son being gay. We have enough episodes of the boy screaming at his mother, adolescent angst, teenage drama thrown in. The 'gay' thing was not needed and does not contribute to either the story, character development or anything. It seemed to be there only to emphasize its non-Indianness (you get what I mean?). As in, the end of the world for an Indian mother/parent.

And I still don't get the Muslim terrorist. Another item of mayhem in Tara's life. Its like Bharati Mukherjee wrote down a list of "everything that can go wrong for the Indian woman" = divorce, gay kid, dysfunctional family (I haven't gone into the details of her relationship with her sisters here), aging parents, and ummm.... lets put in an international terrorist gang targeting her rich ex-pati as well. Put them together and there's a book.

Don't get me wrong, I quite liked the book. As I say above, the joy and impact is in the details. So while the overall story is a bit contrived, it is a good read. Do try it if you have the time, and let me know what you think!

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Swapna said...

Really, really, really interesting review. I hadn't heard of this book (though I am familiar with the author). Even though you had some problems with the novel, it makes me even more interested to read it, just because I'm curious if I would feel the same way. I'm definitely going to add this one to my list of books to read!

Rachna said...

@Swapna- Thanks a lot! You got me started on this :)
Do read the book and tell me what you thing! BTW, absolutely love your blog!