Bharati Mukherjee’s writings reflect her preoccupation with three major themes: the status of women, the immigrant experience, and the response to a changing society. As the author has frequently told interviewers, all of her work, including her fiction, is based on her own experiences as a woman caught between two cultures. In her first novel,The Tiger’s Daughter (1972), Mukherjee described the reactions of a young woman who, like the author, had returned to her native India after an extended stay in the West. What this protagonist discovered was not only that India had changed but also that her own perspective had changed. She now looked at her own country through the eyes of a Westerner. Other Mukherjee heroines are affected in various ways by their confrontation with the New World. In Wife (1975), a Bengali woman brought to New York City for an arranged marriage becomes unmoored in her new surroundings, goes mad, and murders her husband. By contrast, in Jasmine (1989), as a young Hindu widow travels west, she finds herself less and less influenced by the traditional ideas of a woman’s place in the world that she had once accepted unquestioningly. In her new surroundings, she changes her mind about submitting to ritual immolation, kills the man who has raped her, and after settling down for a time in the Midwest, she leaves it and her disabled common-law husband for a new life in California.
Unlike these earlier novels, which were imaginative extensions of Mukherjee’s experiences, Desirable Daughters began as a memoir. According to an interview in The Women’s Review of Books, at first Mukherjee intended the book to be a study of the three sisters in her own family and the very different choices they made as to the directions their lives would take. Although eventually Mukherjee decided that she was not yet ready to write an autobiography, she did set her book in Calcutta, where she grew up, and in a family of Bengali Hindu Brahmins, much like her own. The “desirable daughters” of the title are three sisters, and they do choose very different paths. Mukherjee has admitted that her younger sister recognized herself in Parvati Bhattacharjee Banerji, a traditional Indian wife, and that the character of the westernized, independent Padma Bhattacharjee Mehta was based on the author’s older sister, a child psychologist living in the United States. Clearly Mukherjee saw something of herself in the sensitive, thoughtful heroine and narrator, Tara Bhattacharjee, who at the end of the novel finds herself compelled to write about upper-class Calcutta girls of her own generation and also about the legendary woman with whose storyDesirable Daughters begins.
This woman from the past, Tara Lata Gangooly, was the daughter of Jai Krishna Gangooly, the great-grandfather of the three sisters in Mukherjee’s novel. Although she lived almost a century before them, she, too, had to choose between accepting the fate a traditional society decreed for her and making her own way, unprotected, in a world that was rapidly rejecting that established society. The story of Tara Lata introduces two of Mukherjee’s major themes: the status of women and the response to a changing society. Because he did not approve of India’s movement toward a secularized society, Jai Krishna moved his family out of a cosmopolitan, urban environment and into a village in rural Bengal. Then, in keeping with Hindu tradition, he arranged the marriages of two of his young daughters to suitable boys. As the novel begins, the youngest of the three sisters, five-year-old Tara Lata, is about to be married to a Bengali Brahmin boy of thirteen. Since the astrologers have given their approval, and he has made sure that every requirement of his faith has been met, Jai Krishna assumes that all will go well. However, when the prospective bridegroom dies of snakebite, the boy’s family accuses Jai Krishna of having ignored a sign, omitted a rite, or of attempting to foist off on them a daughter he knew was accursed. The only way that Jai Krishna can save Tara Lata from a lifetime of disgrace and at the same time evade the other family’s demands for her dowry is to find another bridegroom immediately. This is how his youngest daughter becomes the bride of a tree.
Up to this point, Tara Lata was a mere puppet, whose fate was in the hands of her father, her family, her society, and her culture. However, as her namesake Tara discovers, because her odd marriage released her from the demands of a...
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