Book Review: “Sister of My Heart”, a Novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

>> Monday, February 15, 2010

By Ajay Pradhan | February 15, 2010

This is a late review. The book was published eleven years ago in 1999 by Doubleday. Yet, I hadn’t heard of the author until this month, even though I have seen the movie “Mistress of Spices”, based on her novel by the same title. After reading the book, I read a number of reviews of the novel. I wanted to see what other readers, critics and reviewers thought of the novel, especially the author’s style. Most reviews I read gave positive review of the novel and extolled the
author’s gift of writing. But, I didn’t find in those reviews what I was looking for—her style and the beautiful employment of fiction metaphors and similes. Therefore, I decided to write this review.

The story is about two young women, Anju and Sudha, who are cousins, who grow up together, and who are born on the same day, the day both of their fathers die in suspicious circumstances in the predator-infested thick mangrove jungles of the Sundarbans. Despite the element of mystery and curiosity about the death of the fathers, this is not a mystery novel. It’s not a genre or popular fiction. It’s far from being a commercial fiction. The circumstances of the girls’ fathers’ death, therefore, is not the main line of the story, but only a critical foundation which thrusts the two girls to a lifetime of bonding as it does their mothers, Gouri Ma and Aunt N, and an aunt, Pishi, who all live in the same house as a close-knit family. With fathers dead and no other male members in the family, the upper-class Calcutta family of three women and two girls forms the central unit of the story. The story is about the relationship and bonding between Anju and Sudha, whose love and affection for each other is full of selfless sacrifice, open truthfulness, mutual dependence, cathartic devotion, and, at times, with slight jealousy. The author adeptly traces the story of the two young women from their childhood to their womanhood, as told in first-person narrative alternately by Anju and Sudha. Each is the sister of the heart of the other.

This review is, however, not so much about the story itself as it is about the author’s writing style. The novel is a literary fiction. The story is driven, as are all literary fictions, more by characters than by plot. Some acerbic commentators hint that literary fiction is a neologism and, despite the poetic and lyrical metaphors and similes that enhance the elegance of prose, makes the story unreadable. Notwithstanding, the generally accepted notion that literary fiction is the work of superior intellectual mettle than are those of genre, popular or commercial fiction. I do not agree that literary fiction is mostly unreadable. I believe those who make such harsh and unfair judgment are those who wish to read in literary fiction what are essentially the domain of commercial or genre fiction—stories essentially driven by plot. I do not imply that genre or commercial fiction are any less better (I actually enjoy them, whether Frederick Forsyth’s international political and crime intrigues or John Grisham’s legal suspense in the suburbia of America); I only say that Divakaruni’s work stands in a category that is obviously different from commercial fiction.

Divakaruni artfully tells the story in narratives full of similes and metaphors. Her prose is lyrical and is poetic. Divakaruni’s liberal and artful use of metaphors, which is mostly used in poetry, paints the story with a poet’s mind. She is, in fact, an award-winning poet (which I learn from the author’s introduction in the book). Divakaruni’s prose reads like poetry, even without verse. Her use of trope or figure of speech, while making sure they don’t sound trite, makes the story warm and pleasurable reading.

Divakaruni is an exceptional writer. But, of course, she is not the first literary fiction writer who liberally uses metaphors as prose style. Norman Mailer, a literary giant, for example, is a master storyteller who packs metaphors in his stories. Divakaruni’s use of metaphors, drama and passionately living characterization reveal her exquisite cognitive ability to observe or imagine lives in intimate and rich details and tell them in a way that makes readers feel they are not only observing a story but are, in fact, in the story. Her ability to engage readers is amazing.

