DESIRABLE DAUGHTERS by Bharati Mukherjee. Hyperion, 2002. Hardcover. $24.95. ISBN: 0-7868-6598-9

Every time an Indian author, particularly a woman author tells a story outside of the pat and predictable framework of highly marketable exotica, something exciting happens. A really great story is born. Mukherjee, a prolific and award-winning author and professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley has written a novel highlighting the varied paths and alternate destinies of three sisters. The sisters lives are disparate to the extreme, which Mukherjee highlights skillfully. As the three teeter along the edges of their lives, the consequences of an assignation present themselves seemingly out of nowhere. Illusions are shattered and lives are changed.

Tara is a 36-year-old kindergarten teacher, who initially married Bish, her parent’s most suitable choice for her, and then eventually divorced him. The youngest of the three sisters all born on the same date and named after goddesses, Tara lives what she feels to be a comparatively easy and somewhat unconventional existence with her son in California. And herein lies just one of the jewels of this book: Mukherjee writes this character as thoroughly modern and assimilated only to have the sheltered and cosseted life she lived in India, come back to her in waves and flashes. This contrasts greatly with her present situation of single mother of Rabi and her lover, Andy, a “balding, red-bearded, former biker, former bad-boy, Hungarian Buddhist contractor/yoga instructor,” and with seemingly less conventional stability than any of her sisters presently enjoys, or what her parents had desperately hoped for her to have in her life. This is a far cry from the status that the Calcutta society that they were born into conferred upon them collectively:

“It is true that we three sisters were as alike, at least to look at, as blossoms on a tree. (And if I may say so, we were blossoms.) Padma, the first, and six years my senior, was forced by our father to turn down movie offers. Parvati, three years older than me, too the annual “Miss Brains and Beauty” cover of Eve’s Weekly. And in my turn, just about the time communists were taking over the West Bengal state government and Calcutta city council, and my father and his friends were sensing the noose tightening, the future shortening, and bhadra lok bodies were being found on the golf courses, I was tapped for the same cover again: Sisters Three: Can it Be? Our world was dying, but we were the last to know. The narrow world of the house and city felt as secure to me as it must have to Tara Lata in Mishtigunj.”

Mukherjee sets the stage for the drama that begins to unfold in the women’s rather staid lives (yes, even for the unconventional Tara, life is rather mundane) by a long and winding narrative in the beginning of the book which gives a rather comprehensive glimpse into highest socioeconomic strata of Calcutta. Here the author drastically contrasts the difference between East and West, differences which, at times during the novel, seem to stretch the credibility of Tara’s character beyond the point. One wonders how she came to be who she was and where she was, leaving so much behind:

“Bengali culture trains one to claim the father’s birthplace, sight unseen, as his or her desh, her home … when I speak of this to my American friends—the iron-clad indentifiers of region, language, caste, and subcaste—they call me “over determined” and of course they are right. When I tell them they should be thankful for their identity crises and feelings of alienation, I of course am right. When everyone knows your business and every name declares your identity, where no landscape fails to contain a plethora of human figures, even a damaged consciousness, even loneliness, become privileged commodities.”

Included in this framework of Tara’s Indian heritage is the tale of Tara Lata Gangooly, the child bride in Bengali folklore whose unfortunate husband dies of a snake bite and she lives on for 70 more years, “unburdened by a time-consuming, emotion-draining marriage and children, never having to please a soul, she grew up and grew old in a single house in an impoverished village in the poorest place on earth, and in that house, the world came to her. She lived there seventy years and gradually changed the world.” Though their lives couldn’t be more different, Tara, nevertheless, finds a “profound connection” with the mythical and virginal Tara.

Though Tara has never had any reason to doubt the pre-marriage virginity of either of her sisters, suspicions are raised when a newly arrived young, Chris Day, arrives from India claiming to be the forgotten son of the elder Padma, apparently conceived during an ill-fated affair with a man, Ron Dey, not deemed suitable. The intrigue and mystery that this scenario adds to the book is welcome and delicious, and further fans the flames of history, identity and propriety, qualities that have been bred in the bones of Tara’s family for generations. Chris Day’s advent into the story ushers in a chain of near cataclysmic events wholly unexpected and changing the lives of nearly everyone, though miraculously, after great pain, Tara finds solace and hope in her own tradition, long forgotten:

“Buried deep in the consciousness of every Hindu is a core belief … we measure passing time on two clocks that coexist: one that ticks in God Brahma’s eye and one that hums on our wrists. Time moves in cycles when it belongs to gods, in straight lines when it belongs to mortals. In Brahma’s eye-clock eons add up to one complete cycle. The cycles repeat themselves and will keep doing so until Time itself is no more. Eon succeeds eon with the swiftness of a single godly blink. The eon of dissension precedes the dissolution of the cosmos. But why fear dissolution when you know for certain that Brahma-time moves in cycles? After wrecking there will come the needed rebuilding. After misery and meanness, an eon of bliss, purity, and perfection.”

And so it does.—Michelle Reale

Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.