Desirable Daughters

by Bharati Mukherjee
310 pages,
ISBN: 0002005158

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by Padma Viswanathan

Bharati Mukherjee once said in an interview that she is a great fan of James Ellroy, the master of hardboiled LA crime fiction. She acknowledged that it might seem strange that "a very demure Indian lady sees James Ellroy as a kindred literary spirit." It might seem less strange now. Desirable Daughters, Mukherjee's newest novel, is classifiably noir. The story is propelled by a threat, possibly from Indian mafiosi, against innocent but wealthy targets. Mukherjee is more postmodern contrarian than pulp, however. She has made herself a name peeling back layers of Asian immigrant experience in modern America. The thriller element in Desirable Daughters, though adroit and compelling, functions mostly as an excuse for tugging at the fabric of a contemporary Indian family in order to display its contents and malcontents.

The story is told by Tara, originally the youngest daughter of an upper-middle class Bengali family, now the ex-wife of a Silicon Valley billionaire. Bengalis are India's art snobs, a people of poetry, music, and refinement. Even their language is lilting, as pleasing and flirtatious as Tara and her sisters are taught to be. They are groomed to marry within their class and caste, though only Tara obediently takes advantage of the marriage her parents arrange. Twelve years later, she moves out, along with her child.

One day, Tara comes home to find her son chatting in their living room with a stranger. The young man claims to be the illegitimate son of Tara's eldest sister by a handsome Christian boy who was part of their school-age circle. Tara has heard nothing of this in the intervening twenty-five years and starts petitioning her sisters for information. She fears that her son, already alienated from his parents (regular adolescent angst compounded by an immigrant's sense of alienation and by incipient homosexuality) is being taken in by this smooth-talking so-called cousin. So-called, because Tara is not at all convinced the young man is who he claims to be. Even if her elder sister had born a pre-nuptial baby, Tara can't make herself believe the visitor is that lost child. And regardless of whether he is or isn't, she can't figure out what he wants, especially from her son.

Mukherjee's last book, Leave it to Me, was a shocking, stylish tale told from inside the head of Devi Dee, a beautiful Saratoga Springs misfit who goes in search of the birth parents she never knew. As with that book, readers of Desirable Daughters may find they learn as much from what the narrator doesn't tell as from what she does. We live according to Tara's logic, we leap with her leaps. She says little directly about her reasons for leaving her marriage, for example, but words like Šloneliness' and Šprincess' hover in references to the union. Her first act is to remove their son from the Anglo-styled academy his father founded and put him in a freewheeling school catering to "the children of San Francisco's bohemian elite." Most of their Calcutta social circle has not even been told about the divorce, even though Tara is already living with a lover, a red-haired Zen Buddhist ex-biker named Andy who retrofitted and earthquake-proofed her house. Andy's empathy is strained to breaking when Tara goes to the police about her "nephew" after promising she wouldn't. (Andy extracted this promise because his own history has left him convinced the fuzz always do more harm than good.)

The opening chapter of Desirable Daughters shows a child marriage in turn-of-the-century East Bengal (now Bangladesh, an area cleaved from India's eastern side with Partition). That child turns out to be Tara's namesake, a woman who lived as a widow in her family's home her entire life and became an unrecorded martyr to the fight for Indian independence. Mukherjee has memorably said that "no fine fiction is anchored in verisimilitude. Fiction must be metaphor." Any links between the historical and contemporary stories are indirect, symbolic, yet important enough to our Tara that she begins her story with that of the previous Tara¨Satyajit Ray meets Six Degrees of Separation, to be glib.

"Earthquakes aren't all jolt and damage," Tara's biker patiently explains at one point. "They're silent, they're nonevents....For decades, for centuries, plates rub up against each other where no one can see and no one can measure it. . . So which part is the earthquake, the violent last two seconds or the very quiet two hundred years?" This becomes the novel's pervasive metaphor: California versus India, one place torn asunder by politics, another waiting to be torn by geology. Mukherjee's characters, like the landscapes where their lives unfold, are also torn (and occasionally, thankfully, rejoined) by forces dark and unpredictable, frequently originating within themselves.

In a sense, as Tara tries to pry from her reticent elder sister the details of this possible long-past affair, and to describe her own life as best she can, the reader is cast in her position: trying to parse truth from circumstances, and only those circumstances an implicated informant chooses to reveal. It's frustrating, but that's family. Mukherjee sustains the narrative despite the sisters' cracked logic, fragmented stories, and cryptic conversations. As with any good mystery, this book's essential concern is the human psyche.

Inevitably, however, this construction leaves the reader unsettled, as ambivalent and threatened as Tara¨a feeling unmitigated by the suspicion that this is exactly as Mukherjee intended. Desirable Daughters, unsurprisingly, does not offer the moral and narrative payoff of a run-of-the-mill crime story¨and not, one suspects, because Mukherjee's planning a sequel. Just as well: some chasms, once opened, are too wide and deep to cross. By the book's end, Mukherjee had left me behind, unable and unwilling to follow her any longer. ˛


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