One of Divakaruni’s unique style is that she creates her own metaphors that are at once meaningful to readers, instead of using the ones that have existed and been used by others (e.g., “bright as pomegranate juice” to describe a smile, or “my mouth is crowded with gravel” to describe how the narrator feels the need to retort to something she doesn’t like, or “the sun paints the wall golden” to tell the reader that the sun has shone in the room, or “smooth as molasses” to describe the smoothness of spoken words). This metaphorology is Divakaruni’s gift to readers, in addition to the story itself. This style adds additional dimension to Divakaruni’s skill as an author—that of a linguist using semiotics, symbolism and, to some extent, mysticism of words and phrases. She deftly spares the readers of archaism in her style, maintaining the high level of reader engagement and interest from beginning to the end. She elevates the work of storytelling to an art form.

Divakaruni weaves into the story elements of conflict as part of the story structure that keeps the readers engaged. The conflicts in her story are based more on characters than on plots. As a reader, I felt as though I was in the same room while the protagonists were engrossed in conversation, oblivious of my presence. She introduces element of curiosity, if not mystery, into the story in the early part of the story as a conflict that she resolves only near the end of the story (when Sudha, along with her infant daughter, Dayita, are on their plane flight to America). Between this early conflict and the eventual resolution, there is a lot of action in characterization. The characters in her story drive the plot.

This is Divakaruni's first and only novel that I’ve had the pleasure of reading so far. It’s an emotional story that has an intellectual impact like such that a linguist and author with rich imagination can make. I liked the book for its warmth depiction of female bonding amidst complexities of life and wondered why I hadn’t heard of the author before, much less read any of her novels. Although literary fictions are not the primary source of information about cross-cultures; this novel provides a literary vehicle for cross-cultural readers to understand and enjoy Bengali culture and society in Calcutta.

When I completed reading the story, I couldn’t help but wonder if Sudha was going to return to Calcutta from her sojourn to America. The novel stood well on its own as a complete story; but there are several strands that I couldn’t help but wonder about how they would progress. I wanted to know what would happen to Singhji and whether Sudha would see him again and how she would feel if she did. I wanted to know what would happen to the trinity of women in the family, Gouri Ma, Aunt Nalini and Pishi. And, of course, most of all, I wanted to know what would happen to Ashok, the man Sudha loved but sacrificed not once but twice—for Anju, the sister of her heart.

Before I close this review, I must say one thing. I have the bad habit of reading multiple books simultaneously. When I started reading this book, I had already read about a hundred pages of “The Hungry Tide”, a novel by Amitav Ghosh. I found the story too enjoyable to put the book down and go back to Ghosh’s book. As much as I was enjoying Ghosh's book, too, it just had to wait.

After reading the novel, when I found out that Divakaruni wrote a sequel to the story later, “The Vine of Desire” in 2002, I couldn’t help but feel good. I immediately started looking forward to reading it. After one book, I have become a Divakaruni fan. She is a brilliant storyteller.


The Fog House - Part 2

>> Friday, January 15, 2010

By Ajay Pradhan | January 15, 2010

As Peter jogged with Zoë in the park, he sensed something was wrong when he saw several cops huddled near the cliff overlooking the ravine.

“I wonder what the cops are doing here this early in the morning. I’ve never seen them here before,” Peter, slightly breathless, said to Zoë.

“Something seems to be wrong,” said Zoë, looking in the direction of the policemen.

“Let’s go check out,” said Peter.

“But, Pete, should we really? We don’t have a whole lot of time today.”

“Come on, ZoZo; let’s just see quickly if there is anything they need help with.”

“Let’s make it real quick, then. We might be interfering if we linger on.”

The area was barricaded with police tape and the police were not answering any question or providing any information. They were stopping people at random and interrogating them.

One policeman approached Peter and Zoë and asked, “Hi, I’m Inspector Deepak Gurung. Do you live in this area?”

“We don’t live very far from here,” said Peter. What’s the matter, Officer?"

The policeman ignored Peter’s question, “Do you come to this park often? When was the last time you were here?”

“We’ve been coming here every morning this past week. Is something wrong?”

“Have you witnessed any incident here recently? Any screams? Any assault? Any fights or scuffles? Anyone injured? Any backpackers?”

“No, we haven’t.”

“And who is she?” The policeman asked Peter, looking at Zoë.

