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Desirable Daughters

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Chapter 1

In the mind’s eye, a one-way procession of flickering oil
lamps sways along the muddy shanko between rice paddies and flooded
ponds, and finally disappears into a distant wall of impenetrable
jungle. Banks of fog rise from warmer waters, mingle with smoke
from the cooking fires, and press in a dense sooty collar, a
permeable gray wall that parts, then seals, igniting a winter
chorus of retching coughs and loud spitting. Tuberculosis is
everywhere. The air, the water, the soil are septic. Thirty-five
years is a long life. Smog obscures the moon and dims the man-made
light to faintness deeper than the stars’. In such darkness
perspective disappears. It is a two-dimensional world impossible to
penetrate. But for the intimacy of shared discomfort, it is
difficult even to estimate the space separating each

The narrow, raised trail stretches ten miles from Mishtigunj town
to the jungle’s edge. In a palanquin borne by four servants
sit a rich man’s three daughters, the youngest dressed in her
bridal sari, her little hands painted with red lac dye, her hair
oiled and set. Her arms are heavy with dowry gold; bangles ring
tiny arms from wrist to shoulder. Childish voices chant a song,
hands clap, gold bracelets tinkle. I cannot imagine the loneliness
of this child. A Bengali girl’s happiest night is about to
become her lifetime imprisonment. It seems all the sorrow of
history, all that is unjust in society and cruel in religion has
settled on her. Even constructing it from the merest scraps of
family memory fills me with rage and bitterness.

The bride-to-be whispers the "Tush Tusli Brata," a hymn to the
sacredness of marriage, a petition for a kind and generous

What do I hope for in worshipping you?

That my father’s wisdom be endless,

My mother’s kindness bottomless.

May my husband be as powerful as a king of gods.

May my future son-in-law light up the royal court.

Bestow on me a brother who is learned and intellectual,

A son as handsome as the best-looking courtier,

And a daughter who is beauteous.

Let my hair-part glow red with vermilion powder, as a wife’s

On my wrists and arms, let bangles glitter and jangle.

Load down my clothes-rack with the finest saris,

Fill my kitchen with scoured-shiny utensils,

Reward my wifely virtue with a rice-filled granary.

These are the boons that this young virgin begs of thee.

In a second, larger palki borne by four men sit the family priest
and the father of the bride. Younger uncles and cousins follow in a
vigilant file. Two more guards, sharp-bladed daos drawn, bring up
the rear. Two servants walk ahead of the eight litterbearers,
holding naphtha lamps. No one has seen such brilliant European
light, too strong to stare into, purer white than the moon. It is
town light, a rich man’s light, a light that knows English
invention. If bandits are crouching in the gullies they will know
to strike this reckless Hindu who announces his wealth with light
and by arming his servants. What treasures lie inside, how much
gold and jewels, what target ripe for kidnapping? The nearest town,
where such a wealthy man must have come from, lies behind him. Only
the jungle lies ahead. Even the woodcutters desert it at night,
relinquishing it to goondahs and marauders, snakes and

The bride is named Tara Lata, a name we almost share. The name of
the father is Jai Krishna Gangooly. Tara Lata is five years old and
headed deep into the forest to marry a tree.

I have had the time, the motivation, and even the passion to
undertake this history. When my friends, my child, or my sisters
ask me why, I say I am exploring the making of a consciousness.
Your consciousness? They tease, and I tell them, No. Yours.

On this night, flesh-and-blood emerges from the unretrievable past.
I have Jai Krishna’s photo, I know the name of Jai
Krishna’s father, but they have always been ghosts. But Tara
Lata is not, nor will her father be, after the events of this
special day. And so my history begins with a family wedding on the
coldest, darkest night in the Bengali month of Paush –
December/January – in a district of the Bengal Presidency
that lies east of Calcutta – now Kolkata – and south of
Dacca – now Dhaka – a s the English year of 1879 is
about to shed its final two digits, although the Hindu year of 1285
still has four months to run and the Muslim year of 1297 has barely

In those years, Bengal was the seat of British power, Calcutta its
capital, its cultural and economic center. The city is endowed with
the instruments of Western knowledge, the museums, the colleges,
the newspapers, and the Asiatic Society. The old Bengal Presidency
included all of today’s Bangladesh, the current Indian state
of West Bengal, and parts of Assam, Bihar, and Orissa. A
reconstituted Bengal Presidency today would have over 330 million
people and be the world’s third most populous country. China,
India, Bengal. There are more of me than there are of you, although
I am both.

