Study Guide

Sister of My Heart

by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Sister of My Heart Summary

Chapter Summaries

Chapters 1-2 Summary

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novel Sister of My Heart (1999) relates the emotional story of two young Calcutta girls—Anju, who is from a high caste in India, and Sudha, who is more beautiful. The girls were born on the same night after their mothers learned that both the girls’ fathers had died. The fathers had been cousins, so Anju’s and Sudha’s mothers remained living together, allowing the girls to grow up almost as sisters. Over the years, they nurtured a relationship that was so strong their relatives had trouble understanding it. The story of these two young women has been described by Anderson Tepper, writing for The New York Times Book Review, as a “bittersweet fairy tale.”

When the book opens, the narrator, Sudha, is listening while her aunt Pishi tells an old myth that says the Bidhata Purush (a god) comes to the birth of each child to foretell the baby’s fate. Knowing the god is coming, parents leave sweets at the side of the baby’s crib. If the food has been consumed by morning, the child will grow up lucky. However, another portion of this story proclaims that after the Bidhata Purush has visited, a demon might also appear. So throughout the night a lamp is left lighted or a holy priest is asked to protect the doorway to the nursery.

When Anju hears this story, she teases about how untrue the myth is. She says it is not the Bidhata Purush who eats the food left at the side of the baby’s bed; rather, the family’s servants eat the food. Anju also tells Sudha that she does not believe in demons.

Sudha relates that she and Anju have three mothers, and this is probably to make up for the fact that they have no fathers. Their mothers, as she refers to them, include Pishi, a widowed aunt, who lost her husband at age eighteen. Pishi takes care of the Sudha and Anju while their real mothers are out of the house. Anju’s mother is called Gouri Ma; she comes from a long lineage...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Chapters 3-4 Summary

Sudha is more interested than Anju is in learning details concerning their fathers’ histories and deaths. Anju believes that if Sudha is always looking backward, she will never go anywhere in life. Although Sudha senses there might be some truth in Anju’s belief, she still craves to know more about her father. Since the girls’ Aunt Pishi is the most reliable source for information, Sudha turns to the older woman and asks her to tell her about her father.

Pishi tells Sudha that she is reluctant to relate the story. She says that she is afraid the information might ruin part of Sudha’s childhood and destroy great portions of her love. If this happens, Pishi tells her, Sudha might resent Pishi for telling her what she thinks she wants to hear. But Sudha insists and finally Pishi relents.

Sudha’s father, Gopal, came to Pishi’s family estate in the middle of a drought. All the crops on the estate and all around the country were dying. The day Gopal arrived, the rain began to fall. This was why Bijoy, Anju’s father (and Pishi’s older brother), invited Gopal and his new bride to live with them: Bijoy believed Gopal father brought good luck. The longer Gopal stayed with the family, the more Bijoy learned about Gopal’s unique character, which was just the opposite of Bijoy’s. While Bijoy was cautious and conservative, Gopal was not afraid of taking risks.

As Gopal’s stay at Bijoy’s house lengthened, Bijoy lost more and more money. Gopal was good at coming up with schemes on how to create wealth, but he always had to borrow money from Bijoy to make these dreams come true. Unfortunately, the dreams never unfolded as Gopal wanted them to. Then one day, Gopal returned home with a small ruby in his hand. He had met a man who promised to show him where a cave full of rubies was. Gopal convinced Bijoy to lend him more money so he could travel into the jungle to find this cave. Bijoy agreed but insisted on going...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

Chapters 5-6 Summary

Sudha and Anju are now sixteen and feel tired of being treated like children. They have also grown bored of their traditionally styled clothing. On top of this, a new romantic movie has come to town, and its massive advertising campaign has the girls longing to go to the theater. They cannot ask permission to see the new film because their mothers would not allow them to go. According to Anju, their only choice is to skip their afternoon classes to see the film, which they do. Not only do they sneak out of school, they also go shopping for new dresses and makeup.

Once inside the theater, the girls go to the bathroom to change their clothes and apply the lipstick they have purchased. The transformation they see in the mirror is astonishing. They are becoming women, they realize. The new outfits show off their womanly figures and the makeup highlights their maturing features.

They walk into the crowded movie hall and find their seats. After the film has begun, Sudha hears a male voice inquire if the seat next to her is taken. Sudha picks up the school bag she has placed in the vacant seat, and she notes how handsome the young man is. For the remaining hour of the movie, Sudha has trouble focusing on the plot and the characters who are portrayed on the screen. All she wants to do is look at the man sitting next to her.

