Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni 1995Introduction
"Meeting Mrinal" by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is the last story in the collection Arranged Marriage, which was published in 1995. Most of the stories in the collection examine the experiences and perspectives of Indian women who have immigrated to the United States, often through a traditional arranged marriage. The stories show women who find themselves caught between two cultures, the restricted but comforting Indian culture of their birth and the freer but ruthless Western culture. The protagonist of "Meeting Mrinal" is Asha, an Indian-born woman who immigrates to the United States to join her Indian husband (acquired through an arranged marriage). In her new home, she leads the life expected of a traditional Indian wife until an event occurs that forces her to move beyond her accustomed role: Her husband leaves her for a younger white woman. The story opens at this point, recounting Asha's attempts to come to terms with her feelings of failure and her need to carve out an independent life in an alien culture. This process reaches a crisis during a meeting with Mrinal, a childhood friend from India who is now a successful businesswoman. Divakaruni explores the immigrant search for identity and coherence in the adopted culture, in which the traditional assumptions do not work and the new ways require unexpected and sometimes painful growth.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was born on July 29, 1956, in Calcutta, India, the daughter of R. K. and Tatini Banerjee. One of her earliest memories is that of her grandfather telling her stories from the ancient Indian scriptures, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. She noticed that unlike the male heroes, the main relationships the women had were with men; they never had any important women friends. This realization was to greatly influence Divakaruni's writing, which focuses on women's relationships.
Divakaruni was brought up and continued to be in adulthood a devout Hindu. As a child, however, she attended a convent school run by Irish nuns. She gained a bachelor's degree from Calcutta University in 1976 and, in the same year, immigrated to the United States. In 1978, she received a master's degree from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and in 1985, she received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. She began to write fiction after graduating from Berkeley.
Divakaruni has drawn on her own experiences as an immigrant and those of other immigrant Indian women in her poetry, short stories, and novels. Her poetry collection, Black Candle (1991), recounts stories of women from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Arranged Marriage (1995), a collection of short stories which marked her first foray into prose and which includes "Meeting Mrinal," portrays immigrant Indian women who are caught between two cultures: the Indian culture of their birth and the Western culture of their adopted country, the United States. Her novel The Mistress of Spices (1997), a blend of poetry and prose, draws on Indian mystical and cultural traditions to portray a woman who has acquired immortality through a rite of fire and the knowledge of how to use spices for healing. Eventually, she is forced to choose between her own culture and that of the non-Indian man she comes to love.
In 1999, Divakaruni published a novel, Sister of My Heart. The book explores the conflicts between Indian people who embrace their traditional culture and those who embrace new Western ideas. Divakaruni published another collection of poetry, Leaving Yuba City, in 1997. These poems also deal with immigrant women and their struggles to find an identity in their new country.
When asked why she writes, according to the quote posted on the Random House website, Divakaruni replied, "There is a certain spirituality, not necessarily religious—the essence of spirituality—that is at the heart of the Indian psyche, that finds the divine in everything…. It was important for me to start writing about my own reality and that of my community."
While arranged marriages have formed a major theme in her work, Divakaruni herself opted for love; on June 29, 1979, she was married to S. Murthy Divakaruni. As of 2006, the couple had two sons, Abhay and Anand. As of 2006, she lived in Sunnyvale, California, and was a professor of creative writing at Foothill College, Los Altos, a position to which she was appointed in 1989. Divakaruni is active within the Asian American community. In 1991, she established Maitri, a hotline for South Asian women who suffer domestic abuse.
Divakaruni has received many awards for her work. In 1996, for Arranged Marriage, she received 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 named a best book of 1997 by the Los Angeles Times and a best paperback of 1998 by the Seattle Times. For poems that were later collected in Leaving Yuba City, she won a Pushcart Prize (1994), an Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize (1994), and a Gerbode Foundation Award (1992).
When "Meeting Mrinal" opens, Asha, the Indianborn protagonist, who now lives in California, is somewhat guiltily preparing a ready-made pizza for her teenage son, Dinesh. Asha's husband, Mahesh, with whom she had an arranged marriage in India, has left her for a younger white woman. Though Asha used to spend hours preparing complex Indian meals from fresh ingredients for the family, she has almost given up cooking since Mahesh left. She now spends her time studying library science in order to get a full-time job and getting fit in an exercise class. Since Mahesh left, Asha and Dinesh no longer talk much. He shuts himself in his room, listening to or playing music.
One day, Asha gets a telephone call from Mrinal, a childhood friend from India whom she has not seen for nearly twenty years. Mrinal is now a successful businesswoman living in Bombay. She is coming to San Francisco for a conference and wants to meet Asha and her family. Asha has always had a competitive relationship with the glamorous, career-driven, and unmarried Mrinal and inwardly feels inferior to her. Asha's delight at hearing from her friend soon gives way to fear and shame at the thought of admitting that her husband has left her. Asha feels particularly defensive as Mrinal had counseled her against agreeing to an early arranged marriage, advising her to finish college and get a job. Asha talks to Mrinal as if her marriage is still intact but makes up excuses to get out of meeting her, saying that Mahesh is out of town, that she is busy, and that Dinesh has pressing engagements. Finally, she realizes that she cannot disappoint her friend and sets up a meeting.
Dinesh is angry with his mother for lying to Mrinal. He asks why she could not tell the truth: Mahesh got tired of her and left her for another woman. Asha slaps Dinesh, claiming to object to his swearing, but in reality, she is inwardly furious at his voicing an uncomfortable truth. For the next few days, Dinesh avoids Asha. She tries to win him over by cooking his favorite Indian dish and apologizing, but he says he has already eaten and coldly dismisses her attempts at reconciliation.
Asha rummages for an outfit for her meeting with Mrinal, worrying that all her clothes are too garish or too drab. She recalls the day when Mahesh told her that their marriage was over. Asha could scarcely believe what she was hearing, as she thought back to their apparently happy family life. When Asha asked him whether he had ever been happy with her, Mahesh said that he thought he had, but he did not know what real happiness was. Asha fought against the divorce, even buying a sexy negligee to try to win Mahesh back, but he moved out the same night.
Asha is nervous about meeting Mrinal. She reflects that Mrinal has the perfect life: She assumes simplistically that Mrinal has "money, freedom, admiration," and "she doesn't have to worry about pleasing anyone." Asha's envy is mixed with a feeling of comfort at the thought of Mrinal's success, despite the fact that it makes her own life seem cluttered and ordinary.
When Asha enters the restaurant, she sees Mrinal sitting at one of the tables, looking glamorous. Asha looks in vain for a sign that Mrinal is secretly unhappy. As the two women embrace, Asha notices a ring on Mrinal's finger and asks if is an engagement ring, but Mrinal says she bought it for herself. Asha is impressed by this independent act. Mrinal begs Asha to tell her about Mahesh and Dinesh. Asha does so, without revealing that her marriage is over. Mrinal sadly says that Asha is lucky to have such a wonderful husband and son. She reveals that she herself is unhappy and begins to cry. She admits that she had planned to pretend that everything was fine with her life, but when she saw the love for her family shining in Asha's face, she could not keep it up. The two women part without Asha's revealing her own secret.
Asha drives home. She closes the garage door behind her but does not switch off the engine. As the garage fills with fumes, she weeps for Mrinal's and her own loneliness and also for their profound disillusionment. The idea of Mrinal's perfect life had made her own sorrows easier to bear, but now as that perfection has been shown to be a mirage, she feels as though she has nothing to sustain her.
Suddenly realizing that suicide is not the answer, Asha turns off the engine and stumbles out of the garage. Dinesh appears. Full of concern for his mother, he helps her to the bathroom, where she vomits. She reflects that though she has always tried to be the perfect wife and mother, she has lost her husband, lied to her friend, and vomited over the sink in her son's presence. Then, an image takes shape in her mind: a beautiful clay bowl from her art appreciation class. There is a tiny flaw on the lip. Her teacher had said that this was a deliberate flaw that the master potter left in all his works in the belief that it made them more human and more precious.
- Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's first novel, The Mistress of Spices, was made into a film, released in 2005. The film was directed by Paul Mayeda Berges and stars Aishwarya Rai as Tilo. As of February 2006, the distributor was Entertainment Film Distributors.
When Dinesh asks his mother how the meeting with Mrinal went, Asha admits that she "made a mess of things." She offers to tell him about it over some hot milk with pistachios. Smiling, he agrees. As she prepares the milk, she plans the letter she will write to Mrinal to tell her the truth. She knows that she and Dinesh will not always agree, but they solemnly raise their glasses to their "precious, imperfect lives."
Asha is an Indian-born woman and the protagonist of "Meeting Mrinal." Brought up in India, Asha leaves college early and agrees to an arranged marriage to Mahesh, an Indian man who has immigrated to the United States. Asha moves to California to join her husband, and they enjoy a seemingly happy married life. Asha throws herself into traditional wifely activities such as cooking elaborate meals for the family. When the novel opens, Mahesh has just left Asha and their teenage son, Dinesh, for a younger white woman, Jessica. Asha is forced to move beyond her accustomed role as a wife and mother and forge an independent life in an alien culture that offers more freedom but also poses more challenges than her culture of origin in India. She is afflicted by a sense that she has failed in her traditional role as a wife and that she is too gauche and unsophisticated to fit into the harsh, fast-moving Western culture that beckons.
A turning point for Asha comes when she meets a childhood friend, Mrinal, with whom she has always had a competitive relationship and to whom she feels inferior. Mrinal has succeeded in those areas that Asha finds threatening, having built a successful career and an independent life. Asha finds herself lying to Mrinal, pretending that her marriage is fine. When Mrinal admits that she is unhappy at her lack of a loving family life, Asha falls into despair. She attempts suicide but, when she reaches her lowest point, is finally able to let her mask of motherly control drop and accept help from her son. For the first time, Asha's relationship with Dinesh is one of truth and honesty, and she prepares to tell Mrinal the truth about her marriage. Asha's journey has taken her from desperately working to maintain the pretence of a happy marriage to an acceptance that while no one's life is perfect, every life is infinitely precious.
