This blog has already reviewed collections of short stories (here and here) and rather similarly, this volume contains stories which revolve loosely around the theme of femininity and motherhood of desi women abroad. To be more precise, the 11 stories focus on the consequences of the cultural reality of matrimony on the lives and values of young childless women living in the US (California). This is coherent with the experience of the author, who herself was living near San Francisco (says the intro to the 1995 book, but the wiki page says she's now moved to Houston), is married and probably didn't have children then. I see she now is the mother of two.
The stories are extremely well written, perhaps just that little too well written, in the sense that nothing is left to chance. I see that Chitra Divakaruni has a PhD in English literature, and teaches creative writing (does she still do that?) : in a way, this confirms the reading impression that her work is like a demonstration of her great skills. The stories are as much an artist's production, of course, as they are that of a teacher, showing what good writing should be like. This will be my only concern with her book: it's sometimes too self-assured, too much in command of all its parameters. I know one shouldn't regret this, but I occasionally wished for the flaw, the bias, the axe to grind which perhaps wasn't yet found by her, Arranged Marriage being her first work, the forerunner of at least 12 other novels, poetry volumes, children's books and anthologies. Impressive!
Anyway, one is charmed and awed by her stories, which earned her a 1996 American Book Award. The young women who inhabit them all have problems which are cleverly described and addressed within a sophisticated narrative in which the choice of viewpoint varies and an intelligent and perceptive emotionality is used. Of course almost all of them have escaped (or think they have done so) the magnetic pull of the Indian social and family circles, in which marriage attracts young girls and holds them tight in its grip until they are safely in the hands of a "suitable" husband. They are now far away from these circles, and as a rule they lead a westernized life with a boyfriend (or husband), affluent lifestyle and comfortable social standards. But naturally the magnetic pull finds its way nevertheless, and they aren't as free as they would like, often in spite of themselves. Typically, something happens to them, and it brings them back within the pull, i.e., they suddenly feel the distance between their life situation and the conventional arrangement which should have been their lot had they not left India. A crisis ensues, which they have to solve as best they can. The author doesn't condemn the system, but rather she shows how it's present within the mental framework of these women, and how powerful it is. But this narrative model isn't the only one which Divakaruni uses, even if if it's part of the other ones which might superimpose themselves.
The Meera of story n°5, A perfect life, is a "perfectly" americanized young woman who feels that she's escaped the infernal circle of compulsory motherhood, is vaguely thinking about getting married to her Richard, and having children at some point, but mostly she's enjoying the luxury of independence and womanhood. Her friend Sharmila has just had a baby, and she feels she's "abandoned" her. She's pleased she's far from India where aunties and relatives are constantly harrowing people into having children. Then this event happens: a young migrant boy of Latino origin is found by her, hidden close to her door, and driven by an instinct she can't control, she doesn't take him to the authorities, but opens her house to let him in. She doesn't tell her boyfriend nor Sharmila, but starts the process of looking after him, of slowly taming him inside her house. He's rather wild, doesn't speak English, and apparently needs affection. It doesn't occur to her she might be doing something illegal or simply wrong, such as stopping frantic parents from getting their child back.
Little by little, she has to admit to her friend and boyfriend that she's sheltering this little boy, whom she christens Krishna, and she starts being very defensive about letting him go. They try to reason her, but to no avail. She reorganizes her life around him, deepening the crazy situation in which she's clearly keeping somebody else's child and not caring about the "reality", because her affection for the boy has blotted it out. She's conscious of the irregularity at some level, because she hides him and lies about the situation, but this doesn't stop her. Finally she will have to confront the reality, but it will rend her heart and emotions, destroy a lot of her previous balance, and transform her into what she didn't know she was.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni does a splendid job of turning this impossible situation into a very realistic story; one understands that this young independent woman, so proud of her newly acquired westernized status, carries with her a powerful child-need which she has inherited from generations of Indian women, from the values of Indian culture, and that the pressure of motherhood is very much present within her own mind. She thought that perhaps her union with this young American partner had freed her from the strictures of the culture she was born in, but nothing could be more wrong, suggests the writer.
Other stories are simpler in their narrative outline, such as the one called Doors, in which Deepak, the husband ("enlightened" though he is) of this young Indian woman called Preeti, who is comfortably settled in her San Francisco flat (or house, I forget which) obliges her to suddenly put up with the prolonged presence of an invasive and rowdy Indian buddy of her husband's, who disrupts her peace and sense of order. What unfolds is a very perceptive psychological analysis of a person's reaction to change. Short story, but masterfully analysed. I had to mention this one because the two men, at one stage, are watching what seems to be Dilli ka thug: "An Indian movie where a plump man wearing a hat and a bemused expression was serenading a haughty young woman. Both yelled with laughter as the woman swung around, snatched the hat off her admirer's head and stomped on it. "Vah, look at those flashing eyes!" Raj exclaimed. "I tell you, none of our modern girls can match Nutan for style!" (p. 195) I couldn't find the hat-stomping moment though.
Other stories are much more intricate, like The Maid Servant's story. It starts with an aunt and her niece chatting about the younger woman's upcoming marriage, how she feels so lucky about being away from the pressure of Calcutta, and comparing how it had been for Mashi (the aunt) compared to what things are likely to be for Manisha, the prospective bride. At one stage the chatter stops short, though, because of an allusion to a colour, saffron. It's the beginning of a story which she at first refuses to tell, but coaxed into it, will unfold as The "Maid Servant's Story". It takes place between the very affluent young wife of a beautiful estate in India, and an adivasi woman who one day comes to beg for work at her gate. Unexpectedly, because it's against the common practises, she opens to her, and even if branded as foolish by everybody in the household, she starts using her as her personal maid. She calls her Sarala, and Sarala is clever, useful, honest and soon the young wife, who's expecting a child, starts training her how to read and write. The husband tolerates her because of his wife's insistance, but seems to have his own idea about her. All this triggers a chain of events which she will not control, leading to issues difficult to foresee, but very logical once you understand their hidden links.
And of course there is an unforeseen connection between the story's teller and listener, and the characters inside it, which creates a very interesting climax. I won't say more, but you understand that the construction and the effects of this long narrative is breathlessly followed by more people than one. What makes its quality and depth are the reasons one can suppose are those of this unconventional wife to break the rigid social rules which govern the caste system and the violence which underpins it. What she's done, generous an intelligent as it seems, has in fact unleashed a wave of fury that she didn't see coming. It's like a chess game, and one marvels at how Divakaruni has so masterfully described all the players' intentions, their steps as they are obliged to act in agreement to forces and moves which both themselves and the other players have set in motion. "I know she will not tell me any more. It's how we survive, we Indian women whose lives are half light and half darkness, stopping short of revelations that would crisp away our skins. I'm left alone to figure the truth of the story, to puzzle out why it was given to me" (p. 167) I believe that Manisha's thoughts can be applied to us readers in the same way.