When you hear the name Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, it rings as faintly familiar; a few Aishwarya Rai fans might recall her to be the author of ‘Mistress of Spices’, which was adopted into a movie with her playing the lead. As compared to other Asian-American writers, she’s relatively unknown, but the book ‘Sister of My Heart’ duly showcases her uncommon style and elegance. When you first start reading the book, you are mildly reminded of Jhumpa Lahiri; their backgrounds are extremely similar and at the outset, so is the narrative. But as the plot unfolds, you forget the rational brand of fiction that is Lahiri’s domain.
The plot is set in a conventional Calcutta household. And although it is a typical scene, the story is unique; of a reputed household run by three women. This is the backdrop for the two protagonists of the story, Anju and Sudha Chatterjee, to be born as sisters. The story has been written from both the girls’ point of view, through alternating chapters.
It follows their journey through childhood, into adolescence, till early adulthood. And through this journey, one comes across the main theme of the novel- female bonding. Anju’s mother, Sudha’s mother and Anju’s aunt are the ‘Holy Trinity’ of the house, as one of them mentions in the book. And the unyielding, strong alliance that they form is the propeller for the girls’ relationship. Urged into arranged marriages, their lives take opposite turns- while Sudha takes on the role of a dutiful daughter-in-law in a small town called Bardhaman, Anju goes to America to live with her husband and to have her own dreams shattered. But when tragedy strikes, both of them discover that they have only each other to turn to. Through the course of the book, one realises that blood ties and obligation are not the only reason for them to be together, it’s also the choices they make that binds them and their destiny together.
As mentioned earlier, inspite of their shared passive style of narration, the main differentiating factor between Divakaruni and Lahiri is the former’s poetic language and the rich references to the Indian traditions and culture. Symbolism plays a big role in the plot, be it the fairy tales that the sisters spin around themselves to tell each other, or the constant references to mythology. And in a way, that is what sets this novel apart from the would-be clichéd stories about parental expectations and difficult in-laws. For at the heart of it, that’s the premise of this story. The characters have been developed very early on, for the reader to not mistake the essence of each of them. Just as Anju is always stubborn and defiant, Sudha will always be tender-hearted and a dreamer.
A lot of people will call it a mere maudlin account of a friendship between two women, but then this book is not for rationalists. It’s for people who believe in fairytales. Read it simply to experience the rich storytelling!