Dinesh is the teenage son of Asha and Mahesh. As is typical of the American-born children of immigrants, he has become much more assimilated into Western culture than his parents. He favors T-shirts emblazoned with gruesome slogans, wears an earring, and has his hair cut into a brush-like style. He talks to his mother very little since his father left and treats her with the withdrawn politeness of a stranger. However, the anger he feels at the breakup is suggested by his habit of locking himself in his room and playing hard rock music at full volume and by the fact that he can only refer to his father as "him."
Dinesh's anger surfaces when he overhears Asha lying to Mrinal on the telephone about the state of her marriage. He does not understand why his mother cannot tell the truth. She tries to win him round by cooking his favorite meal and calling him by his baby name, Dinoo. The tactic fails because Dinesh is no longer a child and is thoroughly impatient with all kinds of lies, including those that are told to children to make them feel safe in an uncertain world. The fact that he moved into the master bedroom when his father left is symbolic of his claiming new status as an adult.
The crisis between Dinesh and his mother is resolved when she attempts suicide. Dinesh moves into the adult role of protector, becoming, as Asha notes, "motherly," and helps her to the bathroom, where she vomits. Dinesh has seen his mother drop her pretences and descend to the role of a helpless child, and he has heard her honestly admit that she made a mess of her meeting with Mrinal. Now that he is being treated as an equal and trusted with the truth, he is at last able to show his love for his mother. He smilingly accepts her offer of pistachio milk, and together, they drink to their "precious, imperfect lives."
Jessica is Mahesh's red-haired secretary, a white woman who is younger than Asha. Mahesh falls in love with Jessica and leaves Asha for her. She does not appear in the story.
Mahesh is Asha's ex-husband. At the time the story opens, he has already left Asha for a younger white woman, Jessica, so he is only presented through the memories of Asha. After his arranged marriage to Asha, Mahesh quickly settled into the role of dutiful husband, gazing adoringly at the baby Dinesh and choosing Asha's outfits when they would go out. Mahesh had thought he was happy in his marriage until he fell in love with Jessica; it was then that he realized he did not know what happiness was.
Mrinal is Asha's close friend from childhood. She provides a contrast to Asha. While Mrinal has stayed in India, she has turned her back on Indian conventions and chosen a more Western way of life. She has remained unmarried, forging a highly successful career. Mrinal is intelligent, glamorous, and wealthy. When she meets Asha, she is as determined as her friend to pretend that her life is perfect, but when she sees Asha's love for her family shining in her eyes, she can no longer maintain the pretence and admits that she is lonely and unhappy. Mrinal is proof that however impressive a person's life looks on the outside, much grief and anxiety can lurk beneath the glossy surface.
Women Caught between Two Cultures
"Meeting Mrinal" shows the predicament of Asha, a woman who grew up in India, had an arranged marriage according to Indian tradition, and then had to adapt to a new lifestyle and culture as a divorced woman. The first change, taking place before the story opens, comes when she immigrates to the United States, a harsher culture full of "failing grades, drugs, street gangs, AIDS." However, the cultural shock is cushioned by the fact that she is able to sustain the traditional Indian role of wife and mother, albeit with a part-time job. This cushion is suddenly taken away from her when her husband informs her that their marriage is over. In the Indian tradition, the family is a woman's support system. If the family is no longer intact, she loses that support and must make decisions on her own—a situation that is much more the norm in Western society.
The divorced Asha faces both external and internal challenges. Externally, she considers moving out of the marital home and trains for a full-time job; she joins a fitness class and gives up cooking elaborate Indian meals for herself and her teenage son, relying instead on takeouts. Internally, she must come to terms with the failure of her marriage, a role to which she had committed her entire being for years, and become an independent woman in her adopted country. The prospect daunts her because she feels poorly equipped for her new role. Comparing herself with Mrinal as the epitome of what she must become, she finds herself lacking. She feels dowdy, incompetent, and ill-at-ease with the hustle and sophisticated gloss of life in the West.
Mrinal has made the opposite life choices to Asha. Mrinal remained in India, yet she rejected the traditional Indian wifely role and acquired the trappings of the successful westernized woman. She has a powerful and lucrative job, beautiful clothes, and a lovely home. However, her achievements have come with a price: she is lonely and childless.
In the flawed lives of Asha and Mrinal, Divakaruni shows that both the traditional Indian female role and the modern Western female role entail their own sacrifices, problems, and uncertainties; neither choice is better or more complete than the other. She also dramatizes a basic irony: the Indian woman who remains in India actually develops a more Western-style life for herself; the Indian woman who comes to the United States attempts to sustain a traditional Indian lifestyle and only departs from it when her marriage fails and she is forced to be on her own.
On her website, Divakaruni writes, "Women in particular respond to my work because I'm writing about them, women in love, in difficulties, women in relationships. I want people to relate to my characters, to feel their joy and pain, because it will be harder to [be] prejudiced when they meet them in real life." "Meeting Mrinal" shows the richness, conflicts, and complexities that mark Asha's relationships with her female friend, with her husband and child, and with Western society in general. Asha's relationship with Mrinal is particularly loaded with significance. Though Asha loves her friend, her perception of Mrinal as someone who has succeeded in all the ways in which she herself has failed adds a level of competitiveness, defensiveness, and dishonesty to their relationship. Each woman wants to be admired by the other. At their meeting, Asha cannot admit that her marriage has failed, and Mrinal tries to resist admitting that she is unhappy with her single, childless state, only giving in when her emotions break through her resolve to maintain the veneer of perfection. The pursuit of acceptable appearance which fails in both cases illustrates how people are aware of being judged by others by certain exterior characteristics and how the fear of judgment prevents them from being honest about the realities of their lives.
Asha's relationship with Dinesh is also compromised by a lack of truth: mother and son no longer talk. The more Dinesh withdraws, the more Asha attempts to compensate for what she sees as her failure as a mother by engaging in traditional motherly behavior such as preparing his favorite meals. The cycle of deception is broken by Asha's acceptance of Dinesh's support when she reaches her lowest point of half-heartedly trying to commit suicide and by her admission to him that she "made a mess" of her meeting with Mrinal. When she promises to tell him about it, it is clear that she is ready to trust him with the truth and move into a more equal relationship with him. The irony here is that openly admitting to personal limitations enhances relationships, while pretending to be something one is not prevents intimacy.
Familial, Cultural and Social Expectations of Women
Why is Asha determined to project an image of the perfect life? It would be unfair to blame the men in her life for imposing their expectations onto her. Neither man is a demanding tyrant: Dinesh does not worry where his meals come from; Mahesh, in love with his secretary, has become tired of the husbandly role of choosing outfits for his wife and pretending to desire her sexually. Asha tries so hard to be the perfect wife and mother not because of her husband and son want that but because the culture in which she developed conditioned her to do so. As a girl and young woman, Asha was taught that she should cook elaborate meals for Mahesh and Dinesh, put her family before her career, dress to please Mahesh at social engagements, and keep him happy in the bedroom.
Topics For Further Study
- How do the cultures of India and the United States differ in "Meeting Mrinal"? Do some additional research to find more differences between the two cultures. Write a report on your findings based on both the story and your additional research.
- Interview two people who have immigrated to your country and who come from an ethnic or national background different to your own. You may find it easier to tape-record your interviews, though it is a legal requirement that you first obtain the permission of your interviewees. One of these people might be a first-generation immigrant (who has moved to your country from elsewhere) and the other a second-generation immigrant (a person born in your country of parents who immigrated). Recount their experiences, both positive and negative. Compare the experiences of the two people, considering in what ways each person's experience was easier or more difficult.
- Interview a woman or girl of Indian ethnic background about her experiences of her original culture and that of the country where she now lives. Write an essay describing your findings.
- Choose an area of your country which has a history of immigration and one ethnic or national immigrant group that has immigrated to that area. Trace the historical factors that influenced the group to settle there and identify the ways in which the group has influenced the development of the area.
- Interview an immigrant to your country about their experiences of immigration. Investigate reasons why they left their country of origin, the expectations they had of their destination country, what they found when they arrived, and how their lives have evolved since immigrating. Based on your findings, write either a report, or a first-person account, in the form of a play, short story, or diary entry suitable for reading aloud or radio broadcast.
- Choose from one of the following two assignments. Interview a woman of Indian or other Asian origin who has had an arranged marriage, and a woman of the same origin who has had a non-arranged, love marriage. Write a report comparing and contrasting their experiences. You will need to bear in mind the potential sensitivity of the subject and treat your sources with the degree of confidentiality they request. Or research the topic of arranged marriage. Include an examination of any studies on the topic and consider how the custom is changing with the times. Write a report on the advantages and disadvantages of the system of arranged marriage.
Also, Asha makes her own choices. She is no longer in India, and even if she were, many Indian women now choose to ignore gender-linked cultural conventions, as Mrinal does. In reality, Asha is both a product of her culture and a person who reacts to it. She has chosen to focus on pleasing and nourishing her family. Her choice is backed by centuries of cultural conditioning, but it is still her choice. Asha is as free as Mahesh or Mrinal to act independently, but doing so would entail moving out of her comfort zone, as is made clear from her response to the plush restaurant where she meets Mrinal: "As I awkwardly followed the maître d' I knew I didn't belong here, and that every person in the room, without needing to look at me, knew it too." Eventually, she is forced by Mahesh's departure to drop the Indian wifely role and to see more deeply into the vagaries of her own experience. She has to learn the hard way that nothing assures one of happiness, and unforeseen events require one to adapt.