“She’s my fiancée.”

“Give me your names and contact information. Both of you. We will contact you if we think it is necessary.”

After writing down their names and contact information, the policeman handed Peter a business card and said, “If you recall seeing anything out of ordinary, give us a call. You may go now.”

“What’s wrong, Officer? Is somebody hurt?” Zoë asked, before walking away.

“You just leave now.”

Peter and Zoë departed from the park.


Earlier in the morning around six-thirty, an anonymous phone call had tipped the police about bodies of what appeared to be two young women at the bottom of the ravine. When policemen came to the scene, they found the area pretty much undisturbed except for a backpack, a pair of broken sunglasses, and wallet with approximately two-hundred dollars and ten-thousand rupees in cash.

When the police arrived at the scene early in the morning, a thick fog hung over the ravine and obscured a clear view. They could not spot the bodies down in the ravine. When the fog started to lift up, they could spot the bodies with the help of binoculars from the rocky ledge. Four policemen were preparing to climb down to the bottom of the ravine by a rope ladder approximately fifty feet below the ledge. The park-side shoulder of the cliff overlooking the ravine was secured by two lines of barbed wire to prevent unsuspecting park visitors from walking to the edge of the cliff and falling off to a near certain death. The ravine bottom was rocky that formed the bed for strong currents of waters cascading down with enormous force. Only sheer magic or a divine intervention could save anyone falling off the cliff.

Inspector Gurung of the Special Homicide Department of Nepal Police led the taskforce to investigate what appeared to be a case of double homicide. Several police detectives and forensic specialists were inspecting and searching the area for evidence and taking pictures and collecting any relevant specimens.

Four policemen had reached the bottom of the ravine with the help of body harness and rope ladder. Bodies of two young women lay on rough rock and boulder surfaces approximately twenty feet from each other. The bodies appeared to belong to approximately nineteen to twenty year-old Nepali women. Based on their facial features, they could have been either twins or sisters only a year or two apart. When the policemen had completed taking pictures of the bodies and the scene and collected any tell-tale evidence, they prepared to lift the bodies with the help of body bags harnessed by ropes up the cliff to the waiting team of policemen in the park above. At that time they spotted a third body partly submerged in the riffle of water obscured by a large rock formation, approximately thirty feet from the second body. This too was a female body, belonging to a Caucasian woman approximately thirty years old. After making sure that those were the only bodies present at the scene, the policemen lifted the body up to the park surface. Then they climbed up to the surface by rope-ladder.

The bodies were handed over to the coroner and forensic specialists for detailed investigation. The preliminary inspection of the bodies established that the death was caused by gunshot wounds in the chest of all three women.

Back in his office, Inspector Gurung had one of the Sub-Inspectors prepare the preliminary crime scene report for records and submission to his immediate boss, Deputy Superintendent of Police Kamal Mudbhari. The DSP wanted the report by five o’clock; he was flying with his family to Kathmandu that evening to attend a family event.


In the evening, Peter’s parents and his sister accompanied Peter and Zoë to Pokhara Airport to see them off. His two old friends were also there to see him off.

Peter’s sister Kirti said, “Da, the next time we see you and Zoë, it’ll be for your wedding. I can’t wait for your wedding.”

Peter smiled at Kirti, and looked at Zoë. “Neither can I.”

Peter’s mom, Tula, who was always emotional at times of goodbyes, wiped a tear. “I’m glad you two could come home to celebrate Dashain this year. It has been three years since the last Dashain when we were together.”

Peter’s dad, retired major Khadga Man Serchan, was nostalgic. He said to Peter, “You remember that Dashain in 1982 after I returned to Hong Kong from the Falklands War, when you were merely five years old? We came to Nepal for our vacation.”

“Yes, of course, Dad. How could I ever forget that?”

