Book Review: Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
“Is this author any good?” I asked my librarian, holding up ‘Arranged Marriage’, a book of short stories by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. The Librarian screwed up her nose while her head turning from side to side gestured “No.”
Past recommendations by the very same Librarian had left me with a feeling that I should have remained illiterate, and that’s the reason I had devised this ingenious method of asking her what she thought of a book and snapping it up instantly if she didn’t recommend it.
So I knew it in my bones that I would love reading the short stories authored by the very prolific writer of the ‘Mistress of Spices.’
Though her stories in ‘Arranged Marriage’ were very melancholy, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s (CBD) beautiful writing hooked me in and left me wanting more and very soon I was a fly on the wall in the Chatterjee household of Bengal in her novel ‘Sister of My Heart’.
Anju and Sudha are born within hours of each other, as the shock of their fathers mysterious and sudden deaths force their mothers into untimely labor. They grow up as close as peas in a pod, under the innocent assumption that they are cousin sisters. Though different from the other in every way, Anju is plain, practical and defiant to Sudha’s beautiful, dreamy and impractical, they are each others comfort, pride and joy sharing a bond so strong that no one, not even their mothers, can understand.
Although fatherless ness and financial paucity cast a constant shadow in and around the lives of the women of the Chatterjee household, the warm cocoon of love and stories that their widowed-aunt ‘Pishi-ma’ weaves around Anju and Sudha ensures that they grow up ignorant of the deep dark secrets that nestle in the family.
Their secure bond is shattered when Sudha learns of the dark, family secret and her true connection with Anju’s family and their relationship is never the same again.
As they grow up, Sudha consciously tries to grow apart from the blissfully unaware Anju, but the mystical bond that connected them at birth keeps drawing them together.
Forced into sudden arranged marriages, Anju flies off to far-off America with her husband while Sudha takes on the role of the eldest daughter-in-law of a small-town, controlled by her mother-in-law, household.
Circumstances, changing sentiments and geography wedge distances between them, but tragedy once again brings them closer and they realize that they have only each other to turn to.
‘Sister of My Heart’, pulls you with it as along with the inhabitants of the Chatterjee household you too flow through all the ups and downs and twists and turns their lives take.
CBD’s descriptive characterizations…
“There’s Anju’s mother, whom I call Gouri Ma, her fine cheekbones and regal forehead hinting at generations of breeding, for she comes from a family as old and respected as that of the Chatterjees, which she married into. Her face is not beautiful in the traditional sense—even I, young as I am, know this. Lines of hardship are etched around her mouth and on her forehead, for she was the one who shouldered the burden of keeping the family safe on that thunderclap day eight years ago when she received news of our fathers’ deaths. But her eyes, dark and endless-deep—they make me think of Kalodighi, the enormous lake behind the country mansion our family used to own before Anju and I were born. When Gouri Ma smiles at me with her eyes, I stand up straighter. I want to be noble and brave, just like her.”
“Lastly (I use this word with some guilt), there’s my own mother, Nalini. Her skin is still golden, for though she’s a widow my mother is careful to apply turmeric paste to her face each day. Her perfect-shaped lips glisten red from paan, which she loves to chew—mostly for the color it leaves on her mouth, I think. She laughs often, my mother, especially when her friends come for tea and talk. It is a glittery, tinkling sound, like jeweled ankle bells, people say, though I myself feel it is more like a thin glass struck with a spoon. Her cheek feels as soft as the lotus flower she’s named after on those rare occasions when she presses her face to mine. But more often when she looks at me a frown ridges her forehead between eyebrows beautiful as wings. Is it from worry or displeasure? I can never tell. Then she remembers that frowns cause age lines and smoothes it away with a finger.”
…allow you to clearly visualize and almost ‘see’ the characters as you read the book.
CBD’s enchanting, mystical writing enthralls you page after page…
“But my ears barely register their exchange. I’m occupied by the way my body is unclenching, reforming itself molecule by molecule, arranging itself around my niece like petals around a flower core.”
“Thankfulness fills my mouth, sweet as honey.”
“A rosy happiness has dyed my body through and through.”
“The inside of my mouth is caked with dust. Dust embroiders the lining of my lungs. It presses down on me like and unkempt promise, it sucks up my voice. But I make myself go on.”
“His silence is a block of ice in which I am trapped.”
Wisps of wisdom woven in between her exquisite expressions compel you to take pause to think…
“You must make your own happiness. You must be wise enough to recognize it when it comes. And if it doesn’t come in spite of all your efforts, you must do something about that as well.”
“But then, love it never about deserving, is it? Nor is hate.”
CDB’s distinctive, contemplative perception enlightens that tiny, dark corner of your intellect…
“Isn’t it funny, how we spend so much time holding onto the old ways, not knowing how refreshing change can be.”
“Isn’t it funny, that sometimes the things we’ve feared the most, year after year, turns out to be the best thing that could have happened to us?”
Though the air of melancholy wraps itself around the story, ‘Sister of My Heart’ is by no means a depressing book. Identifiable characters that you cannot help but associate with people who you know or who may be a part of your family. Human emotions so transparently and delicately presented that along with the characters you too experience the sentiments.
A beautifully woven tale that reminds you of the childhood-stories you grew up hearing. And as you turn the last page, you let out a whoosh of breath feeling a kinship with the author who has lent you her thoughts for you to mould them to your perception.