As the example of Mrinal shows, Western culture brings its own set of expectations which are just as onerous, in their own way, as those of traditional India. Many women feel that they are expected to be glamorous, physically fit, financially successful, and polished in social situations. Mrinal has achieved these traits, but at the price of loneliness. Finally, both women admit that they are unable to fulfill all the expectations they have embraced, but these admissions, far from being defeats, have the cautiously optimistic air of new beginnings, and they provide for greater intimacy and sincerity within their relationships.
When Asha and Mrinal were childhood friends, they were both fans of James Bond, the suave, all-powerful, and womanizing fictional spy created by the English novelist Ian Fleming (1908–1964) and popularized in a series of Hollywood films. For Asha and Mrinal, Bond was a symbol of a romanticized image of the West, full of "golden guns and intricate machines and bikini-clad beauties." They vow that if they ever make it to the West, they will celebrate by drinking Bond's favorite drink: vodka martini, shaken not stirred. Indeed, when Mrinal meets Asha in the restaurant, she orders this drink for them both. At the beginning of the meeting, Mrinal seems to Asha to belong to this idealized world of affluence and power. Only when Mrinal bursts into tears and admits that she is not happy does the truth begin to push its way through the fiction. Mrinal has been forced into this revelation by her realization of the lack of love in her life, an element that Asha does have in her relationship with Dinesh. One of James Bond's defining characteristics is his lack of a love life (as opposed to a sex life, which he does have) or a family. Mrinal's story suggests that Bond is a character deserving of pity rather than blind admiration. Moreover, in using Bond as a desirable image, Divakaruni cautions people not to measure their own lives in terms of the slick ideals promoted by any culture.
The story is set in two locations: India, where Asha was brought up and married and which is presented only in her memories and California in the United States, where she now lives. As well as being two separate countries, India and the United States have two different cultures and sets of social expectations. Asha's Indian upbringing teaches her to be a certain kind of wife and mother, whereas the United States challenges her to break away from these traditional roles and forge an independent life. The United States is presented in both negative and positive aspects: the negative, chaotic side is represented by Asha's fear of "failing grades, drugs, street gangs, AIDS" that lie in wait for Dinesh, and the positive side is represented by the greater freedom and power that beckons to the newly divorced Asha.
The plush restaurant where Asha meets Mrinal brings out Asha's insecurity about affluent Western society: she feels that she does not belong there and that every person in the room knows it. She is more comfortable with inexpensive places like Chuck E. Cheese or the Chinese takeout.
Characterization and Point of View
Asha and Mrinal are contrasting characters who represent the different choices facing Indian women (and to varying degrees, women of all nationalities): to follow the traditional route of marriage and children (Asha) or to stay single and pursue professional success (Mrinal). Far from being stereotypes, however, both characters suffer conflicts and doubts amid their strengths and achievements that render them thoroughly human and believable. The fact that the story is told in first person from the point of view of Asha allows Divakaruni to expose Asha's opinions and hidden feelings, while she misreads Mrinal's appearance and what she knows about Mrinal's life. This point of view works to emphasize the story's point: people judge other people's outsides by comparing them to their own inner reality, often at their own expense.
Preparing elaborate meals from fresh ingredients for the family is an important part of Indian culture, one that Asha fully embraced in her married life with Mahesh. For her, cooking has come to symbolize the unity and nourishing quality of family life; it also signifies her investment in relationships with Mahesh and Dinesh. Now that Mahesh has left, Asha cooks differently. She relies on fast food and takeouts, reflecting her new, independent life: "I've decided that too much of my life has already been wasted mincing and simmering and grinding spices."
However, when Asha faces a crisis of confidence, worrying about the negative influence of "failing grades, drugs, street gangs, AIDS" on Dinesh, she takes refuge in cooking once more, as if there were some protection in that very ritual, "As though the translucent rings of onions and the long curls of carrots could forge a chain that would hold him to me, close, safe forever." Similarly, after Asha's argument with Dinesh, which is prompted by his anger at her lying to Mrinal about the state of her marriage and family life, she tries to win him over by cooking his favorite meal. Unable to face the truth or to discuss it openly with her son, she takes refuge in the motherly rituals, casting him as a child by using his baby name, Dinoo. The tactic fails miserably, since it is also a kind of lie; Dinesh has already eaten out, is no longer a child, and sullenly refuses to be drawn into the charade. The turning point for Asha comes after she poisons herself with fumes and then vomits—a reversal of nourishing oneself with food. During this incident, she is finally able to let go of her motherly role and allow Dinesh to look after her. Only then does Asha forgo her deceptions and decide to tell Dinesh and Mrinal the truth.
With mother and son communicating openly once more, they are able to share some pistachio milk that Asha prepares. Pistachio milk is a traditional Indian drink. The final scene in which Asha and Dinesh drink to their "precious, imperfect lives" with the pistachio milk symbolizes Asha's acceptance of her Indian tradition; Dinesh's acceptance of his mother (he accepts her offer of the milk, unlike his previous hostile response when she cooked him his favorite meal); and Asha's and Dinesh's acceptance of each other as they are, not as they might be expected to be in some illusory, presumably perfect family.
Immigration from India to the United States
Indian immigration to the United States was uncommon before 1900; Hindu beliefs discouraged it, as did the British colonizers of India, who restricted the movements of the Indian people. In 1946, the Luce-Celler bill was signed into law. This law permitted one hundred Indians per year into the United States and allowed them to become citizens. The following year, India gained independence from Great Britain, marking the second wave of Indian immigration; between 1948 and 1965, over six thousand Indians entered the United States. In 1990, the number of Indian-born persons living in the United States was 450,000. By 2004, India had become the second highest source of legal immigration to the United States, second only to Mexico. As of 2006, ethnic Asians made up 4.2 percent of the United States population.
Traditionally, many Indian women (and women of other Asian countries) have their marriages arranged through relatives, so-called marriage bureaus, or paid matchmakers called bride brokers. Many Indian families living in the United States retain this practice. The 1990s saw a surge in classified advertisements placed by parents looking for prospective brides and grooms in Indian newspapers circulated in India and the United States. In the late 1990s, the growing Internet provided a variety of matrimonial websites to replace the traditional matchmaker.
The advantages and disadvantages of arranged marriages are much debated in Asian communities. Defenders of arranged marriage point out that great care is taken by the families to match the bridegroom and bride according to social background, education, and interests. They say that most young people are not forced into an arranged marriage, that love usually grows between spouses after marriage, and that such marriages have a far higher rate of success and a lower divorce rate than marriages that arise from courtship and love that are more usual in the West, which may be based on short-lived infatuation or sexual desire.
Opponents of arranged marriage claim a high incidence of incompatibility and various types of spousal abuse. Some commentators in India or Asia draw a link between arranged marriage and the growing phenomenon of bride burnings and dowry deaths. They point out that arranged marriages are commonly between a man of higher caste (class) with limited money and a woman of lower caste whose family has money, with the incentive to the bridegroom being a lucrative dowry provided by the bride's parents. In some cases, once the man has pocketed the dowry, or if the family has failed to make the dowry payments, he kills his wife, often by dowsing her with gasoline and setting fire to her. He then claims that she died in a cooking accident. Because many cases of bride burnings are covered up, the number of victims can only be estimated. In 2003, the National Crime Records Bureau of India gave the number of reported dowry deaths, including bride burning, as 6,208. In 2004, the bureau reported the number at 7,026, an increase of 13.2 percent.
Proponents of arranged marriage comment that spousal abuse is as common in non-arranged marriages. They say that all family members share responsibility for an arranged marriage, so victims of such abuse can take refuge in the homes of relatives.
Compare & Contrast
- 1990s: In 1990, the number of Indian-born people living in the United States is 450,000. By 1995, there is a 160,000—strong Indian community in California alone.
Today: India is the second highest source of legal immigration to the United States, second only to Mexico. In 2003, legal immigration from India to the United States totals 50,379. As of 2006, ethnic Asians make up 4.2 percent of the U.S. population.
- 1990s: Arranged marriage is common among Indian and other Asian immigrants to the United States. A 1994 opinion poll of 1,715 adults in five urban centers in India finds that 74 percent of men and women believe arranged marriages are more likely than non-arranged marriages to succeed.
Today: Arranged marriage is the prevailing trend among Indian and other Asian immigrant families. However, some commentators say that the custom has changed, having become primarily an introduction service where the children have the final say. This shift is especially true of those who are brought up in the United States.
- 1990s: Arranged marriages among Indian immigrants are organized by relatives or professional marriage brokers. Throughout the 1990s, the number of marriages arranged through classified advertisements placed by parents in newspapers and through Internet-based matrimonial agencies increases.
Today: As many Indian immigrants lose contact with family members and marriage brokers based in India because of the length of time away from the home country and geographical dispersal, the role of newspaper classified advertisements and Internet agencies in arranged marriages grows more prominent.
- 1990s: Classified matrimonial advertisements are often organized by community, caste, language, or religion.
Today: Reflecting the increasingly ambitious nature of the Asian American community, classified matrimonial advertisements gain new categories relating to profession, such as specifying doctors, lawyers, and so on.
The award-winning poet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's first collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage, was published in 1995, and in 1996, it won the American Book Award, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Fiction, and the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize for Fiction. The collection was well received by the public, quickly becoming a bestseller, and met with critical acclaim. Paul Nathan's review in Publishers Weekly is typical of those who affirmed Divakaruni's first foray into prose: "The name Chitra Divakaruni is one that more and more people are going to learn to recognize, pronounce and remember."
Donna Seaman, in her Booklist review of Arranged Marriage, hails Divakaruni as "a virtuoso short story writer" and comments that "these are ravishingly beautiful stories, some profoundly sad, others full of revelation, all unforgettable." Seaman draws attention to the main theme of the collection (and of "Meeting Mrinal"), "the vast differences between women's lives in India, the country of her birth, and in the U.S., her country of choice." An anonymous Publishers Weekly reviewer's description of the central conflict of these stories applies to "Meeting Mrinal": "Divakaruni places her characters at the volatile confluence of two conflicting pressures: the obligation to please traditional husbands and families, and the desire to live modern, independent lives."