At the end of the movie, the man, who is obviously attracted to Sudha, hears Anju tell her that they must leave if they want to get back to the school without being found missing. Once the young man hears Sudha’s name, he repeats it. Then he tells Sudha his name, Ashok Ghosh. Hearing his last name, Sudha realizes he belongs to a lower caste than the one with which Sudha is privileged to be associated. This does not bother Sudha, though she knows if anything should happen to develop between them, her family would not be comfortable with this young man due to his social standing. Anju pulls on Sudha,...

(The entire section is 588 words.)

Chapters 7-8 Summary

Sudha has trouble sleeping that night. She tosses and turns, entangled in sheets that feel too hot. The heat begins to make her very thirsty, so she wanders into the hallway to find the pitcher of water that is kept there. She thinks she might also go into Anju’s room and lie down with her. Anju always has a way of soothing Sudha’s troubled mind. However, on her way down the hall, Sudha notices that her mother’s bedroom door is slightly ajar. Light pours out through the crack. Sudha walks up to the door as silently as she can and looks inside her mother’s room. She sees her mother standing at the far window, staring at the moon. This reminds Sudha of a nursery rhyme her mother used to sing for her. The lyrics tell of how a young mother puts all her hopes in her beautiful daughter. Then Sudha hears her mother crying out in a soft, sad voice. She is repeating Sudha’s name as if it is causing her pain. After hearing her mother’s voice, Sudha turns around and goes back to bed, determined that she will not be the source of any more suffering her mother must endure.

The next day, when Anju tries to convince Sudha to fight against Nalini’s harsh punishment, Anju is disappointed that Sudha does not appear to have any desire to do so. Anju says Sudha cannot just sit back and let her mother ruin her life. Sudha must go to college as the two girls have planned for most of their young lives.

Sudha tells Anju that she has been up all night, evaluating what her mother plans for her. Sudha says she has no real interest in going to college. She will still learn things. When Anju teases Sudha that all she will learn is how to make dinner and take care of a house, Sudha says that would be all right for her. Anju then recalls all the times she and Sudha used to draw pictures of what they wanted their futures to look like. While Anju created pictures of adventurous travel and exotic jobs, Sudha only drew the same picture over and over again. All Sudha wanted was a husband and several children. Anju asks whether there is nothing else Sudha might want for herself besides a family. To Anju’s surprise, Sudha tells her she wants to be a clothes designer.

Although Anju thinks Sudha would be very happy in this profession, she worries that Nalini will not like the idea. The role of tailor in Indian culture does not bring with it a high position. However, if designing clothes is what would make Sudha happy, Anju wonders what difference it would make. If Sudha wants to make clothes, then that is what she should do.

Chapters 9-10 Summary

As another year passes, Sudha realizes that what remains of her freedom is quickly coming to an end. She will soon be finished with high school. From then on, she will be confined to the house or to her mother’s company. In contrast, Anju will be released into the adult world as she goes on to college and explores life beyond her family. Sudha is saddened by the knowledge that she and Anju will soon travel down separate paths. Sudha wonders if their lives will become so different that Anju will find her boring.

Sudha’s spirits are only kept elevated by thoughts of Ashok. She has seen him briefly a few times on the way to school. Ashok appears on the street when the car in which Sudha and Anju are riding passes by....

(The entire section is 687 words.)

Chapters 11-12 Summary

All the family members as well as some of the oldest servants crowd into Gouri Ma’s bedroom as they wait for the doctor to arrive. Gouri Ma is lying on her side, clutching the bedsheets as if she is in great pain. When Singhji brings the doctor to the room, the doctor suggests that most of the people leave. Gouri Ma needs privacy and silence. No one wants to move, so Singhji escorts everyone out into the hallway.

While waiting, Sudha hears a flapping sound outside. She fears it is the ghost of Gouri Ma’s husband. Legend tells that when someone is ill, those who were closest to the sick person return to earth to guide the dying person to the other side. The flapping sounds continue, so Sudha stands up, opens the...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Chapters 13-14 Summary

Sudha discovers that her mother has accepted a potential proposal for her marriage. The young man comes from a distinguished and wealthy family, but he has suffered the loss of his father, much like Sudha. Although the prospective groom is not very handsome, he is a hard worker and has a good job. The groom’s mother reports that a dowry is not important because her son has enough money of his own. The reason the mother is proposing this marriage is, she says quite frankly, that she wants a beautiful daughter-in-law so she will have beautiful grandsons. This is enough to impress Sudha’s mother, so she arranges a meeting of the two families.