The eastern regions of Bengal, even before the flight of Hindus
during the subcontinent’s partition in 1947, and its
reincarnation as Bangladesh in 1972, always contained a Muslim
majority, though largely controlled by a sizeable and wealthy Hindu
minority. The communities speak the same language – Muslims,
if the truth be known, more tenaciously than Hindus. But for the
outer signs of the faith – the beards and skullcaps, the
dietary restrictions, the caste observances, the vermilion powder
on the hair-parting of married Hindu women – there is little,
fundamentally, to distinguish them. The communities suffer, as
Freud put it, the narcissism of small difference.

The Hindu Bengalis were the first Indians to master the English
language and to learn their master’s ways, the first to
flatter him by emulation, and the first to earn his distrust by
unbidden demonstrations of wit and industry. Because they were a
minority in their desh, their homeland, dependent on mastering or
manipulating British power and Musim psychology, the Hindus of east
Bengal felt themselves superior even to the Hindus of the capital
city of Calcutta. Gentlemen like Jai Krishna Gangopadhaya, a
pleader in the Dacca High Court, whose surname the colonial
authorities lightened to Gangooly, and who, on this particular
winter night squats with a priest in a palki that reminds him of
wagons for transporting remanded prisoners, was situated to take
full advantage of fast-changing and improving times. He spoke
mellifluous English and one high court judge had even recommended
him for a scholarship to Oxford. Had he played by the rules, he
should have been a great success, a prince, and a power.

Jai Krishna’s graduation portrait from the second class of
India’s first law school (Calcutta University, 1859) displays
the expected Victorian gravitas and none of the eager confidence of
his classmates. He is a young man of twenty-three who looks forty;
his thick, dark eyebrows form an unbroken bar, and his shadow of a
mustache – an inversion of prevailing style that favored
elaborately curled and wax-tipped mustaches – reveal a young
man more eloquent with a disapproving frown than his

For ten years I kept the graduation photo of Bishwapriya
Chatterjee, my husband – Indian Institute of Technology,
Kharagpur – on our nightstand. Last icon before falling
asleep, first worshipful image of the morning. The countries, the
apartments, the houses all changed, but the portrait remained. He
had that eagerness, and a confident smile that promised substantial
earnings. It lured my father into marriage negotiations, and it
earned my not unenthusiastic acceptance of him as husband. A very
predictable, very successful marriage negotiation.

Jai Krishna been a native Calcuttan, or had he come from Dacca,
Bengal’s second city, he might never have suffered the
anxiety of the small-town provincial elevated into urbanity. In my
mother-language we call the powerful middle class ""hadra lok," the
gentlefolk, the "civilized" folk, for whom the English fashioned
the pejorative term, "babu," with its hint of fawning insincerity
and slavishly acquired Western attitudes. The rest of the
population are "chhoto lok," literally, the little people. Jai
Krisha Gangooly lacked the reflexive self-confidence of the bhadra
lok. In his heart, he was a provincial from Mishtigunj, third son
of a village doctor whose practice included the indigent and
Muslims. He felt he’d been lifted from his provincial origins
because of his father’s contact sin the Calcutta Medical
College. He was not comfortable in the lawyer’s black robes
and powdered wig.

And so, the story of the three great-granddaughters of Jai Krishna
Gangooly starts on the day of a wedding, a few hours before the
palki ride where fates have already been decided, in the
decorated ancestral house of the Gangoolys on the river in
Mishtigunj town. The decorations signify a biye-bari, a
wedding house. Beggars have already camped in the alleys adjacent
to the canopy under which giant copper vats of milk, stirred by
professional cooks, have been boiling and thickening for
sweetmeats, and where other vats, woks, and cauldrons receive the
chunks of giant hilsa fish netted fresh from the river and hold the
rice pilao, lamb curry, spiced lentils, and deep-fried and
sauce-steeped vegetables, a feast for a thousand invited guests and
the small city of self-invited men, women, and children camped
outside the gates.

Copyright C 2002 Bharati Mukherjee


Desirable Daughters
by by Bharati Mukherjee

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • ISBN-10: 0786885157
  • ISBN-13: 9780786885152