For Seaman, the message of the stories is predominantly feminist and pro-Western society, as they "revolve around the attempt to maintain traditional gender roles in the free-wheeling U.S., where even the most obedient and self-negating Indian women discover they can live a far more fulfilling life." This theme is echoed by Robbie Clipper Sethi in Studies in Short Fiction. Sethi notes that the women in the stories, far from being defeated by their ordeals, "prepare to battle the conventions they have left behind to take full advantage of their new lives in America."
Francine Prose, writing in Women's Review of Books, observes a more ambiguous tone in the stories, commenting that the young Indian protagonists are "learning to cope with the unsettling novelties of life in the United States," performing a "strenuous balancing act." Sandra Ponzanesi, in the Cambridge Guide to Women's Writings in English, notes that Divakaruni "does not offer ready-made solutions" to the confused roles and emotional turmoil of her heroines. She cites the final line of "Meeting Mrinal" about "Drinking to our 'precious, imperfect lives'" and comments, "No real catharsis is found but only adjustments and compromises."
Prose cautions against what she perceives as a weakness of some of the stories—that they depend too heavily on a certain sort of "hot-button, up to the minute, highly contemporary and instantly recognizable" social problem, rather than on character. Examples of such problems featured in the stories include divorce, abortion, and spousal abuse. But she adds, "Divakaruni's work is strongest when her characters exhibit a surprising and truly moving intensity of response to their situations." The anonymous Publishers Weekly reviewer is one of many critics who see much emotional intensity in the stories, calling them "emotionally fraught" and singling out "Meeting Mrinal" as "particularly poignant." Seaman, in her Booklist review, also notes that Divakaruni "conveys emotions with stunning accuracy," calling the collection "deeply affecting."
Robinson is a former teacher of English literature and creative writing and, as of 2006, is a full-time writer and editor. In the following essay, she examines how the mirage of the perfect life is explored in "Meeting Mrinal."
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's "Meeting Mrinal" opens on a scene in which Indian-born and newly divorced Asha prepares a meal for herself and her teenage son, Dinesh. Food and cooking identify a central theme of the story. Here, they symbolize how far Asha has departed from her accustomed wifely practice of preparing elaborate Indian meals from fresh ingredients. Now, Asha and Dinesh make do with ready-made pizza and whatever remnants of moldy vegetables Asha can find in her refrigerator. Dinesh often eats at Burger King, where he works. The scene is loaded with significance. It is traditional for an Indian wife to cook complex meals from scratch for her family and for the family to sit down to eat together. Now that Asha's husband, Mahesh, has left her for a younger white woman, Asha has left off cooking in the old way: "I've decided that too much of my life has already been wasted mincing and simmering and grinding spices." Instead, she is spending her time training for a new full-time job, which she will need as a single mother who is trying to build an independent life.
Another aspect of the scene is that the limp and moldy vegetables that Asha finds in her refrigerator suggest the rot that, unnoticed by Asha, had set into her marriage and that now threatens to infect what remains of her family life, her relationship with Dinesh. The convenience food and lifeless vegetables that she now serves up, somewhat guiltily, also reflect the lack of time, attention, and nourishment she is giving to her relationship with Dinesh. Since his father left, Dinesh has withdrawn to his room and into his music and now looks at her with "a polite, closed stranger's face." Asha's omissions regarding Dinesh will soon prompt a crisis between mother and son—not relating to food, but to the truth in and substance of their relationship.
The barrier between Asha and Dinesh is the same as that which arises between Asha and Mrinal: Asha's inability to openly acknowledge the failure of her marriage. When Mrinal telephones Asha, Asha cannot bring herself to tell her the truth about her situation. Instead, she keeps up the pretence of a happy family life, complete with invented, respectable activities for Dinesh. Witnessing his mother constructing a fake veneer of perfection over the ruins of his family life is too much for Dinesh to bear. He angrily demands, "I'm not good enough for your friend just the way I am, is that it?" This is an unintentional, yet relevant comment on Asha's feelings about herself: She does not feel good enough for Mrinal, for Dinesh, or for society in general, just the way she is. She has worked hard at being the perfect wife and mother and feels that she has failed. Her feelings of shame deepen when, in fury at Dinesh's challenge to her to tell the truth—that Mahesh "got tired of you and left you for another woman," she slaps him. However, she loses the opportunity to be truthful with Dinesh when she falsely claims that her anger stems from his swearing rather than the uncomfortable truth that he voiced. In the ensuing coldness between Asha and Dinesh, she tries to win him round by cooking his favorite food and calling him by his baby name, Dinoo. This tactic fails miserably because it is another lie; Asha is no longer the all-capable, all-nourishing mother, and Dinesh is a young man, not a child.
Asha's situation is particularly perilous because she has no firm foothold in her old life or in her new life. Though she has made her first brave steps towards establishing an independent life in a harsh and alien Western culture in the form of her training and her fitness classes, she feels that she is not up to the task. When she drives to her meeting with Mrinal, she finds that she is not used to negotiating city traffic, a reference to her uncertainty about negotiating her way through Western culture. When she arrives at the plush restaurant, she feels dowdy and awkward. She reflects, "I knew I didn't belong here, and that every person in the room, without needing to look at me, knew it too."
Asha's feelings of inadequacy are strengthened by the images of perfection against which she has chosen to measure herself. First, there is the image of wifely perfection that, it is suggested, comes with the territory of traditional Indian marriage. Asha pursues this ideal even after Mahesh has told her that the marriage is over, buying a sexy negligée to try to tempt him back. When Mahesh leaves, she blames herself, as is clear from the shame that prevents her from speaking openly about his decision.
The second image of perfection that plagues Asha is her idealized picture of her friend Mrinal: "She has the perfect existence—money, freedom, admiration … and she doesn't have to worry about pleasing anyone." It is easy for Asha to project an idea of perfection onto Mrinal because Mrinal has succeeded in the areas in which Asha feels weak: She is glamorous, has a successful career, a lovely home, and power over men in her work. The competitive nature of their relationship is given an added edge by the fact that Mrinal warned Asha against contracting an early arranged marriage, advising her instead to finish college and get a job, but Asha ignored her friend's suggestion. Not only does Asha think that she has failed to measure up to Mrinal, but she is convinced that she has been proved wrong and, understandably, is reluctant to admit it.
The third image of perfection is James Bond, who, with his "golden guns and intricate machines and bikini-clad beauties," represents an idealized Western image of male sophistication and success that young Asha and Mrinal admired while they were growing up in India. They vowed that if they got to the West, they would celebrate with Bond's favorite drink, vodka martini, shaken, not stirred. Indeed, when Mrinal meets Asha in the restaurant, she orders this drink for them both. For Asha, Mrinal is part of James Bond's world, with her perfect grooming and sophisticated manners. What Asha fails to bear in mind is that Bond is a fictional character.
The edifice of perfection that Asha has created crumbles when Mrinal bursts into tears and admits that she is unhappy and lonely. She envies Asha her husband and child as much as Asha has envied her. Once again, Asha avoids telling the truth, but inside, she is plunged into a crisis by Mrinal's revelation: "I feel like a child who picks up a fairy doll she's always admired from afar and discovered that all its magic glitter is really painted clay." In Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's "Meeting Mrinal," it transpires that for Asha, images of perfection are not only her torment, but her sustenance, compensating for her own messy and confused life. She wonders, "What would I live on, now that I knew perfection was only a mirage?"
In despair, Asha drives home and makes a halfhearted attempt at suicide by gassing herself with car fumes in the garage. When she changes her mind and staggers out of the garage, Dinesh appears and helps her to the bathroom where she vomits; he looks after his mother as if he were the adult and she were the child. He seems, she remarks, "motherly." Allowing Dinesh to see her at this, her lowest point, and to help her, is a breakthrough for Asha. She finally lets go of her need to be perceived as the perfect wife and mother and realizes that her role models were (unhelpfully) the superhuman heroines of Indian mythology and a hero of Western mythology. She thinks with compassion of Mahesh, noting that perhaps he had the same idealized notions when they married. She sums up her situation in brutally honest words: "I've lost my husband and betrayed my friend, and now to top it all I've vomited all over the sink in my son's presence." Far from sounding like a defeat, her words have an air of integrity. At last, Asha has allowed herself to be helped and faced her frailty; she can move forward into a future guided by truth and self-knowledge rather than false images of external perfection.
In her moment of resolution, Asha has a vision of a simple clay bowl from her art appreciation class. She remembers her teacher explaining that the master potter who made it always left a flaw in his later works, in the belief that it made them more human and more precious. The image is a positive transformation of the negative image she held in her disillusionment about the "painted clay" of Mrinal's life. The clay bowl, beautiful yet flawed, is a symbol of Asha's life, and, by extension, of Mrinal's and Dinesh's and Mahesh's life—indeed, of everyone's life: far from perfect, but infinitely precious.
The resolution unfolds into a new truthfulness in Asha's relationship with Dinesh. She freely admits that she "made a mess" of her meeting with Mrinal and offers to tell him about it over a glass of pistachio milk. It is significant that Asha is here breaking her new habit of convenience food and returning on this occasion to a nourishing and traditional Indian drink; it is a reconciliation with her Indian roots and with the motherly role that she turned her back on after Mahesh's departure. Dinesh smilingly accepts her offer, a sign that he is ready to be reconciled with his mother. As Asha and Dinesh solemnly raise their glasses to their "precious, imperfect lives," the final image that readers are given is optimistic: "The glasses glitter like hope." Asha recognizes and, more importantly, accepts that she and Dinesh will have other arguments. Liberated from false notions of perfection, Asha plans the letter she will write to Mrinal to tell her the truth.
