ABCD Posts

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni “Before We Visit the Goddess”

ChitraOne day, in the kitchen at the back of the store, I held in my  hand a new recipe I had perfected, the sweet I would go on to name after my dead mother. I took a bite of the conch-shaped dessert, the palest, most elegant mango color. The smooth, creamy flavor of fruit and milk, sugar and saffron mingled and melted on my tongue. Satisfaction overwhelmed me. This was something I had achieved myself, without having to depend on anyone. No one could take it away. … That’s what it really means to be a fortunate lamp. 

Before We Visit the Goddess is Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s latest novel and sixteenth publication. Simply put it is in the fashionable mould of contemporary fiction to have a five-generation saga. It predominantly details the lives of the second, third and fourth generation of women — Bela, Sabitri and Tara. But there is always much much more tucked into the stories about the grandmother, mother and daughter. A strong characteristic of Divakurni’s novels are the exploration of relationships between women, the inter-generational gap, the challenges and victories every woman experiences and the cultural differences of living in India and USA.

To her credit Divakurni creates charmingly and deceptively “simple” women-centric novels. A utopian scenario is never presented which focuses only upon women at the exclusion of any engagement with men and society. Instead she details the daily negotiations and choices women face that slowly develop their strong personalities. For instance, it could be timid homemaker Bela’s insistence of taking her late husband’s firm to court to seek compensation for his death in a factory fire and to everyone’s surprise winning. With the earnings she established a sweet shop in her mother’s name — Durga Sweets. Or Sabitri’s warm friendship with her gay neighbour, Kevin, who by just being a good person helps her to establish herself as a food blogger successfully. Even bright Tara who disappears from her family’s life after her parents divorce except for a stray phone call or two has quite an adventurous decade. It includes working at a secondhand store called Nearly New Necessities, becoming a drug addict, being sacked from jobs for being a kleptomaniac, babysitting an Indian grandmother transplanted to America who feels as if she is “being buried alive” or driving an Indian academic to a temple in Pearland to equally catastrophic and cathartic consequences. Yet what is admirable about these women is despite the humiliations and hardships they have borne, they strive on.

In Before We Visit the Goddess the author takes the different phases of life in her stride without blunting or sentimentalising any of the experiences. For instance the hurt and pain of the young Bela is searing. So is the loneliness, whimsical and wretched behaviour of Leelamoyi, her wealthy benefactress. As with many successful writers they evolve with each book written. In Divakurni’s case her trademark fiction of the world of Bengali women remains steadfast but in this sixteenth book the inter-generational differences are created magnificently. Her book is also timely for it being published when a debate rages in USA whether to replace the word “India” with “South Asia” in school history textbooks. According to New York Times, “The dispute centers on whether the region that includes modern-day India, Pakistan and Nepal should be referred to as India or as South Asia, to represent the plurality of cultures there — particularly because India was not a nation-state until 1947. It also touches on how the culture of the region is portrayed, including women’s role in society and the vestiges of the caste system. It might seem somewhat arcane. But it has prompted petition drives, as well as a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign and a battle of opinion pieces.” ( 4 May 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/06/us/debate-erupts-over-californias-india-history-curriculum.html?_r=0 ) Whereas Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s books elegantly examine identity — what it means to be an Indian, an American or a desi. In Before We Visit the Goddess young Tara epitomizes the new generation of American-Indians– not ABCD any more but with a distinct identity of their own. As a diplomat told me recently she may be of Indian origin but has no roots or family in the country and has not had for generations. So a posting in this country is as much of an exciting new adventure as it is for anyone else visiting India for the first time.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s stories are ageing gracefully with her. Read Before We Visit the Goddess. 

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni Before We Visit the Goddess Simon & Schuster, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 210. Rs 499 / £ 16.99

8 May 2016

 

Abeer Y. Hoque “The Lovers and the Leavers”

Abeer HoqueBut it hadn’t been the smell of Indian food that had offended Sailan. It was Appa. Gabriel had never considered their father’s post-work rituals consciously until that day. Upon returning home, Appa would go upstairs and remove his suit, uniformly grey or navy, leave on a thin white singlet that stretched over his ballooning waist, and tie on a well-worn lungi. Downstairs, he would gather the newspapers from the hall table where his mother had discarded them, and get an apple from the kitchen. Then he’d squat in the corner of the living room, eat the apple, and read the papers. What was wrong with wearing pants? Sailan had asked. Or maybe squatting in the study instead of the living room? 

‘The study is crowded,’ Appa said mildly, choosing to reply to the second query, combing through the few remaining hairs on top of his head. 

‘Because you use it for storage,’ Sailan said. 

Appa shrugged. ‘There’s enough space in the living room for all of us.’

‘The space is not the point. We can’t use the living room for entertaining. I’d just like to bring my friends over without feeling as if we’re entering a television programme about displaced immigrants.’

It was true that their living room didn’t look like any Catalan living room Gabriel had been in. The paisley print curtains didn’t match the plastic-covered furniture, and there were piles of papers in all the corners. Appa never cared for how things appeared, but his contempt for Sailan’s tone overcame his disregard. 

‘We are displaced immigrants,’ he said, in an uncharacteristically sharp way. 

( p.125-7)

Abeer Y. Hoque’s first book, The Lovers and the Leavers, is a collection of twelve interlinked short stories with photographs and poetry interspersed. The stories revolve around a bunch of characters, spanning a few years, though it is never let on in numbers. You can only gauge time by the different points of life the characters are at. Some were toddlers but when the book comes to an end, they are married. These are stories told from different gendered and social perspectives. These stories are about different kinds of love and inevitably the pain of being rejected that are at the crux of the stories. But it is the manner in which these are told that is so refreshing.

About a decade ago, fiction written by the subcontinent diaspora, especially of those settled in America was popularly referred to as ABCD or “American Born Confused Desi”.  A story had to be told by the immigrants. There are many writers who have established their name doing it but there is a new generation of writers emerging. Writers who are poised, at ease with their dual identity — of being Americans and of belonging to the land they originated from, it shows in their confident style of writing and the wonderful ability to blend the various cultures they are privy to. Abeer Y. Hoque belongs to this category. Gently, forcefully and with grace she is able to flit between cultures evident in the use of language — “sophomoric sexuality”, “old-fashioned bideshi manners”,  and “coloured monkeyboy”. To be able to talk about different cultural experiences without being patronising and yet, with searing insight she communicates the feeling of alienation apparent at times. For instance the reference to “their ‘gora’ meals as they called them, more for the pale shade of the food than the race of people. Bags of potato chips, popcorn, rolls of cookie dough on special occasions.” (p.206)

The Lovers and the Leavers is a fine example of stylish storytelling. It is by a writer who seems to be at peace with being identified as a Bangladeshi American writer, born in Nigeria, and with no qualms about discussing life as she has experienced it — a mixed bag of cultural influences. I love it.

Abeer Y. Hoque The Lovers and the Leavers Fourth Estate, HarperCollins Publishers, 2015. Hb, pp. 240. Rs. 499

14 August 2015