The retired major turned to Zoë and said, “Has Peter ever told you about it? We were all having fun flying kites on the top floor terrace. The top floor terrace still didn’t have the railings then. Both Peter and I fell backwards down to the second floor terrace. It was our big fortune that Peter’s mom had just placed bales of hay to dry there; otherwise we’d have broken quite a few bones.” He started chuckling.

“Yes, he’s told me about it several times,” Zoë said, smiling.

“And, you know, I have never forgotten and will never forget this. The first thing Peter said was, ‘Dad, are you okay?’” Peter’s Dad’s eyes were moist as he patted the son’s back with is hands.


The retired major’s mind drifted back twenty-eight years to the year when Britain and Argentina fought a war over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina.

That was the first war Britain was involved in after the World War II. The Gorkha Brigade of the British Army had earned a reputation as a brigade of fearless fighters during the World War. A Gorkha Brigade battalion was ordered to go to war on the Falkland Islands. Khadga Man Serchan was a sergeant at the time, with a young family. He was one of the Gorkha soldiers assigned to go to the war. His youngest child, Kirti, was not even two.

When Khadga Man broke the news about the impending conscription to the war, Tula was distressed and couldn’t think of anything to do or say for a moment. She was quite concerned for her husband. Wars are never easy on the family of even the most determined soldiers. Khadga Man and Tula had young children. She was concerned for them. But mostly she was very worried for the safety of her husband.

“I have two days to get ready. The battalion leaves in three days.”

“For how long?” asked Tula, hesitantly and barely audible.

Khadga Man looked in her eyes, then looked out the windows, and whispered after a palpable pause, “Who knows?”

“God be with you. And my prayers will always be with you.”

He took her hand in his and said, “I think it’d be better if you went to Nepal while I’m gone than staying here without any family.”

Three days later Tula left Hong Kong for Nepal with three young children. Her husband left with his battalion for the uncertain war on Falklands Islands.


Nine weeks into the war, one day on the South Sandwich Island, one of the three disputed islands, the other two being Falkland Islands and South Georgia Islands, Sergeant Serchan saved a local woman and her five year old boy from being killed by a salvo of artillery assault. Serchan was thinking of his own family, his two little boys and the baby girl, when he saved the mother and the little boy.

The mother belonged to a local resistance group that sided with Argentina. Sergeant Serchan had essentially saved an enemy—enough of a crime for him to be put through a court marital by the British Army.

During the court martial, the military prosecution questioned his loyalty to the British Army: “Your job was to kill the enemies, not save them. Why did you save them?”

“Because I’m a fighter, not a killer.”

The military judge quickly dismissed the disloyalty charge, and ordered that Sergeant Serchan be released from naval detention with full honors and dignity.

[To be continued...]


The Fog House (A Short Story)

>> Sunday, January 10, 2010

By Ajay Pradhan | January 10, 2010

The early October morning air in Begnas Park was crisp and foggy. The park landscape was a riot of autumn colors. Trees were starting to shed the colorful leaves to the ground. The understory bushes were still thick and covered the ground and bottom of tall sal, sissoo and pine trees. The ground vegetation was moist with a thin coat of autumnal frost. The fallen leaves rustled and wafted in the gentle morning breeze. The morning atmosphere was filled with chirping of sparrows and tweets of other birds, intercepted by distant bleating of goats and sheep and blunt chiseling and pecking sounds of woodpeckers. Adding to this mix of nature's mellifluous music was the rustling sound of torrent of water flowing in the deep ravine nearby.

A few early Saturday morning joggers and others who came to enjoy a morning walk in the park were going about their daily ritual. They were mostly unaware of a group of cops who were congregating near the edge of the ravine, largely shielded by a thicket of tall shrubs.

Peter Serchan and his fiancée Zoë Rosenthal were among the early morning joggers. Unlike most of the brisk walkers who had warm jackets on, Peter and Zoë had lycra-spandex body suit on, defying the nippy morning weather. Peter was a forester by profession and Zoë an anthropologist. They had met while they both went to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Peter's family was from the village of Kusma. He was born in Hong Kong thirty-three years ago, spent first eight years of his life in the British Gorkha cantonment in Hong Kong, where his father was a soldier. His father took an early retirement from the British Gorkha Brigade, earned a reasonably comfortable pension, and returned to Nepal with the family that included Peter's father, mother, an older brother and a younger sister. In Nepal, the family mostly lived in Pokhara, but Peter and his siblings later went to Kathmandu to go to college.

