The Vine of Desire, award-winning author Chitra Divakaruni’s latest novel, is a sequel to her earlier novel Sister of My Heart. Here she portrays the continued strong bond between two cousins Anju and Sudha, born on the same day in Calcutta. They grow up in the protected environment of the Chatterjee household, brought up by three mothers, Sudha’s, Anju’s, and Pishi (Anju’s widowed aunt). Anju believes that Sudha is the sister of her heart. This extraordinary relationship, engendered by the callow idealism of youth and innocence, is put severely to the test when destiny deals out different paths to the cousins—Anju gets married to Sunil, a computer scientist in California; and Sudha to Ramesh, a spineless engineer who lives under the complete dominance of his mother.
The events of Sister of My Heart provide an ironic foreshadowing of the unexpected turn of life that Sudha and Anju face in The Vine of Desire, a transformation that their early years in Calcutta had not prepared them for. Both sisters marry the grooms chosen by their mothers. Even though Anju falls in love with Sunil the moment she sees him, her marriage is doomed from the beginning because Sunil has a crush on Sudha. Sudha is incredibly beautiful and seems to have a fatal attraction for men, while Anju is independent, witty, but plain looking.
The strains in their marriage increase after Anju has a miscarriage and loses her baby son in America. In a desperate effort to escape her mother-in-law’s insistence that she abort her fetus when an amniocentesis reveals it is a girl, Sudha leaves her husband’s family and at Anju’s insistence flees to America with her daughter Dayita. Anju is torn between her loyalty and affection for Sudha, and her suspicion that Sunil is still attracted to her.
Divakaruni reveals a Jane Austen touch in her ironic portrayal of Anju’s simplistic solutions to life’s complex problems. As a single mother with a daughter, with no skills that can provide economic independence in America, Sudha is forced to accept the charity of her cousin, while ideas of a woman’s freedom of choice are all around her. It is a quantum leap for her from the security of a joint family in India.
Life does not turn out as they had expected, and the cousins grow apart—living under the same roof yet walking on eggshells as Sunil drifts away from Anju. Sudha’s divorce from Ramesh liberates her in a sense “like a surgeon’s scalpel,” as she writes to Ashok, her first love, who she has turned down twice— once to marry Ramesh and the second time because his offer of marriage after her divorce is conditional. He wants her without Dayita. Sudha is aware that she attracts men. In the U.S. she is able to mingle with men on equal footing. Lalit, a surgeon she meets at a party, starts dating her. The novel portrays the conflict between cultural conditioning and the exhilarating taste of freedom in America, a stock theme of Indian-American writing.
Anju, a budding feminist even in India, changes a lot when she comes to California. Hopes of Anju and Sunil getting closer diminish when she loses her baby. They increasingly lead separate lives. Matters come to a head when he is unable to control his passion for Sudha, and makes love to her when his wife is away. Sudha cannot remain there after this ultimate treachery. She accepts a job as a caregiver to an old, ill-tempered, invalid, Bengali gentleman.
Do the cousins share similar fates as they have done all their lives? Finding this out makes for absorbing reading. Divakaruni beautifully illustrates the transformations that Sudha and Anju go through as they free themselves from the men who try to protect them, and learn to live life on their own terms.
The title of the novel is a paraphrase of the twelfth verse of Shankaracarya’sBhaja Govindam which states that in spite of knowing that everything changes and dies ultimately, man is enveloped in the gusts of desire. Anju and Sudha can find their true identities only when they break the bond between them, as well as their ties to the men in their lives. They pay a heavy price for this but freedom demands it.
The narrative voice in most chapters is in the first person, a sort of lyrical meditation, delineating the inner state of the chief characters, but Divakaruni also introduces a third person narrator sometimes, providing background information. Fiction, the art of indirection, becomes a metaphor in the novel. Anju uses her creative writing assignments to camouflage thoughts that she dare not express openly. The Vine of Desire is a sensitive portrayal of the risks involved in breaking free from tradition and navigating the uncharted waters of freedom.
Lakshmi Mani is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.