Source: Claire Robinson, Critical Essay on "Meeting Mrinal," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, Mandal gives a critical analysis of Divakaruni's life and work.
What Do I Read Next?
- Arranged Marriage seems to have developed from the poem, "Arranged Marriage" in Di-vakaruni's collection of poems Black Candle: Poems about Women from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (1991), though the short story collection examines a much wider selection of themes.
- In "Uncertain Objects of Desire," an essay published in the March 2000 issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine, Divakaruni examines the Indian tradition of arranged marriage and comments on how it is being adapted to modern realities.
- Divakaruni's first novel, The Mistress of Spices (1997), draws on the rich mystical and cultural traditions of India to tell the story of Tilo, a woman who is trained in the ancient art of healing through spices and ordained as an immortal through a rite of fire. She travels through time and takes the form of a wizened old woman to set up a shop in California, from which she prescribes spices as remedies to customers.
- A 1998 interview with Divakaruni entitled "Chitra Divakaruni explains how her family, her childhood and the stories she was told have all influenced her writing," can be found at http://www.bookbrowse.com/author_interviews/full/index.cfm?author_number=338 (accessed May 4, 2006).
- Bharati Mukherjee's collection of stories The Middleman and Other Stories (1988) explores the meeting of East and West through the experiences of Third World immigrants to the United States and Canada. These include people of Indian origin but also people from Italy, Trinidad, Israel, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
- The travelogue of American journalist Elisabeth Bumiller, May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey among the Women of India (1990), is the fruit of Bumiller's four-year residence in India in the 1980s. Bumiller takes a look at Indian women, considering the custom of arranged marriage, the outlook of village women, India's evolving feminist movement, bride burning, population control, and female infanticide.
- In Thomas Dublin's book, Immigrant Voices: New Lives in America, 1773–1986 (1993), immigrants to the United States from the time of the American Revolution to 1986 tell in their own words what it is like to move to the United States and become Americans. The stories show why they leave their original countries, why they choose to move to the United States, and what they find when they get there.
Belonging to the group of young Indian writers that emerged on the literary scene with a postcolonial diasporic identity after Salman Rushdie, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's position as a South Asian writer in English is distinct and well established. As someone who has spent more time outside India than in it, she has been accepted as an Asian American writer, living with a hybrid identity and writing partially autobiographical work. Most of her stories, set in the Bay Area of California, deal with the experience of immigrants to the United States, whose voice is rarely heard in other writings of Indian writers in English. She has been published in more than fifty magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, and her writing has been included in more than thirty anthologies. Her works have been translated into eleven languages, including Dutch, Hebrew, Portuguese, Danish, German, and Japanese.
Chitra Banerjee was born in Calcutta on 29 July 1956 and spent the first nineteen years of her life in India. Her father, Rajendra Kumar Banerjee, an accountant by profession, and her mother, Tatini Banerjee, a schoolteacher, brought up their four children in modest middle-class ambience. As the second-born child and only girl among three brothers, Partha, Dhruva, and Surya, Chitra spent her childhood days in sibling rivalry and camaraderie. She studied at Loreto House, a convent school run by Irish nuns, from where she graduated in 1971. In 1976 she earned her bachelor's degree in English from Presidency College, University of Calcutta. At the age of nineteen she moved to the United States to continue her studies as an English major and got her master's degree from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, in 1978. Working under Stephen Greenblatt on the topic "For Danger Is in Words: A Study of Language in Marlowe's Plays," she received her Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Berkeley in 1984. She held different kinds of jobs to pay for her education, including babysitting, selling merchandise in an Indian boutique, slicing bread at a bakery, and washing instruments at a science lab. She did not begin to write fiction until after she graduated from Berkeley, when she came to realize that she loved teaching but did not want to do academic writing: "It didn't have enough heart in it. I wanted to write something more immediate." In 1979 in Dayton she married Murthy Divakaruni, an engineer by profession. Her two sons, Anand and Abhay, were born in 1991 and 1994.
Divakaruni and her husband moved to Sunnyvale, California, in 1989. For several years she was interested in issues involving women and worked with Afghani women refugees and women from dysfunctional families, as well as in shelters for battered women. In 1991 she became founder-member and president of Maitri, an organization in the San Francisco area that works for South Asian women in abusive situations. She also associated herself with Asians against Domestic Abuse, an organization in Houston. Her interest in these women grew when she realized that there was no mainstream shelter for immigrant women in distress—a place where people would understand their cultural needs and problems—in the United States. Because of the experience she gathered from counseling sessions, the lives of Asian women opened up to her, revealing unimaginable crises.
For all the years Divakaruni lived in the Bay Area, she taught at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills. She turned to writing as a means of exploring the cultural differences she encountered as a newcomer to the United States. Initially, she started writing for herself, and during the mid 1980s she joined a writer's group at Berkeley University. She wrote poems during that time, and, as she told Roxanne Farmanfarmaian in Publishers Weekly (14 May 2001), her venture into serious poetry writing began after she received the news of her grandfather's death in her ancestral village in India: "Poetry was closest to my psyche. Poetry focuses on the moment, on the image, and relies on image to express meaning. That was very important to me, that kind of crystallization, that kind of intensity in a small space."
As he has been with the publications of many Indian writers in English, Professor P. Lal of the Writers Workshop in Calcutta was instrumental in publishing Divakaruni's first book of poetry, Dark Like the River (1987). She had already established herself as a poet by the time she published The Reason for Nasturtiums (1990), her first verse collection published in the United States. The subtitle of the volume explains her primary interest and indicates that her main focus is the immigrant experience and South Asian women. She shows the experiences and struggles involved in Asian women's attempts to find their own identities, as her poem "The Arranged Marriage" illustrates:
The night is airless-still, as
before a storm. Behind the wedding drums,
cries of jackals from the burning grounds.
The canopy gleams, color
of long life, many children.
Color of bride-blood …
… The groom's father
produces his scales and in clenched silence
the dowry gold is weighed. But he smiles
and all is well again. Now it is godhuli,
the time of the auspicious seeing.
Time for you, bride of sixteen,
mother, to raise the tear-stained face
that I will learn so well,
to look for the first time into
your husband's opaque eyes.
As the title suggests, Divakaruni's volume of poems Leaving Yuba City: New and Selected Poems (1997) includes new poems as well as ones from Dark Like the River, The Reason for Nasturtiums, and Black Candle: Poems about Women from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (1991). These poems draw on similar subject matter to her fiction: womanhood, family life, exile, alienation, exoticism, ethnicity, domesticity, love, and romance. Leaving Yuba City is a collection that explores images of India and the Indian experience in the United States, ranging from the adventures of going to a convent school in India run by Irish nuns to the history of the earliest Indian immigrants in the United States. The opening poem, "How I Became a Writer," describes an abusive father ("the gorilla with iron fingers") and the suicide of a mother who puts the poet to bed and locks her in "so I would not be the first to discover her body hanging from the ceiling." The poem concludes, however, with the ironic affirmation "I know I'm going to be / the best, the happiest writer in the world."
Leaving Yuba City comprises six sections of interlinked poems. Although they feature many of the same characters, they explore a variety of themes. Divakaruni is particularly interested in how different art forms can influence and inspire each other. The series of poems based on paintings by the American artist Francesco Clemente is of particular interest. In a section devoted to his "Indian Miniatures" series, Divakaruni's words enter into Clemente's dreamscapes and reveal moments of startling visual clarity. She also takes equal inspiration from other artists' interpretations of her native land—photographs by Raghubir Singh and Indian motion pictures, including Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Satyajit Ray's Ghare-Baire (1984). As with all of her writing, these poems deal with the experiences of women and their struggle for identity. Her persistent concern with women's experience often deepens as it is arrayed against varying cultural backgrounds. As Meena Alexander, another poet of Indian origin, states: "Chitra Divakaruni's Leaving Yuba City draws us into a realm of the senses, intense, chaotic, site of our pleasures and pain. These are moving lyrics of lives at the edge of the new world."
The group of poems about the immigrant experiences of the Sikhs is especially poignant. Because of immigration restrictions, most of the original Sikh farmers who settled in Yuba City, California, could not bring their families with them or, in the case of single men, go back to get married until the 1940s. As a result, in the 1920s and 1930s several men married local women from Mexico. This section imagines the lives of the farmers who arrived in 1910 and takes on their voices in lush, novelistic prose poems: "I lay in bed and try to picture her, my bride, in a shiny gold salwar-kameez, eyes that were black and bright and deep enough to dive in." The poem "The Brides Come to Yuba City" describes the reunion of the long-separated lovers:
Red-veiled, we lean to each other,
press damp palms, try
broken smiles. The man who met us at the ship
whistles a restless Angrezi tune
and scans the fields. Behind us,
the black wedding trunks, sharp-edged,
shiny, stenciled with strange men-names
our bodies do not fit into:
He gives a shout, waves at the men, their slow
uneven approach. We crease our eyes
through the veils' red film, cannot breathe. Thirty years
since we saw them. Or never,
like Harvinder, married last year at Hoshiarpur
to her husband's photo,
which she clutches tight to her
to stop the shaking. He is fifty-two,
she sixteen. Tonight—like us all—
she will open her legs to him.
This volume of poetry won a Pushcart Prize, an Allen Ginsberg Prize, and a Gerbode Foundation Award.
