Before We Visit the Goddess
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Publisher: Simon and Schuster UK (2017)
Mothers and daughters have become a favourite trope for literary fiction writers, arguably turmoil between the creator and her creation is a struggle as old as time. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni tries her hand at exploring this through three generations of very different women. The story of Sabitri’s life starts in rural Bengal, when she yearns for a life of independence through education but her plans fall apart rather quickly. Her daughter Bela is left to deal with the consequences of her decisions and struggles with her often distracted mother, only to run away with her lover to America. Tara, Sabitri’s granddaughter, lives a life Sabitri could have never imagined- dropping out of college and turning into a rebel. Tara and Bela are each guided by the invisible leash of Sabitri’s trauma, and are plagued by half hidden truths that try to destroy lives, love and their very existence. Perhaps more than anything else, Before We Visit the Goddess is a book about secrets.
“Granddaughter, people look down on a woman without education. She has few options. To survive, she is forced to put up with ill-treatment. She must depend on the kindness of strangers, an unsure thing”
The story of Sabitri’s life is told as a series of letters she tries to write to Tara. Tara is a distant entity, only “granddaughter” as Sabitri has never met her, but futilely tries to correct the wrongs she has kept hidden for so long. This line ironically shapes the rest of these women’s lives, as none of them end up receiving a formal higher education and are forced to rely not only on the kindness of strangeness but having to give up any semblance of personal identity in order to move forward. Sabitri abandons her studies after finding herself pregnant and alone, needing security more than a diploma and cash strapped to finish her degree. Bela flees to America with her college boyfriend as he is a vocal political refugee in an unstable city. She leaves without a second thought, only to realise that adjusting to a life in America meant compromise and sacrifice that eventually destroys her marriage. The divorce of her parents prompts Tara to willingly drop out of college in America, and turns her to a life of uncertainty and recklessness as she unsuccessfully tries to process her emotions.
Divakaruni’s languid and emotional prose acts as a road map of the intergenerational trauma they unwittingly carry with them. She writes in sections with laser focus, tracking their individual little paths and deviations and uses Sabitri’s letters to zoom all the way back out and form an interconnected picture. The pain of having to bear two generations of secrets and terrible circumstances falls squarely on Tara’s shoulder- even as she already grapples between her identity as Indian and American, meanwhile her mother grapples between dependency and independence while her grandmother lives and dies with the pain of choosing her personal ambition over family. The book holds your hand and leads you through landscapes of three different time periods and settings from rural villages to Kolkata that evolve into the failure of the American dream.
Before We Visit the Goddess’s detailed take on these stories is sometimes interrupted by short first-person interludes by secondary characters, which although are vital to the plot, I found made me slightly impatient at times. I felt this particularly with the introduction of American characters, who took away from the distinctly South Asian perspective the novel seemed to work so hard at fleshing out. It isn’t what would typically be considered a leisure read, but is definitely engaging because of it’s uniquely descriptive take on themes like food and the spiritual connection that it shares with these women. Special attention has been paid to describing mouth-watering Bengali delicacies as food becomes the turning point for these women at different points in their lives.
This thematic aspect of spiritual redemption is definitely a unique one, as the book does not end on a grim note but one of understanding for the high powers at work in these women’s lives- making it surprisingly unique when most literary fiction ends with doom and despair. Amongst the most profound moments is definitely when Tara goes quite literally to visit the Goddess, with a man who is a stranger to her. He offers prayers in her name for forgiveness, generously adopting her into his family’s birth sign and gotram despite the priests obvious disapproval for her punk rock outfit that was hastily covered with a shawl. She feels a kinship to a tradition that was never hers, and begins on the road towards healing the rifts that have shaken up her life. The catharsis for Bela and Tara finally arrives with the rediscovery of Sabitri’s long lost letters and they bury their family’s secrets together. The ending alone definitely makes this a touching and well written piece from Divakaruni.