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Bharati Mukherjee’s Desirable Daughters: “An American Adventure”

By: Ramlal Agarwal

Desirable Daughters is a powerful expression of the collective Indian psyche and Indian ethos. It shows how Indians are fascinated by the technological excellence, money power, and narcissistic individualism of the West and how they long to be a part of it, though at the same time they are deeply moored in the Indian tradition, culture, beliefs, rites, gods, and goddesses. They look up to the West but at the same time, they do not want to give up on their past. Mukherjee acknowledges the terrible attractions of the American life, its dazzling achievements, its prosperity, its opportunities and she also acknowledges the old quiet charm of India – its protected shell life, its philosophical consolations, its urge to put service before self. 

She does so by spinning a beautiful story of an orthodox Bengali brahmin family over several generations. 

Jaikishana Gangopadhyaya is a lawyer at the Decca High Court. Though he practices laws designed by the British, he is never tired of praising Hindu rites and beliefs.  He married his first two daughters in his caste and arranges the marriage of his third 5-year-old daughter Tara Lata. Tara is decked in heavy diamond and gold jewellery and sits like a queen flanked by her other two sisters in a Palaquin and reaches the marriage pandal and Jaikishana is fully braced to welcome the bridegroom and his party. However, when the marriage party arrives, there is no jubilation. Instead, there is wailing and cursing because the bridegroom has died of a snake – bite and the entire horde believes that the bride has brought bad luck upon them and that the bride was an evil spirit and refused to accept her but demanded the agreed amount of dowry. Jai Kishana refuses to pay a single pie but he does not want to let the auspicious moment of marriage uncelebrated. Therefore, he takes Tara into a deep jungle and marries her to a sacred tree.  Tara comes to be called the “Tree Bride” and she spends her days within the four walls of her father’s home wilting  by the day.

Several Generations later, in different times, Motilal Bhattacharjee the grandson of Jai Kishana from his ninth wife, got three daughters called Padma, Parvati, and Tara. Motilal, like his grandfather practised as a lawyer at Calcutta High Court and like him, was very proud of his heritage and beliefs. His daughters were educated in a convent school and married to suitably rich and educated men from his caste. Padma and Tara followed their husbands. Harish Dey and Bishwapriya to America.  Padma settled in New York and Tara in California. Parvati’s husband Aurobindo too was raring go to America but was held back by his employers in Bombay and was provided with a posh flat and a chauffeur. In Silicon Valley, he was known as a computer wizard and prospered beyond his expectations. The couple is blessed with a son called Rabindranath, Rabi for short. The son is indifferent about his studies and Bish is not happy with him. He frets and fumes  at him and it all results in a divorce. Tara moves to San Francisco with her son and a handsome settlement of divorce. She does not hesitate to welcome the friends of Bish and others to her bed and also starts a live-in relationship with Andy, her retrofitter. Her son Rabi is completely Americanised and follows his inclinations.

One day, a youth called Christophe calls on Tara and says that he is the son of Padma and wants to meet her. Tara cannot believe him. She wonders how could Padma have a child outside marriage. She writes to Parvati and does not get a straight answer. She writes to Ronald Dey, the brother of Penelope Dey, her classmate. Ronald accepts that he was involved in a brief affair with the Padma and a son was s out of it. But his description of Cris is far from the one Tara had met. She contacts the police because instances of blackmail and plundering were instances the day. Moreover, she comes to know that Rabi was gay and inclined to follow the arts. She goes to the Padma who she finds has turned into a sort of a star and was damn rich and free. The Padma tells Tara not to worry about her affair in India and get stuck up. She does not worry about it and her affairs and live-in relationships and advises her to go out and meet as many men as possible. The Padma takes her all around famous and fashionable restaurants and exhibitions. Meanwhile, Tara gets a fax from the police and three photographs of youths matching her descriptions of Cris. The first one is rejected the second matches her description of Cris and the third one with the one Ron gave. The second one was a hardened criminal belonging to the Dawood gang. Tara feels that Bish and she were threatened. She leaves a message to Bis who was in Australia with Rabi and warns him of the security risk they were running. Bis sends a message that Rabi and he would return to San Francesco the next morning. Hence Tara packs up and reaches home. The divorced couple meet and there is reconciliation between them. Both admit that they behaved wrongly. But when this was happening there is a blast and her residence is in cinders. Bish saves Tara at grave risk to himself and is hospitalized. Tara shifts to a hotel for some time and then returns to India and spends time with his sister Parvati. She then goes to Rishikesh to meet her oiling parents. She then goes to the place Tara Lata was wedded to a tree and then to the house where Tara Lata spent the last days of her life acting like Mother Teresa and participating in the insurgency against the British. Tara is moved by it and tells Rabi “Remember it. It is a miracle.”

Bharati Mukherjee takes the East and the West with rare equanimity and that is what makes her so special.

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