This news strains Sudha’s nerves. She barely gets any sleep and she drives...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Chapters 15-16 Summary

Sudha convinces her mother that she has promised the gods to pray at the Kalighat temple before she is married. Her mother agrees that Sudha has the right to do this and allows her daughter to go alone with Singhji. It is at the Kalighat temple that Sudha has arranged to meet Ashok. When they arrive, Singhji tells her that they must be home in one hour. So although Sudha feels very nervous about being alone with Ashok for the first time, she quickly overcomes her shyness.

When she walks into the temple, she sees Ashok standing in a corner waiting for her as he promised. Sudha immediately tells Ashok that her marriage has been arranged to take place in one month from this date. Whatever they can do, they must do it...

(The entire section is 546 words.)

Chapters 17-18 Summary

Anju’s prospective in-laws come to visit the family. The mother apologizes for her son, Sunil, who acted too boldly in introducing himself to Anju at the bookstore rather than waiting for the official meeting between the families. Sunil, the mother believes, has been influenced by the Americans; he has been living in California for the past couple of years. Sunil’s father is not impressed with his son’s independence either, though he is thankful Sunil did not bring an American wife back to India.

Sudha observes the members of this family that will soon claim Anju. She realizes immediately that the father, Mr. Majumdar, rules the clan and that he is very closed minded. Although he is Indian, the man refuses to eat...

(The entire section is 620 words.)

Chapters 19-20 Summary

As Anju and Sudha prepare for their wedding, Anju reflects on how much her life is going to change. She will not have Sudha to turn to any more. Anju tells Sudha that no one can replace her. No one will ever know her as well as Sudha does. Sudha tells Anju that she now has Sunil to talk to and to love. However, this does not alter Anju’s sentiments. She tells Sudha that her love for her is different.

After Anju leaves and Sudha is in her room alone, Singhji knocks on the door and enters with his arms full of letters and packages. For the past several days, these deliveries have become commonplace as friends of the family have sent their congratulations for the wedding that is to take place the next day. However, as...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Chapters 21-22 Summary

As Sudha sits on her new bed, the one her husband’s parents used to share, Sudha reflects on her wedding day. She knows that she was in a daze through much of the ceremony and the party afterward. She was marrying a stranger, and she had thrown away the only man she loved. Then with Anju’s attack on her and assumption that Sudha was guilty of luring Sunil, Sudha feels that there is nothing left to keep her from full despair.

As Sudha waits for her new husband to come to the bedroom, she shivers and shakes. After hearing what her aunties had to tell her about the wedding night, Sudha is not looking forward to going to bed with Ramesh. She hears his footsteps coming up the stairs. He is with a group of his male...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

Chapters 23-24 Summary

Sudha has found a pleasant harmony in her new life as a wife. Although she has many new responsibilities, she feels comfortable, as if she belongs to her new family. Ramesh is gentle with her and his mother trusts her. Sudha works harder than she ever did as a girl, but she finds satisfaction in her chores. Even her relationship with her mother-in-law comes as a surprise. Sudha had often listened to her mother’s friends tell cynical tales of how horrible mothers-in-law could be toward their new daughters, but Sudha finds none of this. Ramesh’s mother has turned over all responsibilities, except the financial ones, to Sudha. Sudha cooks for and watches over Ramesh’s teenaged brothers. She makes sure the daily household routine...

(The entire section is 607 words.)

Chapters 25-26 Summary

Sudha has now been married for more than three years. Her relationship with Ramesh, although no longer platonic, is friendly but still lacks passion. However, Sudha has embraced her new life. She enjoys playing the role of dutiful wife and daughter-in-law. Although she cannot say that she is happy, she admits that she feels content. She is confident that Ramesh and his family like her, and she has learned to return their affections.

Anju is living in America and often sends letters to Sudha, telling her of this new country and all its strange customs. Anju is enrolled in school and is learning the more relaxed lifestyle of the American young people. Sudha relishes Anju’s letters and jealously guards them from the...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

Chapters 27-28 Summary

The longer Sudha lives with her mother-in-law, the more she realizes the angry, bitter undercurrents that control the woman. When her mother-in-law was a young bride, she was scorned by her own in-laws for not being worthy of their son because she did not come from a rich family. That scorn has shaped much of her life. When her husband died, her female friends talked behind her back, gossiping that her husband died young because she constantly berated him. Now, as the women make fun of her because Sudha has not yet borne her a grandchild, Sudha’s mother-in-law takes out her pain on Sudha. Sudha has already gone to one doctor to find out what was wrong with her. The doctor had pronounced Sudha not only healthy but very capable of...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Chapters 29-30 Summary

Sudha is about to leave her mother’s house. She has enjoyed her visit and is not looking forward to returning to her husband’s home. Before she leaves, she slips out to find Singhji. The old man is happy to see her. He has a letter for her from Ashok. Singhji confirms that Ashok was standing on the corner when Sudha drove past. Singhji often visits with Ashok, sharing with him what he knows of Sudha’s life. Ashok has never married. He has told Singhji that he is still waiting for Sudha.

