Sister of My Heart, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
Sister of My Heart: A Novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Anchor (2000), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 322 pages.
A wise and beautiful novel in which two young women, raised “like sisters” in Calcutta, find that marriages and pregnancies call on them to make choices between competing loves.
Chitha Banebjee Divakaruni is an excellent writer able to create the lives of Indian women here and in her other novels. Here her story focuses on two fatherless girls and the three “mothers” who raise them to be respectable young women, worthy daughters of the Chaterjee family. Living within the strict confines of their family, Anju and Sudha are particularly close to each. When they reach adolescence, the mothers decide they are to be married. Cracks appear in their relationship as one girl goes to America with a charming husband and the other enters a loveless partnership in India. The pregnancies of both women bring increased pain and a new relationship between them.
The books alternatives the narration of Sudha and Anju, providing their different perspectives of events. Despite their closeness, they have different personalities and approaches to life. Divakaruni treats both with equal sympathy, but it is Sudha who faces the larger challenges. Her role in the family is the more insecure, and she is the one who learns of the destructive secret that could destroy the bonds between her and Anju. She is the one who learns of that each of us is essentially alone at critical points in our lives and that more than one story may be true. She comes to realize that the past is not the firmly rooted banyan tree as she once believed. And she is the one who recreates traditional fairy tales into viable paths as both women move out of the strict, protected world into which they were born.
Within the all-female family in which the girls grew up reveal differ daughters-mothers relations. There is much love but also lots of strictness. The mothers are always to be obeyed. The family is more important than individuals and the mothers could be tyrannical. The men that Anju and Sudha love and marry are never evil, just not as strong and competent as the women.
Divakaruni obviously loves words. Her skill as a poet shows in the novel, which often sings lyrically. While highly accessible, her novel also probes modern questions of different truths. At the same time, her story is full of suspense and uncertainty. Readers are repeatedly surprised at turns of events and at knowledge that has been withheld. The combination of lyricism and surprise make this a delightful book to read.
More importantly, Western readers, like myself, may find the choices that the women in this book made to be surprising or even wrong, even though the author’s depiction makes them totally in character. Tahmima Anam did the same thing in her Golden Age. Both books left me realizing that the values many of us assume to be universal are in fact not universally followed. While we share enough with Sudha and Anju to empathize with them, we are forced to see that they have different values and make different choices than those typically expected in other parts of the world. We must learn to honor these differences among women it we are to have solidarity with them. Perhaps this understanding is the best reason to read books by global women of color.
I highly recommend Sister of My Heart to all readers who care about love and differing values and to all who are interested in the women of India.