Peter was born into an extended family of soldiers. Almost all male members of the Serchan clan joined British Gorkha. Peter’s brother Nirmal joined the brigade right after finishing college. Peter’s sister Kirti married a British Gorkha soldier and was already raising two future soldiers. Peter's father expected him to follow the family tradition, but Peter cut a rather different personality and had a distinctly different ambition. From an early age, he found that he enjoyed the nature, the wildlife, the forests, the rivers. He knew that when he grew up, he'd want to pursue a career dealing with the nature.

Peter’s parents grudgingly accepted his decision not to go into army. His uncles and aunts, however, openly questioned his wisdom and taunted him for being weak hearted to shy away from the family tradition. When he announced to the family that he was going to study forestry in the U.S., they laughed at him, chortling and hissing and hurling insults at him: “And what exactly do you think you’re going to do after you get the degree, go into the jungle and cut trees with American axe? You’re ruining the reputation for bravery of our martial race.”

While growing up in Pokhara and on their family vacations to their ancestral home in Kusma, Peter usually gave his parents their share of scare. The year after the family returned from Hong Kong, an adventurous nine-year old Peter got lost in the nearby forest in Kusma for nearly fifteen hours. On another occasion, a young Peter was gored by a wild buffalo on their trip to Chitwan. Luckily, Peter survived with only a few minor injuries. He learned swimming even before he came to Nepal. But he once nearly drowned in Phewa Lake when one of his legs got snagged in the strong tendrils of underwater vegetation. None of these incidents ever dissuaded him from exploring outdoor activities.

His other passion was music. He played acoustic guitar. Zoë taught him to play piano when they were at Yale. Peter met Zoë at a dinner party at the house of an ethnobotany professor during his undergraduate years. That professor, who conducted field research in Pokhara area, had encouraged Peter to apply to Yale. Peter was intelligent, cut a handsome figure, had a clean-cut appearance, a shy smile, and was a little shy and quiet—the traits that Zoë found rather cute and attractive.

Zoë, who was two years younger than Peter, was from Connecticut, the daughter of a German immigrant father who worked at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City and a Greek-American mother who taught South Asian culture and history at Columbia University in the same city.

That evening at their professor’s house, in a crowd of over two dozen graduate and undergraduate students, research associates and professors, Zoë struck a conversation with Peter and gave him her phone number. Almost a month after the dinner when Peter still hadn’t called her, she thought he wasn’t interested in her. But she just had to take the initiative just one more time. She called him and they set a date to go out. Even though their first date went quite awkward, the mutual attraction was quite unmistakable. Soon they fell in love and that summer, they purchased air tickets to visit Nepal. They haven’t looked back since. That was nine years ago. They were planning for a spring wedding five months later in March of next year. They had already mailed wedding invitations to friends and families. Simple ceremonies were planned in Connecticut as well as Pokhara. Everything was going great for them.

Peter and Zoë both worked for UNDP Headquarters in New York. They frequently went to Nepal for vacation. That Saturday morning at Begnas Park was their last morning of their vacation in Pokhara before their departure to Kathmandu by an evening flight that day. They were to leave Kathmandu for their journey back to New York two days later. Little did they know that their travel plans were going to be ruined and their future was to take a different direction than planned.

[To be continued...]

Note: This is a work of fiction. The characters are all fictitious and some of the setting is imagined. Please visit again for the next part of this short story.


About This Blog

Humanature Journal blog is maintained by A.S. Pradhan.


Opinions expressed on this blog are personal opinions of the writers, not of the organizations they are associated with.

  © Blogger templates Shiny by 2008

Back to TOP