Oh Calcutta!


After decades of indifference, the West suddenly developed a craving for Indian fiction in 1997—as if you could consume a culture the way you do a vindaloo. Arundhati Roy’s bestselling novel, The God of Small Things, sent publishers skittering in search of young Indian-born writers like Manil Suri, Jhumpa Lahiri, Akhil Sharma, and Meera Nair. All live in the U.S. or England, yet each set his or her book in India (with the notable exception of Lahiri), adorning it with the usual array of arranged marriages and pungent fragrances, conjuring a subcontinental realism delicately overlaid with a frisson of exoticism.

What nouvelle Indian fiction usually omits is the immigrant experience. Which is odd, because cultural miscegenation was everywhere in the work of Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, and Bharati Mukherjee—the trio who served as token spokesmodels for the Indian diaspora in the ’80s and ’90s, when multiculturalism and postcolonial studies were on every earnest grad student’s lips.

Rushdie’s best novels conjured a postcolonial consciousness that was bombastic, feverish verging on monstrous. He inflated ancient mythical structures and then set them on a collision course with the modern imagination. Mukherjee (who came to the U.S. in the ’60s and now teaches at Berkeley) has toyed with some of the same tactics in the past, though her work is tame in comparison. But she’s a more likeable writer—there’s none of the bloated arrogance of Rushdie’s oeuvre. Her half-dozen novels and story collections gracefully shimmy through the tangled mess of cultural cross-wires, framing immigration as an adventure—a chance for metamorphosis—rather than a trauma. Jasmine (1989) trails the protagonist, Jyoti, from her childhood in a rural Indian village through her transformation into Midwesterner Jane Ripplemeyer. The characters in The Middleman and Other Stories (1988) are all caught in a dislocation dance: Having lost their bearings completely, they carve a new life out of American flux.

Like its immigrant narrator, Mukherjee’s effervescent new novel is neither one thing nor the other. Desirable Daughters is a melting pot of styles: It’s a middlebrow women’s novel (think an Indian Hannah and Her Sisters); a postcolonial tale rife with meditations on belonging and exile; and a thriller, complete with a mysterious stranger and quirky cop. Throw in a touch of Hindu-style magic realism and stir.

Tara Chatterjee, the aforementioned narrator, is the youngest of three sisters from a wealthy Calcutta family trapped between the old world and the new. At 19, she was married off to Bish Chatterjee, who became a Silicon Valley billionaire. Now pushing 40, Tara is a divorcée living in San Francisco with her teenage son and her boyfriend, a Buddhist earthquake-proofer whose truck advertises him as the “Zen-Master of Retro Fit.”

Tara blends in with the cosmopolitan population of San Francisco (just another “ethnically ambiguous” chick sitting in a coffee shop). She is constantly aware of being different, though, and finds it impossible to convey to American friends—citizens of our comparatively classless, mobile society—how circumscribed and static Indian identity is. “[It] is as fixed as any specimen in a lepidopterist’s glass case, confidently labeled by father’s religion (Hindu), caste (Brahman), subcaste (Kulin), mother-tongue (Bengali), place of birth (Calcutta) . . . ” and on and on in ever decreasing circles. Although she left Calcutta decades ago, Tara’s radar is always on alert, decoding names, manners, and accents whenever she encounters strangers of Indian descent.

This ethnic antenna comes in handy when a young man named Chris Dey surfaces, claiming to be the illegitimate son of her eldest sister, Padma. Tara senses there’s something fishy about him and calls her siblings, hoping to clear up the mystery. These searching conversations with Padma (a multicultural performance artist in New Jersey) and Parvati (who lives in Bombay and worries incessantly about crime) provide some of the funniest, most astute scenes in the book. Mukherjee has perfect emotional pitch, nailing the conflicted, sometimes vicious dynamics among sisters.

Tara initially describes her family as close; in reality, she and her sisters routinely whitewash their sadness. “The rules of our transcontinental relationships are intuited, never acknowledged,” Tara admits at one point. “We accept that, given the international phone rates, our personal defeats are too banal to waste money on.” When she tries to pump them for information on the mysterious Chris Dey, they scold her for tainting their cloistered, halcyon childhood with scandal. After some sleuthing on Tara’s part, she discovers that her father, a religious Brahman, forbade Padma from marrying her Christian boyfriend, Ronald Dey (alleged father of Chris). She also learns that the man who claims to be Chris Dey may be an impostor linked to an Indian gangster syndicate who is targeting Bish Chatterjee’s tech empire.

This thriller plotline isn’t entirely convincing because Mukherjee doesn’t take it seriously, mainly using Chris Dey as a device for transporting the specters of the past into the present. She traces a fuzzy line back several generations “to the decision of Ronald’s grandfather to convert to Protestantism and gain favor from the British and lose status with the Hindus.” Or maybe even farther back to Tara’s own great-grandfather, an educated Bengali who turned his back on colonial society and became a born-again Hindu, setting her family on the path to orthodoxy and repression.

Mukherjee heaps some heavy ideas (colonialism, tradition, assimilation) on top of a light plot, but Desirable Daughters doesn’t collapse under the weight. Its hybrid structure absorbs conflicting currents of Tara’s world, though this results in unsubtle metaphors and maddening repetitions. The worst example is the earthquake motif permeating the book. Tara’s boyfriend, the earthquake-proofer, litters his conversation with references to fault lines and tectonic plates: “Your marriage is over. Growing up like a princess is over. They’re cold faults, understand?” Soon Tara is finding hairline fractures everywhere—in the ever changing cultural landscape of America, in the slow but just as steady transformation of Indian society.

The way Mukherjee tells it, immigrants are living mutations, making conscious and unconscious decisions about which bits of their old identity to ditch and which to save. Tara is constantly adjusting her center of gravity as the ground shifts beneath her feet, and the fluctuating style of Desirable Daughters comes close to mirroring that experience.