"What is it that I owe myself?" asks Sudha, one of the central characters in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's latest novel, The Vine of Desire. The sequel to 1999's Sister of My Heart continues the story of Anju and Sudha Chatterjee, cousins born on the same day who consider themselves twins. Though the new novel delves into the same themes Divakaruni characteristically writes about — marriage, love, familial bonds, and loyalty — the result is original and magical.
It is America, and sadness, that finally reunite the long-separated Chatterjee cousins. U.S. transplant Anju has miscarried a baby, and the miscarriage symbolizes the end of her already-failing marriage to Sunil. Meanwhile, Sudha's mother-in-law wants her to abort the baby daughter she is carrying and try again for a son. In defiance, Sudha has divorced her acquiescent husband. Needing a friend, Anju suggests that Sudha start a new life in the United States.
The cousins are thrilled to be back together, but Sunil is wary of his new houseguest — he has secretly loved Sudha for years. His desire, which borders on obsession, is exacerbated by Anju's slow retreat from their marriage and vision of a new life of her own. He knows that a separation is impending: "Let me go before I start hating you," he thinks of his wife, "... Because I'll go anyway." And he does; still, Sudha rejects him out of loyalty to her cousin.
In fact, Sudha, Anju, and Sunil all separate like strewn petals and spend months silently apart from one another. It is during this time that Anju and Sudha's love for one another and the strength of their relationship are tested. Desire can certainly overwhelm one's reason and personal boundaries, but can it defeat the memory of their sisterhood?
It's not surprising that Divakaruni only began writing fiction when she emigrated to the United States to pursue degrees in English literature at Wright State University in Ohio and the University of California, Berkeley; the culture shock of her experience challenged many of the traditions she had grown up with, and writing was a way to recapture her childhood. In fact, much of her work (including the recently published short-story collection The Unknown Errors of Our Lives) illustrates the South Asian community living the immigrant dream in the United States, becoming accustomed to a new culture while holding on to threads of its own traditions. Divakaruni is skillful in demonstrating that not only does the South Asian community change and adapt, but it makes its impact on the fabric of American society as well — just as Divakaruni, with her colorful descriptions and emotionally tumultuous plots, has made an impact on the American literary scene.
The Vine of Desire
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni