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Roots in India, Lives in America

VINE OF DESIRE: A Novel, By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Doubleday: 320 pp., $23.95

January 13, 2002|JANE CIABATTARI

In four books of poetry, two collections of stories and her novels, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has explored the experience of contemporary Indian women, mostly immigrants to America adjusting to life in the New World. Like the characters in the Mahabharata, the ancient Sanskrit epic poem that is one of the pillars of Hindu culture, her characters have clear-cut human failings and virtues--and they pay in the end for actions they take.

In "The Vine of Desire," a sequel to the magical "Sister of My Heart," she continues the story of Sudha and Anju, cousins born in Calcutta hours apart on the day their mothers learn that the babies' fathers have died. The two, raised together by their mothers and a widowed aunt, are inseparable until they are 18 and each enters an arranged marriage.

"Sister of My Heart" was set in India, where the two girls, who are so close they can finish each other's thoughts, learn from their elders that each person is allotted a certain amount of good fortune at birth--and that people with too much beauty may suffer in other parts of their lives.

Sudha, who is beautiful, the better cook and embroiderer, and Anju, who is intellectually curious and adventuresome, follow the path toward what traditional Indian society defines as happiness--marriage and motherhood.

But "The Vine of Desire" shows the way is bumpy. The seed of discord is planted in their double wedding ceremony--Sudha marrying a man from a socially desirable family and Anju marrying a computer executive, Sunil, who has an eye for Sudha.

Anju moves to the United States and Sudha stays behind. When Sudha becomes pregnant, her mother-in-law insists she have an abortion after a sonogram shows the child is not a son.

Unwilling to sacrifice her daughter, Sudha risks scandal, leaves her husband and returns to her childhood home in Calcutta. Meanwhile, Anju becomes pregnant too but suffers a miscarriage.

Disregarding her husband's misgivings, Anju invites Sudha and her baby daughter, Dayita, to live with them in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sudha settles into a housewifely routine, caring for Dayita, cleaning and cooking, filling the apartment with the spicy fragrance of garam masala.

Anju regains her strength and returns to college. Sunil commutes to his job, where he uses the strange new language of Silicon Valley--"customer interface," "product development," "new virus alert."

Together, Anju and Sudha experience the jarring encounter with American life. Anju joins a women's writing group, realizing that "large chunks of herself will always be unintelligible to them: the joint-family she grew up in, her arranged marriage, the way she fell in love with her husband, the tension in her household, that menage a trois, Indian style."

Sudha, clad in the traditional sari, takes her daughter to the playground and finds herself envying a new acquaintance, Sara, an Indian woman in cutoffs and T-shirt who hitchhikes up and down the coast and makes her own living. Meanwhile, Sunil feels left out--and again tempted by Sudha's beauty.

"One time, just before Anju and I got married," Sudha muses, "I was so sad to think that we'd be separated, that I wished we could love the same man, like women did in the Mahabharata, that we could all live together...."

When Sunil acts upon his feelings, betrayal divides the two "sisters." Sudha takes her daughter and leaves to find her first job, nursing an elderly Indian man who has had a stroke.

Anju and Sunil separate, and he takes a job in Houston. Anju nurtures her talent for writing; her writers' group has told her she owes it to herself.

For Sudha, the American emphasis on "living for yourself"--instead of for parents, ancestors, in-laws, children, teachers, society, God--leaves a terrible emptiness. "Yet I know I can't go back to the old way, living for others," she says. Independently, she and Anju search for a compromise between the old ties and the new freedoms.

Divakaruni is gifted with dramatic inventiveness, lyrical sensual language, the ability to interweave many points of view with ease. (In her world, all of the characters and some inanimate beings--including the shifting fog that rises from the Pacific before dawn--come alive.) But she tends toward excess. A rigorous editor could have pruned some of the overwrought language in this novel and saved her, for instance, from the head-spinning metaphorical mix in a single paragraph in the book's prologue, when Anju is suffering the miscarriage. "He clung to the wet-silk walls of her womb. They rippled like the muscles of an angry snake.... He curled himself inward, tight as a peach pit...."

Divakaruni has tendencies like Anju's, whose writing professor notes on one of her assignments: "You tend to mix your metaphors unnecessarily and sometimes use too many...."

The sections of the book connected with India seem better integrated than those drawn from the New World, with its drive-by shootings and 24-hour news channels, which are more fragmented, less suited to mythic narrative. And Divakaruni, who spent her first 19 years in India, doesn't always get the proportions right. (At one point Anju wonders if the help she is giving her cousin by bringing her to America is a "Schindlerism," one of the hallmark deeds portrayed in the film "Schindler's List." The reference is so overblown as to make her seem inflated, which is not in character.)

But "The Vine of Desire" offers many delights, and Divakaruni has left enough loose ends to suggest another installment in her potent and complex tale of female friendship.

*

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the forthcoming short story collection, "Stealing the Fire," and is a contributing editor to Parade magazine.

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