Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

"Sister of My Heart"

(Reviewed by Karma Sawka APR 13, 2002)

"The Bidhata Purush is tall and has a long, spun-silk beard like the astrologer my mother visits each month to find out what the planets have in store for her. He is dressed in a robe made of the finest white cotton, his fingers drip light, and his feet do not touch the ground as he glides toward us. When he bends over our cradle, his face is so blinding-bright I cannot tell his expression. With the first finger of his right hand he marks our foreheads. It is a tingly feeling, as when Pishi rubs stiger-balm on our temples. I think I know what he writes for Anju. You will be brave and clever, you will fight injustice, you will not give in. You will marry a fine man and travel the world and have many sons. You will be happy.

It is more difficult to imagine what he writes for me. Perhaps he writes beauty, for though I myself do not think so, people say I am beautiful - even more than my mother was in the first years of her marriage. Perhaps he writes goodness, for though I am not as obedient as my mother would like, I try hard to be good. There is a third word he writes, the harsh angles of which sting like fire, making me wail, making Pishi sit up, rubbing her eyes. But the Bidhata Purush is gone already, and all she sees is a swirl - cloud or sifted dust - outside the window, a fading glimmer, like fireflies.

Years later I will wonder, that final word he wrote, was it sorrow?"

The promise of riches to be found in a ruby cave hidden in a faraway jungle lures two cousins to their early death. Untimely, too, because their pregnant wives, waiting at home with their widowed sister, hear the news, and grief forces them both into early labor. Anju and Sudha, distant cousins born on the same day, form a bond of sisterhood that no one can quite understand or match. Throughout the story, there is the sense that the choices these fathers made will always affect the fate of their daughters, and that the daughters' own choices will always bring unforeseen consequences. The girls themselves, in alternating chapters, tell the narrative of their lives, from birth to motherhood, which gives the reader more insight to the intricacies of their lives and relationships than any one storyteller could.

They grow up together, carefree and sheltered by the Mothers (their mothers, Gouri and Nalini, and Gouri's widowed sister-in-law, Pishi) and an array of servants in a massive crumbling old house. Witty and independent Anju is the daughter of Gouri Ma, a proud descendant of the wealthy Chatterjee family. She grows up with many dreams for her future and knows that she will one day go to college. Sudha, beautiful angelic Sudha, comes from a branch of the family tree that is shadowy and dark. Her only dream for the future is to have a happy and intact family, to be a wife and mother.

Though Sister of My Heart depends less on the magical realism of Divakaruni's earlier novel, The Mistress of Spices, there is the element of the fairy tale. Together, Sudha and Anju's lives parallel many of the old tales that their aunt Pishi told them as girls - and that they, in turn, tell one another and their babies. There is the beautiful princess who is locked away forever in her evil mother-in-law's fortress, waiting to be rescued. There is also the brave warrior queen who defends herself and her baby against an army who are trying to harm her.

And so, not everything is rosy and protected for these two young women. When Sudha begs Pishi to tell a dark family secret, both her perception of herself and her connection to Anju falter slightly. Later, bound by honor and duty to the sister of her heart, Sudha must make the decision to either face an arranged marriage - the girls not only are born on the same day, but are set to be wedded on the same day, in marriages arranged by the Mothers, and years later become pregnant simultaneously - or to elope with a man with whom she has fallen in love, a decision that haunts her for years.

One sister marries and moves away to America, the other marries and stays behind in India. Their separation is not only physical but emotional, too; when apart, their communication is inhibited and shallow, and the fact that Anju's husband harbors passion for Sudha like a dimly glowing coal is a wedge between the sisters. Only when the two experience tragedies of their own are they drawn back to one another to heal their fractured lives. Sudha comes to stay in America with the sister she has sorely missed all these years, but there is always the question of what consequences this decision will make.

Divakaruni's lyrical language allows her readers to imagine the atmosphere of her characters' lives and to feel their joy, disappointment, sisterhood and sorrow. A twist at the end and a feeling of starting over will leave readers wanting to know more about Sudha and Anju; fortunately Divakaruni felt that, after publishing Sister of My Heart, these two characters weren't done with her. The Vine of Desire published in February 2002 is the sequel.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 230 reviews

Read an excerpt from Sister of My Heart at the author's website



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Poetry:

Younger Readers Fiction:

The Brotherhood of the Conch Trilogy:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Chitra Banerjee DivakaruniChitra Banerjee Divakaruni was born in India and lived there until 1976, until she was nineteen, at which point she left Calcutta and came to the United States. She continued her education in the field of English by receiving a Master's degree from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. She briefly lived in Chicago and Ohio before she settled in Sunnydale, California in 1979 where she currently lives with her husband and two children while teaching creative writing at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. Since 1991, she has been the founder and president of MAITRI, a helpline for South Asian women that particularly helps victims of domestic violence and other abusive situations. She is an award-winning author and poet. She has been published in over 50 magazines and her writing has been included in over 30 anthologies.

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