I catch Bharati Mukherjee on the phone at our pre-scheduled time. Sounding a bit breathless she exclaims, “I made it!” She goes on to explain that she had just arrived home from being stuck in traffic after going to see an afternoon show of M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie. Lively and friendly, Mukherjee exudes warmth and passion that seems to directly translate onto the page. Certainly, in The Tree Bride, a most ambitious novel, Mukherjee’s passionate engagement with time present as well as time past is evident.
The second in a planned trilogy, The Tree Bride follows Desirable Daughters and the continuing life of Tara Chatterjee after the firebombing of her home.
I wonder out loud how one goes about “planning” a trilogy, when writing simply one book seems difficult enough. Mukherjee explains, “When I started Desirable Daughters, I had no idea it would lead to a three-book project. Things started to really form in my mind as I was writing the last scene. Here we had Tara, a naturalized citizen, previously a good wife living in a gated community, successful husband, personal happiness, and then asking herself: ‘what do I want out of life?’ She is an impulsive risk-taker. For Tara to really understand who she is, she would have to know her background. Thus, her ‘journey’ on finding out about Tara, the tree bride, and her namesake.”
Tara ruminates on the path she has taken:
By twenty-two I had satisfied all my ancestral duties. I was married; I had a son, material comfort, an admired husband—what else is there? Eight years later, feeling myself a privileged prisoner inside the gated community, I listened to all the voices yammering around me and all the stories on television and in the magazines and did the right California thing and struck out on my own.
One would surmise, correctly that when a woman previously bound to tradition decides to go it alone, the journey will be both life-altering and perhaps life-saving in the end, despite unfortunate circumstances. And Tara definitely seems to have her share. Despite all of the attendant misery of her own physical condition after the firebombing of her home (somehow connected to her ancestor Tara) and the single-minded devotion to her ex-husband Bish, (by whom she is expecting a child) who suffered the most from the tragedy, Tara undertakes the writing of a book about the tree bride. Emboldened by the baby she is carrying, who she believes to be a daughter, she immerses herself in the lore of the past.
And so, just as I had started coming to terms with an accelerated middle age—a mere thirty-six, but in one night nearly widowed and now nursing a crippled husband—no longer the tabloid-interest cutie-pie with the “pixie hair and latte complexion”—I began to suspect that this pregnancy would be tangled up with history.
I had no need for amniocentesis; I had been awash in estrogen for over a year … and then I started on something new and strange. This was about a distant relative we called the Tree Bride, my great-great-aunt, a point of light from the remotest, darkest galaxy of my life.
The research in this book seems voluminous. Indeed, it is, for all intents and purposes a book within a book. The narrative picks up where Desirable Daughters left off, as Tara, clearly no longer desirable in the physical sense due to disfigurement suffered in the firebombing of her home. While visiting her obstetrician, a curiously and obviously white woman named Dr. Victoria Khanna, a bond is forged and a connection revealed: Dr. Khanna entrusts to Tara papers and documents from her grandfather, a colonialist in India. How his story is connected to Tara and the firebombing of the home is just one of the tricks pulled off in this book. And one must read quite carefully, because what she does here is intricate and sometimes confusing.
The research, though, adds a depth and verity to the story itself. Which came first, the story or the research? “Well, in terms of writing, definitely, the research comes first. It begins as sort of undigested pellets of information. Smells, climates, customs, and clothing are very much in the forefront of my mind. I love doing research … the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are so real to me. I began telling the story of the tree bride, taking a very American way of looking at ‘roots.’ As well, a large part of this story involves understanding the encounter with the alien [the British]. It also involves the usual obsession with free will and what that means individually, and how do people like myself balance the tension between two very different worlds.”
There are times when one wonders where all of this is going, wonders, in fact, how Mukherjee will reconcile the various threads: the story of the tree bride; John Mist, a man of greed and deception; John Treadwill, Dr. Khanna’s grandfather. When I admit that I read slowly and carefully, Mukherjee gives a hearty laugh. “I seem to always be misunderstood about the plotting of my novels—its structure is very Hindu in a way: every action has a reaction. There is the belief that nothing is lost in this world.” She goes on further to state, “Fiction dramatizes the possibility of normal, everyday life being somehow totally overturned or defined by a group’s ambitions [such as terrorism] or desires. Destiny definitely has a plotline. The question then is, ‘How do I react?’”
Michelle Reale lives and writes near Philadelphia, and is devoted to the study of South Asian literature.