Desirable Daughters, a 2002 novel by American Indian writer Bharati Mukherjee, tells the story of three sisters as they find their very different paths in life. It uses autobiographical elements to explore the South Asian immigrant experience. Born in Calcutta, Mukherjee wrote award-winning works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Middleman and Other Stories, The Tiger’s Daughter, and the memoir Days and Nights in Calcutta. Her work typically dealt with themes of post-colonialism, multiculturalism, and immigrant narratives.
The novel opens with a backstory: a myth-tinged family legend about a “Tree Bride,” Tara Lata, an ancestor of the novel’s main character living in a Bengali village. She is to be a traditional child bride in an arranged marriage. But just before the ceremony, the groom is bitten by a venomous snake and dies, even though both families had correctly worshipped the snake goddess to avoid tragedy. The bridegroom’s father comes to claim his share of the dowry even though the marriage has not taken place. The bride’s father refuses to give it to him.
But, as the narrator says, in Hinduism the only way for a woman to reach nirvana is through the worship of her husband. This means that an unwed woman is both a social outcast and unable to be reincarnated. To save his daughter in this life and the next, Tara Lata’s father symbolically marries her to a tree. This is considered a better fate for her than remaining unwed.
The story shifts to present-day San Francisco. Tara Bhattacharjee, named after her “Tree Bride” ancestor, has divorced her wealthy husband, “the richest and most important Indian in the country,” and is raising her teenage son, Rabi, on her own. She has a white boyfriend, Andy, a latter-day hippie described as a “Hungarian Buddhist yoga instructor/contractor.” Divorce is unheard of in Tara’s Indian immigrant community, so hers has become an open secret, something everyone knows about but which no one ever talks about. She is happy with Andy as she was not with her husband, who saw love as interchangeable status and honor.
Tara refuses to see herself as foreign, as anything but American. She is able to define herself through what she is not, but struggles to identify what and who she is. She describes herself as feeling invisible, but to her, this invisibility is freeing.
She differs from her two sisters. Her older sister, Parvati, has remained in India where all three women were born. She married in a love match rather than through an arranged marriage, but otherwise fills the traditional role of an Indian housewife. The third sister, Padma, has also immigrated to America but lives on the other side of the country, in New Jersey. Padma is a well-known news anchor who also runs a designer sari business on the side. All three sisters have benefitted from tremendous privilege, born into the elite caste in a wealthy Calcutta family.
Then, a secret drops itself into Tara’s lap—or onto her couch. She arrives home one afternoon to find a stranger sitting with Rabi in her living room. The man, Christopher Dey, addresses her as his aunt and explains that he is Padma’s illegitimate son, the product of an affair with a Christian man when Padma was only a teenager. This revelation is a bombshell: a child born out of wedlock, a child fathered by a man of a different social caste, and a teenage pregnancy are all sinful behavior to people of Tara’s Brahmin caste.
This surprise leads Tara to reflect on her past and on the culture she was raised in with its strict premarital social codes to protect daughters’ virginities and its equally rigid definition of what makes a good Indian wife. As she tries to uncover clues about Christopher’s parentage to determine if he is telling the truth, she reminisces about her years growing up in Calcutta, among lavish parties where she and her sisters would wear British-style dresses and eat Western hors d’oeuvres, and an education at a convent school where they were expected to learn perfect English, confidence, and poise.
All three daughters had been expected to adhere to their parents’ wishes and become well-groomed Indian wives, married to men of their own social class and caste. Parvati, however, fell in love while attending Mount Holyoke and married for love, later moving back to India with her husband. Now, as Tara reveals, she is an anxious woman who cleans compulsively, and her husband is depressed. The two are plagued with a constant stream of visiting relatives and rarely enjoy a moment alone.
A reluctant Parvati provides assistance in Tara’s hunt for the truth. The boy’s possibly adoptive mother, Didi, meets with Tara but is evasive answering her questions. Meanwhile, Tara becomes alternately guilty and annoyed with her prospective nephew’s persistent presence.
Meanwhile, Tara’s boyfriend breaks up with her and moves out of the apartment they had shared. Eventually, she finds that Christopher has a history of fraud and deception. But in finding the truth, she must confront Padma about her past. The events force Tara to confront the harsher aspects of her past and the culture she was raised in.
In the end, Tara decides to find her roots by traveling back to India with her son. The two travel along a path amidst imagery that echoes the descriptions used in the tale of the Tree Bride at the beginning of the novel. Tara has a vision of kerosene lamps that again echoes the opening scene, and experiences a spiritual moment of wonder.
Desirable Daughters was received to mixed reviews. The New York Times called it a “signature work” that demonstrates why Mukherjee is the “literary mother” of contemporary successful Indian women writers. However, others called the book “frustrating” with an ending that fell short of tying the story together. In 2004, Mukherjee wrote a sequel called The Tree Bride.
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