After three books of poetry, Divakaruni realized that there were things she wanted to say that would be better expressed in prose. "My poetry was becoming more and more narrative," she admitted to Farmanfarmaian, "and I was becoming more interested in the story element, and the nuances of character change." In 1992 she enrolled in an evening fiction-writing class at Foothill College, where she had started teaching twentieth-century multicultural literature the year before. In 1993 she edited Multitude: Cross-Cultural Readings for Writers, an anthology she uses in her own classroom; it is also used at many major universities in the United States. Her criterion for selection, as quoted by Elizabeth Softky in her article "Cross-Cultural Understanding Spiced with the Indian Diaspora" (1997), was "quality, but also stories that focused on problem solving, not just how terrible things are." The anthology includes stories about communication across cultures, expectations of friendships, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and prejudice against gay people. The book includes works by a variety of authors, some of them her own students. Divakaruni's first volume of short stories, Arranged Marriage (1995), explores the cross-cultural experiences of womanhood through a feminist perspective, a theme that continues to inform her work. "It was while I was at Berkeley that I became aware of women's issues and the need for me to do something for them," she has said. Although her outlook has softened and her interest has shifted to more general human themes of memory and desire, at that time she felt militant: "I really wanted to focus on women battling and coming out triumphant."
How changing times affect the cherished Indian institution of arranged marriage is the theme of the eleven stories of Arranged Marriage. Most of the stories are about Indian immigrants to the United States from the author's native region of Bengal and are told by female narrators in the first-person-singular point of view, often in the present tense, which imparts to the stories a sense of intimacy. They capture the experience of recent immigrants, mostly from professional classes, such as electronic engineers and businesspeople, but also a few from the working class, such as auto mechanics and convenience-store clerks. There are several immigrant brides who "are both liberated and trapped by cultural changes," as Patricia Holt puts it in her "Women Feel Tug of Two Cultures" (1995), and who are struggling to carve out an identity of their own. Though references to local attractions, postgraduate education, and her Bengali culture are sprinkled liberally throughout the tales, Divakaruni says the stories themselves—which deal with issues such as domestic violence, crime, racism, interracial relationships, economic disparity, abortion, and divorce—were the result of her own imaginings and the experiences of others.
Arranged Marriage received considerable critical acclaim and the 1996 American Book Award, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, and the PEN Oakland Award for fiction. Only two of the stories of this collection had been published previously: "The Bats" appeared in Zyzzyva (Spring 1993), and "Clothes" in the anthology Home to Stay: Asian American Women's Fiction (1990). Some critics have accused Divakaruni of tarnishing the image of the Indian community and reinforcing stereotypes of the "oppressed" Indian woman, but as Julie Mehta quotes the author in "Arranging One's Life" (Metro, 3-9 October 1996), her professed aim was to shatter stereotypes: "Some just write about different things, but my approach is to tackle these sensitive topics. I hope people who read my book will not think of the characters as Indians, but feel for them as people."
At once pessimistic and filled with hope, Divakaruni creates contradictory as well as connected fictional worlds through the stories in Arranged Marriage. In "Silver Pavements, Golden Roofs," the protagonist—a graduate student newly arrived in the United States, which she considers a land of illusion—is brought face to face with harsh reality when she is assaulted on the mean streets of Chicago. "The Ultrasound," which deals with the issue of female feticide, was later enlarged into the novel Sister of My Heart (1999). In "Affair" two temperamentally ill-matched Indo-American couples, whose marriages had been arranged on the basis of their horoscopes having matched "perfectly," divorce after many years of affluent living in Silicon Valley. In "Doors" the character Preeti, after moving to the United States, has come to love the western idea of privacy. She faces a dilemma when her husband's cousin wants to come to live with them. She expresses her discontent with the situation, which shows her newfound decisiveness and her determination to oppose her husband's view of the traditional Indian wife. In "Clothes" the husband of the narrator, Sumita, dies, and she is faced with deciding whether to stay in the United States or to go back to India to live with her in-laws. Sumita calls widows who are serving their in-laws "doves with cutoff wings."
One common theme that runs through all the stories is that Indian-born women living new lives in the United States find independence a mixed blessing that involves walking a tightrope between old beliefs and newfound desires. Though the characters vary, the themes of the short stories are essentially the same—exploration of the nature of arranged marriages as well as the experience of affirmation and rebellion against social traditions.
Divakaruni's first novel, The Mistress of Spices (1997), is distinct in that it blends prose and poetry, successfully employing magic realist techniques. Its heroine, Tilo (short for Tilottama), is the "mistress of spices." Born in India, she is shipwrecked on a remote island inhabited by women. Here she encounters an ancient woman who imparts instruction about the power of spices. Ordained after a trial by fire, each new mistress is sent to a far-off land. Tilo heads for Oakland, California, disguised as an old woman, and sets up a shop where she sells spices. While she supplies the ingredients for curries and kormas, she also helps her customers to gain a more precious commodity: whatever they most desire. The chapters of the novel are named after spices such as cinnamon, turmeric, and fenugreek, common ingredients of Indian cuisine. Here, however, they have special powers, and Tilo practices her magical powers of healing through them. Through those who visit and revisit her shop, she catches glimpses of the local Indian expatriate community, which includes an abused wife, a naive cabbie, a sullen teen, a yearning young woman, and an old man clinging to dignity, all of whom lack balance. To each, Tilo dispenses wisdom and the appropriate spice, for the restoration of sight, the cleansing of evil, the pain of rejection. When a lonely American ventures into the store, however, a troubled Tilo cannot find the correct spice, for he arouses in her a forbidden desire—which if she follows will destroy her magical powers. Conflicted, she has to choose whether to serve her people or to follow the path leading to her own happiness. Tilo has to decide which part of her heritage she will keep and which part she will choose to abandon.
The Mistress of Spices has a mystical quality to it, and, as Divakaruni puts it in "Dissolving Boundaries," an essay for the on-line journal Bold Type (May 1997), "I wrote it in a spirit of play, collapsing the divisions between the realistic world of twentieth century America and the timeless one of myth and magic in my attempt to create a modern fable." She drew on folktales of her childhood memories such as that of a sleeping city under the ocean and speaking serpents, but she changed them almost completely. "The speaking serpents are a different kind of magic that I only partially understand. They represent the grace of the universe, and by that, I mean they are not governed by logic but come to us mortals as a blessing we cannot understand." Unlike in her short stories, the immigrant experience in the novel is dealt with obliquely. Her own immigrant experience in Ohio helped her express the feelings of loneliness and cultural separation that suffuse the novel. Thus the book also becomes a kind of metaphor for the struggle between social responsibility and personal happiness. When asked by Morton Marcus, in an interview for Metro (8-14 May 1997), why she had taken the risk of plunging into fantasy when she had already secured a large following and critical praise with the realistic Arranged Marriage, Divakaruni replied candidly: "First, I believe a writer should push boundaries, and I wanted to try something new, take risks. But more to the point, the risk-taking came of a near-death experience I had two and a half years ago with the birth of my second child, Abhay, who was born of a Caesarian operation that went wrong." That experience inspired her to create Tilo, who moves back and forth between one existence and another. As she explained to Marcus, "Looking at this question from another perspective, you could say that I took three 'literary risks' in the book. I bridged the purely realistic world and the mythic one; I extended my subject matter from dealing exclusively with the Indian-American community to include three other ethnic groups living in the inner city—Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans—and finally, I tried to bring together the language of poetry and prose so the idiom of the book has a lyric quality appropriate to the genre of magic realism." The concept of boundaries falling away leads the reader to the main theme of the novel, that "happiness comes from being involved in our human world."
The Mistress of Spices is also a love story, the outcome of which keeps the reader in suspense. Interestingly, when Tilo makes her decision, she changes her name to Maya, the Hindu term that defines the everyday world of desire, pain, and joy as the world of illusion, a place of inevitable sorrow from which one is trying to escape. The novel was named one of the best books of 1997 by the Los Angeles Times and one of the best books of the twentieth century by the San Francisco Chronicle, and was nominated for the Orange Prize in England in 1998.
From mid 1997 to early 1998, Divakaruni also wrote a regular column, "Spice of Life," for the online magazine Salon, in which she focused upon the issues she knows best. In a column titled "My Fictional Children" (28 January 1998) she notes that everything she ever tried to write about her children has been a failure but that the fictional mothers in her stories have become much more complex and full:
My writing is made more complicated by the fact that I'm exploring the experience of being Indian, of being brought up in a culture where many still consider motherhood a woman's supreme destiny, and the inability to get pregnant her supreme failure. This is one of the major themes of the novel I'm working on right now. I think I'm not exaggerating when I say … that I wouldn't be writing this book had I not had children myself.
In 1998, commissioned by the New England Foundation, Divakaruni also wrote a play called Clothes, which was performed by the New World Theater at Amherst College and at the International Drama Festival, Athens, Greece, in 1999.
Unlike her first novel, Sister of My Heart is written in the realist mode and describes the complicated relationships of a family in Bengal. Born in a big, old Calcutta house on the same night when both their fathers mysteriously disappeared, Sudha and Anju are distant cousins and are brought up together. Closer than sisters, they share clothes, worries, and dreams. The Chatterjee family fortunes are at a low ebb, as there are only widows at home—the girls' mothers and their aunt. The forty-two chapters of the novel comprise a sort of extended, multitiered dialogue. The chapters themselves are alternately titled "Anju" and "Sudha" and utilize techniques that are epistolary and exclamatory, with transcultural settings, a tone that is adjectival and highly lyrical, italicized stream-of-consciousness passages, and a romantic style. Slowly the dark secrets of the past are unveiled and test the cousins' mutual loyalty. A family crisis forces their mothers to start the serious business of arranging the girls' marriages, and the pair is torn apart. Sudha moves to her new family's home in rural Bengal, while Anju joins her immigrant husband in California. Although they have both been trained to be perfect wives, nothing has prepared them for the pain, as well as the joy, that each will have to face in her new life. In the novel Indian discrimination against women stands exposed: the cousins consider themselves inferior beings because they are female. Feminist views—both overt and covert—are present in many passages of the novel. The story line, however, becomes predictable. Anju saves Sudha from the machinations of her husband and in-laws, who want to kill the girl child she has conceived, and brings her to the United States.
