Bharati Mukherjee's DESIRABLE DAUGHTERS is a brilliantly woven,
thoughtful and intelligent story of three Calcutta, India-born
Brahmin upper-class sisters, renowned for their beauty, brains,
wealth, and privileged position in society. Mukherjee follows their
lives as they leave their conservative, sheltered childhood home,
where they are inundated with culture, tradition, and values and
inculcated with education by the Catholic nuns in their convent
structured school and college. Two sisters emigrate to America and
the other relocates to Bombay, India.
The three sisters, Padma, Parvati, and Tara, are born exactly three
years apart from each other and share the same birthday. Their
mother names them after goddesses, hoping they will survive and
prosper, which they all do.
"We are sisters three/as alike as three blossoms on one flowering
tree. (But we are not)," says Tara, the protagonist, quoting a
Padma lives in New Jersey but is completely Indian in her attire,
her cuisine, and her profession as the television anchor of an
Indian television program set in Jackson Heights, Queens, run by
her Indian lover, while she stays married to a man once successful,
now merely living off her fame.
Parvati is totally Indian to the point of allowing her husband's
relatives to be houseguests for weeks at their luxurious apartment
with its breathtaking view of the city. And her easy life with
servants, drivers, and other amenities at her disposal is funnily
described by Tara, as she relates her sister's "very stressed out
Tara is the most 'un-Indian' of the three. She lives in San
Francisco and is divorced from an Indian Silicon Valley dotcom
millionaire Bishwapriya Chatterjee, who is an ideal to all Indian
immigrants, a sort of 'ethnic' Bill Gates, for his contribution to
creating a network of communication via the Internet; his friend
Chester Yee and he invent a computer-routing system that makes them
Tara is almost a Valley woman --- a volunteer at a pre-school, a
single mother of a teenage son who reveals he is gay and has a
live-in lover Andy, a balding, red-bearded former biker, former
bad-boy, Hungarian Buddhist contractor/yoga instructor. If that
isn't scandalous enough for an Indian woman, Tara is also caught up
in the mystery of a stranger who claims to be the bastard son of a
secret alliance between her elder sister Padma and a Bengali
Christian, Ron Dey.
Discovering his connection to her family, the stranger becomes both
Tara's catharsis and nemesis. By complaining to the police (here
she draws a hilarious sketch of an 'ethnic' policeman --- a Sikh
--- Jasbir 'Jack' Sidhu), she calls the so-called nephew's bluff.
He retaliates by bombing her house, where her ex-husband and son
are at the time.
Tara looks back at her family's past and their future and comes to
terms with her history and legacy, from which she is almost
separated. And yet it is a part of her psyche. As she grows and
matures as a character, we are drawn to her humor, her honesty, and
her blunt assessment of the two worlds between which she travels,
back and forth, between being American and Indian, travels both
psychological and physical.
Multiculturalism is a theme that echoes throughout the book. Of her
life in San Francisco, Tara says, "All the neighborhood services,
except the laundries and the Japanese restaurant, are owned and
staffed by crack-of-dawn rising, late-night closing Palestinians,
whose shifting roster of uncles and cousins seems uniformly gifted
in providing our needs and anticipating our desires."
Continuing this theme, Mukherjee draws a portrait of an ethnic area
Jackson Heights, to where all Indian immigrants must make their
"Jackson Heights is not a Chinatown or even a Japantown on the San
Francisco model…Indian people shop collectively, but they
don't live together in tight little communities…they travel
from distant suburbs…or from neighboring states. We're a
billion people, but divided into so many thousands or millions of
classifications that we have trouble behaving as monolith."
In the novel's Foreword, Mukherjee quotes a small verse from an
ancient Sanskrit poem, which lays out Tara's mission: "No one
behind, no one ahead. The path the ancients cleared has closed. And
the other path, everyone's path, easy and wide, goes nowhere. I am
alone and find my way. "
But against the story of the three sisters, Mukherjee's novel is
also a love letter to the city of her birth --- Calcutta –--
of which she is fiercely protective, staunchly defending its
reputation of being one of the most densely populated, most
polluted and one of --– if not the most --- poorest cities in
the entire world, "made famous by Mother Theresa," she says tongue
The novel, however, begins with the most American of all searches:
the desire to trace one's ancestry. Tara is fascinated by an
ancestor, her almost namesake, Tara Lata, a five-year-old girl who
was a victim of the archaic custom of child marriage –-- a
tradition even her father, a university graduate and lawyer,
It is 1879 and Tara Lata's wedding party is traveling in a dark
jungle to rendezvous with the bridegroom's family, who instead of
greeting them hurls curses at the 'bride,' calling her 'unlucky'
because the boy bridegroom has been bitten fatally by a snake. To
save her from a life of degradation, widowhood, and shame, Tara
Lata's father 'marries' her to the God of the forest, and she
becomes the legendary Tree Bride.
The young girl retreats to her father's house and makes it a refuge
for the poor, the sick, and finally the fighters for Indian
independence; she is dragged from her home in 1944 by colonial
authorities, who announce her death six days later.
With this novel, Bharati Mukherjee, already a critically acclaimed
author and winner of the National Book Critics Award, has
established herself as a formidable writer whose works combines her
pride in her Indian heritage and her gratitude at the opportunities
Reviewed by Sonia Chopra (email@example.com) on January 21, 2011