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DARJEELING by Bharti Kirchner. St. Martins Press, 2002. Hardcover. $24.95. 320 pages. ISBN: 0-312-28642-2

While Bharti Kirchner worked in the software industry, she longed to be a writer. Largely self-taught in the art of writing and both determined and steadfast, she now, happily, writes full time. The very tangible and successful fruits of her labor are her first two novels Shiva Dancing and Sharmila’s Book, in addition to four very popular vegetarian cookbooks. Darjeeling was conceived almost immediately after she finished Sharmila’s Book.

The premise for Darjeeling, Kirchner’s third novel, comes from her lifelong fascination with the city of Darjeeling and the area that surrounds it. Having spent some time on a plantation such as the one portrayed in the novel, Kirchner remembers plantation living and the life around it as almost a “subculture” singly dedicated to India’s favorite and ubiquitous beverage: tea. She could conceptualize what daily life was like on a tea plantation, “I remember living on a plantation for a short period of time. There were so many nonfiction books about tea—I felt that I could write a novel about tea in a multigenerational sort of way, involving two sisters, their dedication to plantation life, and the many ways in which a family can fall apart and come together again.” All the while, Kirchner explains, tea is the metaphor for the connections maintained between those who remain in India and those who go abroad, breaking day-to-day ties with family and a deeply entrenched tradition. Tea not only becomes the pause that refreshes, but one of the ties that bind as well.

Aloka and Sujata are sisters, bound by blood, but little else. Aloka is graceful, thoughtful and to a great extent the duty-bound daughter of a tea plantation owner. Sujata is the awkward sister, younger, rough around the edges, and forever lurking in her older sister’s shadow. Meandering in the lush family tea garden one day, Aloka contemplates the vastness of the plantation and her eventual inheritance of it. In contrast to her younger sister Sujata, she knows little of the intricacies involved in the plantation’s daily operations, but realizes that as the oldest daughter the plantation was destined to become hers. Meeting the handsome would-be Sanskrit scholar, Pranab Mullick, coming from her father’s office would change the course of almost every member of her family as well as the tea plantation itself. Seemingly a valued and loyal up-and-coming employee, Mullick would soon begin to instigate for the rights of the plantation workers, over 60 percent of which were women, creating an immediate, albeit unforeseen conflict between his personal life and his livelihood.

Thus begins the central conflict of the book: Are loyalties to love, family obligations, and self, mutually exclusive? Should they be? Is it better to cut one’s losses and live for one’s self? Kirchner’s characters in Darjeeling are startling in some ways because they don’t fit neatly into the expected stereotypes of most contemporary Indian fiction being published these days. There seems to be a character formula and many South Asian writers have obliged Western readers by using it: strong Indian men, arranged marriage in favor of love marriage, submissive Indian women ready and willing to lay aside all personal desires to fulfill family wishes and expectations. Throw in the cantankerous, controlling, judgmental, and shrewish older Indian woman, in most cases the much feared and despised mother-in-law and the formula is complete.

Refreshingly, Kirchner has not included any of these cardboard characterizations. In fact, she has done exactly the opposite. Instead we have women of strength in Aloka, Sujata, and the college-educated grandmother who raised them after the untimely death of their mother. Mullick, on the other hand, is strong and willful in his element as an exemplary employee on the plantation, but extremely weak and ineffectual out of it, lacking motivation and honesty among other things.

In yet another departure from a formulaic story line, Mullick eventually becomes enamored with Sujata and they engage in secret meetings and eventually a consummation of their profound love, practically under the nose of an unsuspecting Aloka. Mullick maintains the pretense of marrying Aloka all the while enjoying a true kindred spirit relationship with Sujata. His life becomes a swirling vortex of controversy and back-stabbing as he rallies plantation workers to near revolt with the boss’s younger daughter while engaged to the elder one. When plantation workers stage a revolt that turns violent, Aloka and Sujata’s father Bir as well as their grandmother Nina, know exactly where the blame lies:

“The workers staged a walkout this morning. They’re making outrageous claims. I can’t say it caught me completely by surprise, so I didn’t hesitate to call the police as soon as I found out. . . It’s that Pranab rascal. . .I know it’s him spurring the workers on, telling them what they want to hear. All of a sudden they’re making huge, unrealistic demands.”

While Pranab is discovered as the instigator on the plantation, discovery of his dalliance with Sujata is not far behind. This is when many readers will feel that the “real” story begins. Here Kirchner artfully turns all previous characterizations upside down and real conflict settles in. When I question her on the viability on all that transpires, such extreme conflict for such a well heeled Indian family, she laughs and mildly bristles: “Of course such Indian families have conflicts! You can live with conflict. That is why so many family members in India can live under one roof!”

Darjeeling is a poetically told, artfully rendered story of the true test of blood loyalties, bringing a family to the brink and back again. There is a lot to love here and a lot to question. Kirchner’s characters dive deep and surface. When Aloka intones, “Every journey … is a quest for what we’ve been missing in our lives,” we believe her. Who wouldn’t?