Reception of Sister of My Heart was overwhelmingly positive. For most western readers, the novel provided a new look at female bonding. Divakaruni's impetus was to write about a female-centric theme in a South Asian setting. The novel is her perception of an utter lack of emphasis on women's independence in South Asian literary genres. She identifies the novel as ultimately about storytelling. Influenced by her grandfather, who told stories from South Asian epics, she has woven those childhood folktales into her novel. She explains that the "aloneness" of epic heroines seemed strange to her even as a child. In a 28 February 1999 San Francisco Examiner article, she declares that in South Asian mythological stories, "the main relationships the heroines had were with the opposite sex: husbands, sons, lovers, or opponents. They never had any important friends. Perhaps in rebellion against such thinking, I find myself focusing my writing on friendships with women, and trying to balance them with the conflicting passions and demands that come to us as daughters and wives, lovers and mothers." Divakaruni shares the emotions of her protagonists and finds in them a mode of feminist expression. "In the best friendships I have had with women, there is a closeness that is unique, a sympathy that comes from somewhere deep and primal in our bodies and does not need explanation, perhaps because of the life-changing experiences we share." She has denied in interviews, however, that she has attempted to create a comprehensive picture of South Asian family life, likening such an assumption to the idea that one can understand all Americans by reading Flannery O'Connor.
Though Sister of My Heart is set in Calcutta, Divakaruni admits that the rest of the story is far from autobiographical and is based on observation and imagination. Around the time the novel was published, she also over the course of about a year wrote a column for the magazine India Today. Titled "Stars and Spice," the column dealt with immigrant issues.
Apart from her poems and fictional writing, Divakaruni has also established a reputation for herself with her nonfiction pieces. In "Foreign Affairs: Uncertain Objects of Desire," which appeared in the March 2000 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, she sifts through several hundred carefully categorized matrimonial advertisements in The Times of India, surmising that in India, a country that straddles the old and the new, they are a good place to look for signs of shifting values. Usually the ads and responses are handled by parents—proof that the practice of arranged marriage is alive and well in India. Reading between the lines of two ads typical of their eras, one from 1969 and one from 1999, she concludes that a great deal about the nature of desired partners, and the protocol for finding them, has changed. Apart from other factors, Divakaruni suggests that perhaps "this echoes a larger pattern of social movement in which the Indian woman's role is changed more rapidly than the Indian man's." In a short article she wrote for the Internet site Rediff on the Net, "Wheat Complexion and Pink Cheeks" (2 April 2001), she deplores the Indian obsession for fair-skinned women.
The female protagonists of eight of the nine stories in Divakaruni's sensuously evocative collection The Unknown Errors of Our Lives (2001) are caught between the beliefs and traditions of their Indian heritage and those of their, or their children's, new homeland, the United States. Seven out of the nine stories collected in the anthology had been published earlier in various journals and anthologies. The diverse range of the stories of this volume is noteworthy. Most of them depict life in East and West perceptively. The problem of acculturation is deftly dealt with in "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," a story in which a widow discovers that her old-fashioned ways are an embarrassment to her daughter-in-law. A young American woman's pilgrimage in Kashmir is the subject of "The Lives of Strangers." Miscommunication and distancing in a brother-sister relationship is the theme of "The Intelligence of Wild Things." Ruchira, the protagonist of "The Unknown Errors of Our Lives," while packing up in preparation for her forthcoming marriage, discovers her childhood "book of errors," a teenage notebook in which she wrote down ways of improving her life.
"The Names of Stars in Bengali" is the nu-anced story of a San Francisco wife and mother who returns to her native village in India to visit her mother, in which each understands afresh the emotional dislocation caused by stepping into "a time machine called immigration" that subjects them to "the alien habit of a world they had imagined imperfectly." All of the stories in The Unknown Errors of Our Lives are touching tales of lapsed communication, inarticulate love, and redemptive memories. They illuminate the difficult process of adjustment for women in whom memory and duty must coexist with a new, often painful, and disorienting set of standards. In an interview with Esha Bhattacharjee published in The Sunday Statesman on 2 February 2003, when asked what she felt she was—an Indian, an American, or an Indian living in the United States, she confessed: "I have to live with a hybrid identity. In many ways I'm an Indian, but living in America for 19 years has taught me many things. It has helped me look at both cultures more clearly. It has taught me to observe, question, explore and evaluate."
In 2002 Divakaruni moved to Houston, Texas, where she began to teach in the creative-writing program at the University of Houston. In that same year she published The Vine of Desire, a novel of depth and sensitivity that can be seen as a sequel to Sister of My Heart. It continues the story of Anju and Sudha, the two cousins of the earlier book. The young women now live far from Calcutta, the city of their childhood, and after a year of living separate lives, are rekindling their friendship in the United States. The deep-seated love they feel for each other provides the support they need: it gives Anju the strength to survive a personal tragedy and Sudha the confidence to make a life for herself and her baby daughter, Dayita, despite not having her husband. The unlikely relationships they form with men and women in the world outside the immigrant Indian community as well as their families in India profoundly transform them, especially when they must confront the deep passionate feelings that Anju's husband has for Sudha. Sudha, seeking a measure of self-worth and trying to assuage loneliness, succumbs to Sunil's need for her and then flees from home to be a nursemaid to an old and ailing man. Sunil also moves out and away. Anju sticks to studies and makes it to the dean's list. The novel ends with her metaphorical declaration, "I've learned to fly." Divakaruni deals with a new facet of immigrant experience in the sense that the movement is not necessarily a physical one or from East to West. By making Sudha decide that she is not interested in the United States anymore and would like to go home, the author treads new ground. Through the eyes of people caught in the clash of cultures, Divakaruni reveals the rewards and the perils of breaking free from the past and the complicated, often contradictory emotions that shape the passage to independence. The Vine of Desire was named one of the best books of 2002 by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times. Also in 2002, Divakaruni was also chosen as a literary laureate by the San Francisco Public Library.
Divakaruni's versatility as a writer was confirmed by her first children's book, Neela: Victory Song (2002). Part of the "Girls of Many Lands" series, featuring books and dolls based on young girls from various historical periods and cultural traditions, it is the story of a twelve-year-old girl caught up in the Indian Independence movement. In 1939, while her family is preparing for the wedding of her older sister, Neela Sen becomes interested in the world around her. When her father is jailed following a march against British rule, Neela takes matters into her own hands and goes to Calcutta to find him.
Published in September 2003 and chosen as one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly, Divakaruni's second book for children, The Conch Bearer, blends action, adventure, and magic in a kind of quest fantasy. The story opens in a poor section of Kolkata, as Calcutta was renamed in 2001, where twelve-year-old Anand is entrusted with a conch shell imbued with mystical power. Anand's task is to return the shell to its rightful home high in the mountains. Accompanied by a mysterious stranger and a resourceful street urchin, he encounters good and evil both in himself and in those around him.
Divakaruni's sixth novel, Queen of Dreams (2004), again utilizes the magic realist mode. Like Tilo of The Mistress of Spices, who uses spices to help customers solve their problems, in Queen of Dreams Mrs. Gupta is an Indian immigrant who dreams the dreams of others so she can help them in their own lives. This gift of vision and ability to foresee and guide people through their fates fascinates her daughter, Rakhi, who as a young artist and divorced mother living in Berkeley, California, is struggling to keep her footing with her family and with a world in alarming transition. Rakhi also feels isolated from her mother's past in India and the dreamworld she inhabits, and she longs for something to bring them closer. Burdened by her own painful secret, Rakhi finds solace in the discovery, after her mother's death, of her dream journals. "A dream is a telegram from the hidden world," Rakhi's mother writes in her journals, which open the long-closed door to Rakhi's past.
As Rakhi attempts to divine her identity, knowing little of India but drawn inexorably into a sometimes painful history she is only just discovering, her life is shaken by new horrors. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 she and her friends must deal with dark new complexities about their acculturation. The ugly violence visited upon them forces the reader to view those terrible days from the point of view of immigrants and Indian Americans whose only crime was the color of their skin or the fact that they wore a turban. As their notions of citizenship are questioned, Rakhi's search for identity intensifies. Haunted by her experiences of racism, she nevertheless finds unexpected blessings: the possibility of new love and understanding for her family.
Divakaruni's journey from being a young graduate student to a mature writer seems to have come full circle. She believes that there are both pluses and minuses to belonging to the growing body of Asian American writers. The interest in Asian American literature makes it easier to get published now than ten or fifteen years ago, as she told Neela Banerjee of AsianWeek.com (27 April-3 May 2001): "The best part is that your writing is now available to so many people, both within and outside of the community. Young South Asians have come up to me and said, 'I really relate to this story. This story has helped me understand my mother, helped me understand my culture.' That's a really good feeling." Divakaruni also admits, however, that being pigeonholed as an Asian American writer can be stifling: "You are expected to be a spokesperson for the community, and that is just an unfair kind of burden. I always try to make it clear that I am presenting one vision about what is true about the Indian American community. It is a very diverse community, and mine is just one angle of looking at it."
As Divakaruni has changed, her style of writing has changed accordingly. For example, Arranged Marriage includes a detailed glossary of Bengali and Hindi words, which were italicized in the stories. In The Vine of Desire she not only does away with italics and glossaries but uses many Bengali and Hindi words within the text. Through this means she seems to be attempting to get the reader to accept these as a natural part of the characters' world and of their language. When asked by Bhattacharjee as to how she has matured as a writer, she replied that with each new book, she found a "new challenge." Whatever the narrative technique of each of her books might be, she hoped it would connect with the readers.
The critical acclaim and increasing recognition that Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has received has established her as a promising writer interested in the immigrant experience, not simply that of those who move from East to West. It is a cross-cultural scenario where, through her writings, the diversity of Indian writing in English is revealed.
Source: Somdatta Mandal, "Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 323, South Asian Writers in English, edited by Fakrul Alam, Gale, 2006, pp. 112-122.
Arthur J. Pais
In the following essay, Pais profiles Divakaruni and discusses the portrayal of Indian women in her work.
