One day in 1995, Bela Dewan telephones her mother outside of Kolkota, begging her to talk sense into Tara, the granddaughter she’s only seen in photographs. Tara wants to quit college, and Bela, in Houston, is terrified that her daughter is making a mistake and throwing away her future—just as she had. Unable to communicate face-to-face, Sabitri begins to write a letter to Tara, explaining why she should stay in school, and as she writes, memories return of her own life as a servant’s daughter who dreamed of an education. She spares herself no criticism in her memoir.
The three generations of women on two continents comprise one family, fractured by an insurmountable distance born of prickly relations between mothers and daughters. Sabitri, born and raised in India, tested but not broken, never leaves the country. Bela, born and raised in India, elopes to America to her political activist boyfriend who forces her to sever ties with her mother. Tara, born and raised in America, struggles to find self-significance on her own terms.
Before We Visit The Goddess is a bittersweet collection of nine related short stories stretching from 1963 to 2020, featuring different points of view at different times in the characters’ histories. Divakaruni, the author of 16 previous books, found stepping out of her comfort zone and into a novel-in-stories rewarding.
“I have long loved reading this form in works such as Louise Erdrich’s wonderful Love Medicine, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad,” Divakaruni explained. “It combines the best aspects, for me, of the novel and the short story. It allowed me to deal with a three-generational family saga in a succinct and (I hope) elegant manner. It allowed me to leap from across decades in some cases, and yet create a sense of continuity through the generations and continents where these women live.”
Structured in this way, the book is able to focus on the most important and most dramatic decisions, events, and realizations in the characters’ lives. Misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and missteps, as well as each character’s regrets, successes, and personal victories are carefully revealed and painstakingly examined from one story to the next. Moreover, Before We Visit The Goddess is a portrait of how we, as women, fail ourselves and what we lose in our lives when we turn away from our elders—and vice versa.
“[Those are] important aspects in the lives of these … women that I wanted to illuminate,” said Divakaruni in e-correspondence. “In addition, I wanted the book to ask the questions, What is the meaning of success for a woman? What gives her happiness? Does this change as we moved from generation to generation and from India to America? Is it possible to learn from inherited wisdom, or does each generation have to find wisdom the hard way?”
The topic of immigration is nothing new in literature; however, according to Divakaruni, it’s the changes caused by such movement as they affect the individuals and their families, the losses and the gains, that interest her the most. What better way to explore that concept than by placing one character firmly in India, the second straddling continents, and the third firmly in America? To tie the characters together as three generations of one family adds another dimension.
“I am also fascinated by inter-generational relationships,” Divakaruni added, “and in my own life I am very aware of how my relationship with my children is very different from the relationship I have with my mother.”
The novel traces the author’s own geographical route as it moves from a small village in Bengal to California and then to Texas, where she currently lives and teaches. Education plays a significant role in the lives of Sabitri, Bela, and Tara—the desire, the regret, the second chance.
When asked if education is one of the book’s focal points because she’s an educator, or might it be a comment on gender politics, Divakaruni responded, “Both, really.” Education was always essential in her family. Divakaruni teaches at the University of Houston, where she is the McDavid Professor of Creative Writing, her mother was a schoolteacher, and one of her uncles taught college in a village in India.
“I came from a family of very modest financial means, but my mother always made sure that I had a good education, even if she had to skimp on clothing and housing—and sometimes even food,” Divakaruni said.
Involved with Pratham, a non-profit which educates underprivileged children in the slums of India, and Daya, a domestic violence organization in Houston, Divakaruni likewise brings to this work primary insight into myriad issues facing single women/single mothers and the means to empowerment.
“I know that education is often an individual’s only path to success and transformation. So Sabitri’s longing for education is something that rises from deep within myself,” Divakaruni said. “I also learned, by observing the women around me … that economic independence, a career or business, is extremely important for women if they are to live a life of dignity. All of these thoughts, feelings and beliefs are interwoven into the lives of the three main characters.”
The losses and successes in the stories are the characters’ own responsibility as much as they are attributed to any outside relationships. Actions beget subsequent actions, positive or negative, and the daisy-chain of events affects succeeding generations. Mix in a helping of fate, and the complexity magnifies.
“That is what I wanted to depict in this novel: an intersection of fate, which we cannot control, and our passions and desires, which push us inexorably in a certain direction, even when we know it’s wrong,” said Divakaruni.
Divakaruni has created characters to be embraced despite their difficulties with each other; learned from when they stumble and fall; and celebrated as they pick themselves up again. There is grace and compassion in her writing as emotions spike and subside. Life-changing disappointments are tempered with kindness, and at no time does the author chastise a character for her imperfections; she allows her characters to learn from their mistakes and restore their lives as best they can.
As for what she hopes readers will glean from reading Before We Visit The Goddess, she said, “When I write a book, I don’t have a particular agenda. I’m really only offering the readers a story, a story that interested and moved me, because I believe that through stories we understand the world in a deeper, richer way. I hope the stories of these three women, and the men who love, support, transform and/or betray them, will touch the hearts of readers and make them examine their own lives anew.”
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she is the managing editor of a monthly newspaper and is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine, a publication of the American Library Association. Between assignments, she writes fiction, hunts for the perfect Bloody Mary, and heads to the beach as often as she can.