There are many worlds, both psychological and mystical, and I’m interested in both of them!” prolific writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni asserts. In her latest novel, Queen of Dreams, Divakaruni turns her focus to the mysteries of the universe, more specifically, the reality that is unseen. Dreams become the lens used to see the hidden world. By way of explaining the latest subject matter of her new novel, Divakaruni says, “Dreams fascinate me. They help me to come in touch with necessary parts of myself. And interestingly, dreams are interpreted differently in India than in Western culture—there is not the focus on Jung and Freud.” So where does Eastern dream interpretation come from? “Old folk traditions, the old epics, and the Puranas, amongst others,” she says, and Divakaruni should know, having done a lot of research on traditional methods of dream interpretation. What results is a sensitively told story of a rather non-traditional Indian family, often working at cross purposes due to misunderstandings of both themselves and each other.
The narrative is told alternately in the voice of Rakhi, a single mother and only child of a demoralized, alcoholic father and a “dream teller” mother, and the “dream journals” her mother kept as a way of eventually explaining her inscrutable life and often-distant relationship with those around her. The technique is remarkably effective for slowly building the narrative up to one of understanding and satisfaction. The journals are poetic and spare, the work of a woman for whom dreams were the basis of life, though not so much for herself but for those who sought her counsel:
Last night the snake came to me. … He was more beautiful than I remembered. His plated green skin shone like rainwater on banana plants in the garden plot we used to tend behind the dream caves. … The last time he appeared was a time of great change in my life, a time first of possibility, then of darkness. … Why did he come now, when I was finally at peace with my losses, the bargains I’d made? When I’d opened my fists and let the things I longed for slip from them?
Rakhi’s mother and her dream-telling predominates in a home in which everything else becomes subordinate. It is truly a life of irregularity that they lead. Rakhi, fiercely desiring to “tell” dreams just as her mother can, is bitterly disappointed when it becomes apparent, over time, that she has not inherited the gift:
My work is to dream. I turned the words over and over in my mind, intrigued. I didn’t understand them, but I was in love with them already. I wanted to be able to say them to someone someday. At the same time, they frightened me. They seemed to move her further from my reach.
Divakaruni, in her own words, portrays a family that is “very cut off from their community, a very inward-turned family, not ‘acceptable’ in Rakhi’s eyes.” This outcast status of nearly every character in the story somehow raises the level of awareness of each one of them: the eye focused inward allows for the hard-won self-realization of her characters. When I ask Divakaruni if this almost outcast status of these characters was intentional or just built momentum as the story went on, she revealed a deliberate plan: “I was aware of wanting to break a few boundaries with this story. This is really a unique kind of family, with the mother being a very unusual person who wants some very different things in life than her husband and that are both in one place but really longing for another place.”
The narrative is almost entirely a maelstrom of unfortunate events, misunderstandings, and layers of meaning. The sickening after-effects of the events of Sept. 11 strike the characters, too, giving the story a current and timely feel. This, too, was deliberate: “Fairly early on I knew that I had to work 9/11 into the story. It was such a tragedy of huge proportions to America. The backlash that people from my community, as well as others, suffered was the direct result of the pain that everyone was feeling.” Events rise and converge in a violent assault that gives everyone a feeling of a second chance at life. Rakhi will eventually discover a love and understanding of her father, who is in the process of translating her mother’s dream journals from their original Bengali. “There is an irony there, don’t you think?” Divakaruni asks quizzically. “How do we know that what her father is translating is really what is contained within the pages or simply what might be a comfort to Rakhi?” The point is simply that we don’t know, nor does it really matter by the end of the book.
The struggle to make sense of our lives is an ongoing process often complicated by forces seen and unseen. This is the novel’s main thrust. Divakaruni achieves this through the different points of view, explaining: “There are so many sides to a story, aren’t there? I wanted my readers to get the sense that everyone has their own perspective.”
Is all well with one and all in the end? Not quite, but that was probably not the author’s intent anyway. Awakening from the nightmare of our lives and introducing ourselves, whoever and wherever we are, seems more to the point:
The dream comes heralding joy.
I welcome the dream.
The dream comes heralding sorrow.
I welcome the dream.
The dream is a mirror showing me my beauty.
I bless the dream.
The dream is a mirror showing me my ugliness.
I bless the dream.
My life is nothing but a dream.
From it I will wake into death,
which is nothing but a dream of life.
And what a dream it is.
Michelle Reale lives and writes near Philadelphia, and is devoted to the study of South Asian literature.