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Source: Arthur J. Pais, "Essay on Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Some of Her Works," in South Asian Journalist's Association Online, February 1999, pp. 1-3.
In the following review, Prose discusses Divakaruni's ability to portray characters that move easily between cultures and her use of detail but has little enthusiasm for the "readily-grasped social problems" depicted in her work.
Not long ago I happened to read the minutes of a public meeting held by a state arts foundation. One item on the agenda concerned who should sit on the selection committees which award grants to individual artists. Some members of the audience argued that the selection committees should be composed exclusively of members of minorities. White artists, it was claimed, know only how to interpret and evaluate the art of the dominant culture, whereas minority artists—schooled in their own culture as well as that of the more powerful majority—would be able to understand the artistic expressions of both groups.
Reading this, I felt so breathless that I had to sit down and stop a moment while I wondered when our definition of art had become—almost without our noticing—so fragmented, so narrow, so chillingly xenophobic. Foolishly, I had always imagined that one of the definitions of great—or merely good—art was that it translated more or less easily not only between cultures, but between languages, classes, countries, generations, centuries: across the deep divisions of time.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's new collection of stories, Arranged Marriage, makes it clear that fiction can speak the language and address the concerns of highly disparate cultures. Indeed, many of Divakaruni's characters are performing the strenuous balancing act of having one foot in one country, the other foot in another. Though perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the chasms her protagonists straddle have less to do with the ground beneath their feet than with the gap between past and future, between the heart and the head.
Typically, the sympathetic heroines of these fictions are young Indian women learning to cope with the unsettling novelties of life in the United States, and others who have adapted so well that now they must reconcile their new lives with the old ways—and the loved ones—left behind, halfway around the planet. So in "The World Love" a Berkeley graduate student is obsessed with the question of what will happen if her unforgivingly traditional, widowed mother, back home in Calcutta, should find out that the daughter is living in sin with her boyfriend:
The first month you moved in with him, your head pounded with fear and guilt every time the phone rang. You'd rush across the room to pick it up while he watched you from his tilted-back chair, raising an eyebrow … At night you slept next to the bedside extension. You picked it up on the very first ring, struggling up out of layers of sleep heavy as water to whisper a breathless hello, the next word held in readiness, mother.
In "Silver Pavements, Golden Roofs" an Indian student, studying in the United States, comes to stay with her uncle and aunt—only to find her aunt in a seclusion stricter than any purdah at home, while her uncle takes on American griefs and new American vices. And in yet another story, "Doors," a thoroughly assimilated Indian woman marries a less Americanized young man who is, as her mother warns her, "straight out of India," where men are still brought up with "a set of prehistoric values." In fact, the marriage turns out wonderfully, amicable and romantic, until the husband's boyhood friend moves in as a long-term house guest and makes the couple aware of an unbridgeable distance between the American sense of entitlement to privacy and space and the Indian comfort with a public communal life, the belief in hospitality and in not "losing face."
The stories are full of the details of Indian and Indian-American life: the little pots of make-up, of "kumkum and sindur and kajal," the marriage dots on the forehead, the saris, the curries, the Hindi musical films, the marriages contracted after just a few modest minutes of "bride-viewing." But the problems and conflicts presented in nearly all of these fictions exist, all too commonly, in countless other cultures.
So in the volume's initial story, "The Bats," we realize, considerably earlier than the child-narrator, that her Bengali mother is a victim of spousal abuse:
One morning when she was getting me ready for school, braiding my hair into the slick, tight pigtail that I disliked because it always hung stiffly down my back, I noticed something funny about her face. Not the dark circles under her eyes. Those were always there. It was high up on her cheek, a yellow blotch with its edges turning purple. It looked like my knee did after I bumped into the chipped mahogany dresser next to our bed last month.
And the wife's fear, in the story "Affair," that her husband is sleeping with her best friend, is by no means restricted to wives whose husbands watch MTV while they stay in the kitchen, "fry[ing] the samosas I'd made from scratch or put[ting] the finishing touches on a particularly fine qurma."
Indeed, the weaker of the stories may make one realize how much our global culture—despite the exterior trappings of custom, diet and tradition—is being reduced to the mass fascination with a certain sort of problem: hot-button, up to the minute, highly contemporary and instantly recognizable, the sort of problem that can inspire weeks and months of TV talk shows. The trouble with Arranged Marriage is that so many of its stories seem to be about such problems, to center on these problems, to have started with the idea of these problems—rather than from aspects of character (like the best fiction) or even, strictly speaking, from plot. The reader may feel that Divakaruni is not so much observing human nature—in all its various national costumes—as jogging around a track, dutifully touching the bases of our most up-to-the-minute "issues."
Divakaruni's work is strongest when her characters exhibit a surprising and truly moving intensity of response to their situations. The heroine of "The Word Love" gets very close to the edge when she loses the affections of both her mother and her lover. Yet these fictions are less assured when we feel their author pushing her plot and people around, struggling to get them to various popular destinations that we see coming a long time in advance. In fact, the reason we recognize them so readily is that they are so familiar and (however little we know about other cultures) that we've most likely heard of the relevant social problem before.
"The Ultrasound" is a perfect example of what goes wrong with these stories. We're informed early on that an Indian woman in America and her beloved cousin in India are pregnant at the same time; both are scheduled to have prenatal tests that will determine the health and sex of the baby. Readers of daily newspapers and fans of network "newsmagazines" may instantly intuit that before the story is over the Indian mother-to-be (like many women in her country) will be pressured into aborting the foetus of an unwanted girl child—and the story seems more intent on getting to this point than on delineating the characters of the two women. Likewise, the minute we learn that the husband in "Clothes" is the proprietor of a 7-Eleven, managing the graveyard shift in a dangerous urban neighborhood, we may feel dismayingly certain that he is to suffer the violent fate shared by too many immigrants working at convenience stores, those all-night invitations to petty or serious crime.
Throughout, there is too much of that sort of signalling, as if the author is making gestures over the characters' heads to inform the attentive reader about something a protagonist is too innocent or dim to know. In "The Disappearance," we're quick to grasp some answers to the mystery of why a submissive wife took the jewelry and wedding gifts and left her husband and son. We realize as soon as he tells us:
That was another area where he had to be firm. Sex. She was always saying, Please, not tonight, I don't feel up to it … Surely he couldn't be blamed for raising his voice at those times … or for grabbing her by the elbow and pulling her to the bed, like he did that last night.
And yet this often obvious story ends with a burst of emotion so deep that even the reader who's been invited to patronize the insensitive narrator is shocked by a rush of feeling for him, and for the sorrow that lasts his whole life.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni can move us, and she can tell a story. "The Maid Servant's Story," among the best in the collection, is a complex and engaging narrative about sex and betrayal, caste and social class. She needs to learn to trust her characters and to realize that the most mystifying human complexities are ultimately far more interesting than readily-grasped social problems. She can capture the deepest hopes and fears of young women caught halfway between two equally alien and familiar cultures, and I am eager to see what she does next.
Source: Francine Prose, Review of Arranged Marriage, in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 6, March 1996, pp. 20-21.
Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee, "Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Readers' Group Companion," http://www.randomhouse.com/resources/bookgroup/divakaruni_bgc.html (accessed May 4, 2006).
―――――, "Meeting Mrinal," in Arranged Marriage, Black Swan, 1997, pp. 273-300.
―――――, "Writing," http://www.chitradivakaruni.com/about/writing/ (accessed May 4, 2006).
Nathan, Paul, "Rising Star: Author Chitra Divakaruni's Books Are Very Successful," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 46, November 11, 1996, p. 27.
Ponzanesi, Sandra, Review of Arranged Marriage, in Cambridge Guide to Women's Writings in English, edited by Lorna Sage, Germaine Greer, and Elaine Showalter, 1999, p. 21.
Prose, Francine, Review of Arranged Marriage, in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 6, March 1, 1996, p. 20.
Review of Arranged Marriage, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 23, June 5, 1995, p. 53.
Seaman, Donna, Review of Arranged Marriage, in Booklist, Vol. 391, No. 21, July 1995, p. 1860.
Sethi, Robbie Clipper, Review of Arranged Marriage, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 287-88.
Adler, Bill, and Stephen Sumida, eds., Growing Up Asian American, Perennial Currents, 1995.
This collection of fiction and non-fiction pieces presents stories of childhood, adolescence, and coming of age in the United States. The stories feature immigrants from several Asian countries, including Korea, China, Japan, and India, from the 1800s to the 1900s, and show how this population had a great impact on American life.
Daniels, Roger, American Immigration: A Student Companion, Oxford University Press, 2001.
This book was written specifically for use in schools and colleges as a resource for research in American history, ethnic and multicultural studies, and genealogy. It covers many aspects of immigration, including an examination of different ethnic groups and their historical background; key immigration legislation; different categories of immigrants, such as refugees, children, and exiles; and religious groups.
―――――, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, HarperCollins, 1990.
Roger Daniels illustrates how, despite racial conflicts, immigrants to the United States, including Hispanics and cold war refugees, have adapted and contributed to American society. He describes the reactions of Americans to the various waves of immigration, from the rise of anti-foreign groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, to the restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s, through the World War II imprisonment of Japanese Americans in so-called resettlement camps.
Muller, Gilbert H., New Strangers in Paradise: The Immigrant Experience and Contemporary American Fiction, University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
Muller discusses the historical forces that have shaped immigration, including changes in the immigration laws in 1965 and shows how immigration has been treated in American fiction. Authors discussed include Isaac Bashevis Singer, Oscar Hijuelos, Jamaica Kincaid, Amy Tan, and Bharati Mukherjee.
Wheeler, Thomas C., The Immigrant Experience: The Anguish of Becoming American, Penguin, 1971, reprint, 1992.
This book provides a compilation of stories from a wide range of immigrants and describes their struggles to survive in a United States that turned out to be much harsher than they expected.
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