Sudha is embarrassed by her feelings for Singhji. Her heart is torn when she thinks about how much she would still love being with him. She thinks maybe the baby she has been craving is not Ramesh’s future child but Ashok’s. If...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Chapters 31-32 Summary

Since Sudha has become pregnant, her mother-in-law has been very gentle with her, encouraging her to sleep in and insisting on helping her with the house chores. Ramesh has also been extra nice, but Sudha has begun to challenge both her mother-in-law’s and her husband’s affections. She wonders if they are being nice to her for herself or for the fact that she has finally produced a grandchild; she worries that their affections are inauthentic.

Sudha’s relationship with Anju, on the other hand, is improving. In the most recent letter from her cousin, Sudha learns that Sunil has changed during Anju’s pregnancy. He is now more attentive to his wife and is very active in helping her through the pregnancy. With this...

(The entire section is 626 words.)

Chapters 33-34 Summary

Sudha’s mother is shocked when she finds her daughter standing at the front door. She should not be traveling alone, especially in her condition, Nalini tells her daughter. When Sudha tells her mother about the abortion, Nalini advises her daughter to return to her husband. She says it is better to go through with the abortion than to face the disgrace and shame of being divorced.

When Pishi hears what is happening, she disagrees with Nalini. Pishi comforts Sudha and encourages her to stay. So does Anju’s mother, Gouri Ma. Later that night, the three older women have a heated discussion, the faint sounds of which Sudha can hear through the bedroom walls. In the end, however, it is decided that Sudha should stay with...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Chapters 35-36 Summary

One day, after the house has been sold and Sudha is packing, Sudha is called to the front room. As she recognizes the man who is standing there, her knees weaken. Ashok has come to see her. At first Sudha is angry with him. She berates him for coming to visit her while she is in a condition of social shame. When Sudha is finished expressing herself, Ashok asks her to marry him. He says he has always loved her. Even though his parents tried to marry him off to other women, he never had any interest. He had promised himself that he would wait for Sudha, no matter how long it might take.

Both families are pleased with this arrangement. Ashok’s parents are delighted that their son will finally have a wife. Sudha’s...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Chapters 37-38 Summary

Sudha now spends much of her time designing baby clothes for both her daughter and Anju’s son. She believes it is bad luck to sew the clothing before the babies are born, but Sudha’s mother tells her that drawing images of the clothes is all right. As she draws, Sudha thinks of Ashok. Her mother believes Sudha should marry him in spite of the condition he has placed on his proposal. Nalini agrees with Ashok that they will need time to get to know one another without having a baby to care for. Sudha listens to her mother and her aunts as they devise reasons for her to marry Ashok, and she feels herself weakening. However, she cannot imagine giving up her daughter. No matter how caring her mother and aunts might be toward her...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Chapters 39-40 Summary

No one tells Sudha that Anju has lost her baby. Sudha becomes increasingly worried, though, when she does not hear from Anju for several weeks. Nalini and Gouri Ma suggest that maybe Anju has been too busy to write. Sudha waits another week before she decides to call Anju. No one answers the phone, so Sudha leaves a message. When several days pass and Anju does not return the call, Sudha becomes desperate. She senses that something is wrong and everyone is afraid to tell her what has happened.

One day when her mother and aunts have left the apartment, Sudha calls again. Sunil answers and tells her Anju is sleeping. So rather than asking what is wrong with Anju, Sudha only asks if Anju is feeling better. At this Sunil...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Chapters 41-42 Summary

Sudha is at the airport on her way to California. Singhji hands her a carry-on bag filled with Dayita’s necessities as he says good-bye to her. Nalini gives Sudha a present but tells her not to open it until she is on the plane. Even Sunil’s mother has come to say good-bye. She tells Sudha to tell Sunil that it is not necessary to send money home anymore. They really do not need it, and Sunil can use it so much more. Ashok is also there. He gives Sudha a credit card and demands that she use it. He does not want her ever to be in a situation in which she does not have enough money, especially as she is traveling. The bills will be sent to him, and he will gladly pay them. He also tells her that she must use the card to pay for...

(The entire section is 501 words.)