Bharati Mukherjee's fiction reflects her preoccupation with cultural conflicts, with the results of change, and with the influence of the past on the present. Typically her protagonists are Indian women raised in a society where life is governed by tradition, as interpreted and enforced by the older members of large extended families. When such women find themselves in the very different environment of the New World, the result can be disastrous; in Mukherjee's novel Wife (1975), an immigrant brought to the United States after an arranged marriage feels so lost that she descends into madness and finally murders her husband. For others of Mukherjee's women protagonists, moving to a new country is liberating. In Jasmine (1989), a young Hindu widow who had intended to submit herself to a ritual immolation ends up on the road to California, optimistic about a future that will not be dictated either by custom or by her relatives.
Although in writing these novels Mukherjee drew on her own experiences as an immigrant, Desirable Daughters (2002) was the first of her works that approached autobiography. The title characters of that novel are three sisters born into a family of Bengali Hindu Brahmins living in Calcutta. Like Mukherjee's sisters, one of the young women in the novel becomes a traditional Indian wife, while another moves to the United States and assumes the life of a thoroughly Westernized professional woman. The third sister, Tara Bhattacharjee, who alone of the three has the habit of reflective thought, becomes a writer. More than either of her sisters, Tara is torn between her place in the present and her ties to the past.
Ironically, it is Tara, the real intellectual, whose marriage is arranged by her parents in keeping with ancient tradition. Tara is impressed by the brilliant Bishwapriya (“Bish”) Chatterjee, a Silicon Valley multimillionaire. She realizes that she could hardly do better. In upper-class American society, however, Tara discovers that the behavior of a wife and mother is governed by conventions just as rigid as those she left behind. Eventually she obtains a divorce from Bish, taking their son, Rabindranath, or “Rabi,” with her. Living in the Haight section of San Francisco with a Zen Buddhist carpenter, she thinks that at last she has attained her freedom, though in fact her new life is also something of a stereotype.
In any case, the idyll does not last long. Tara's lover moves on, and Bish comes back into her life. On one of his frequent visits, Tara's house is fire-bombed. In saving Tara, Bish is badly burned. The arsonist escapes, but the police do discover his identity: His name is Abbas Sattar Hai. The obvious assumption is that Bish's status in the international community somehow made him the target of a criminal conspiracy.
Desirable Daughters was written as the first volume in a projected trilogy and, as one might expect, The Tree Bride begins where the first book ended. However, while Desirable Daughters focused on the options young women are offered and the choices they make, The Tree Bridedeals more broadly with two Hindu concepts: karma, or fate, over which human beings have no control, and dharma, or right conduct, the only area in which they have a real choice. Significantly, the epigraph to The Tree Bride is a passage from the Mahabharata beginning, “All kings must see hell at least once.” This emphasis on the inevitability of suffering, which dominates the book, is emphasized in the brief prologue with which the novel begins. In it, Tara relives the fire-bombing that took place several months before and comes to terms with the fact that, for the first time in her life, she feels vulnerable. Bish cannot protect her; he is incapacitated, and she is responsible for his care. Nor can she protect Rabi. Moreover, she is pregnant with Bish's child, conceived on the very day of the bombing.
Tara's first-person narrative now proceeds to her first encounter with her new obstetrician, “V. Khanna,” who, to her surprise, turns out to be not the Indian doctor she had expected but a Canadian woman whose maiden name was Victoria Treadwell. The doctor's husband, Yash Khanna, is Indian. In fact, he was one of Bish's favorite professors at Stanford University, and, Victoria comments, Bish was her husband's most impressive student. The two couples soon begin to socialize, often at the Khannas’ weekend home in Sausalito, which is called Easy Comebecause it was bought with the money Yash...
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