Before We Visit the Goddess
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A beautiful, powerful new novel from the bestselling, award-winning author of Sister of My Heart and The Mistress of Spies about three generations of mothers and daughters who must discover their greatest source of strength in one another—a masterful, brilliant tale of a family both united and torn apart by ambition and love
The daughter of a poor baker in rural Bengal, India, Sabitri yearns to get an education, but her family’s situation means college is an impossible dream. Then an influential woman from Kolkata takes Sabitri under her wing, but her generosity soon proves dangerous after the girl makes a single, unforgivable misstep. Years later, Sabitri’s own daughter Bela, haunted by her mother’s choices, flees abroad with her political refugee lover—but the America she finds is vastly different from the country she’d imagined. As the marriage crumbles and Bela is forced to forge her own path, she unwittingly imprints her own child, Tara, with indelible lessons about freedom, heartbreak, and loyalty that will take a lifetime to unravel.
In her latest novel, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni explores the complex relationships between mothers and daughters, and the different kinds of love that bind us across generations. Before We Visit the Goddess captures the gorgeous complexity of these multigenerational and transcontinental bonds, sweeping across the twentieth century from the countryside of Bengal, India, to the streets of Houston, Texas—an extraordinary journey told through a sparkling symphony of voices.
Release date: April 25, 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Print pages: 224
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Before We Visit the Goddess
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Fortunate Lamps: 1995
Somewhere in the dark, jackals are howling. They like it when storms bring down the electric lines in the village, leaving only broken bits of moonlight. Maybe they have a blood-memory of how it was before humans came and pushed them to the edges.
By now Sabitri is usually asleep. The doctor has warned her that she needs to keep regular hours. Her heart isn’t doing too well, and there’s the blood pressure, too. Did she want to be bedridden and force-fed barley water? Did she want him to phone her daughter in Houston? Or Bipin Bihari Ghatak, her business manager who lived in Kolkata?
No, she did not. Bela would rant, which was her default state when besieged by guilt, and Bipin Bihari, who was her oldest friend, would go silent with worry because he hadn’t ever wanted Sabitri to move back to her ancestral village, so far from Kolkata, in her retirement. The savage lands, he termed it.
She sets out pen and paper on the rickety dining table next to the kerosene lamp. She takes care not to wake Rekha, snoring on her coir mat in the alcove, because then she’ll start scolding, the way longtime servants feel they’re entitled to.
The evening had started well, with her perched on the windowsill, watching sheets of rain blotting out the world. Gashes of lightning tore open the sky. Behind her Rekha wrung her hands. Let me shut the window. The rain will make all the bedclothes damp, the quilts will turn moldy, you’ll get the pneumonia again, and then what will we do? But Sabitri refused. She loved the smell of night rain: wet earth, darkness, but also something else, nameless and a little frightening. When she was young, no one could keep her indoors at times like this. Even now, after she had grown brittle and creaky, the storm tugged at her insides. Ah, but Bipin Bihari should have seen her tonight!
The phone rang. She wasn’t going to pick it up. That’s what she had bought that fancy expensive answering machine for. But then there was Bela’s voice, ragged. She’d been crying. What is it about children? An old need twisted in Sabitri’s chest. Protect, protect. She lunged unwisely across the dark and banged her knee; pain shot down her leg like a fire.
“What happened?” she called into the receiver, her voice sounding rough and angry, though she had not meant it to come out like that. Even now Bela had this effect on her.
But Bela, preoccupied as she often was by her own drama, didn’t seem to notice. She rushed into her tale. Tara was thinking of dropping out of college, they had to stop her, she’d only completed one semester, it would be the worst mistake of her life, the girl refused to listen to Bela, she never listened to anything her mother said nowadays.
Sabitri hid her concern. Sympathy would only make Bela cry more.
“I’m sorry to hear this.” But how cold and unfeeling she sounded.
“You’ve got to write to her, Ma! You’re the grandmother. If you stress the right things, point out the dangers of her stupid choice, perhaps it’ll stop Tara from ruining her life!”
Sabitri wanted to remind Bela that she had tried all of the above with her. What good had it done? Besides, Tara had never even seen Sabitri. Every time Sabitri had asked Bela to bring her to India, Bela had an excuse ready. Almost as though she—or maybe that husband of hers, that Sanjay—felt Sabitri would be a bad influence.
The years had taught Sabitri to keep such thoughts to herself. She said, instead, “What made Tara want to drop out? She’s such a good student.”
When she didn’t receive an answer, she continued, “Has Tara’s father talked to her about this? There’s a better chance of her listening to him than to me. Aren’t they really close?”
Silence at the other end, more distressing than any amount of weeping. Then Bela said, “Tara isn’t talking to Sanjay at the moment.”
Something else was wrong, something worse than Tara aborting her studies, which in America, Sabitri had heard, could easily be picked up again. Sabitri suddenly felt much older than her sixty-seven years. She didn’t have the strength to question Bela. What was the use of questions, anyway? Already she knew the most important thing: if her daughter—proud, stubborn, so like herself—had had anyone else to turn to, she would never have called Sabitri for help.
She wrote down, carefully, the college dorm address that Bela dictated. She promised to take a rickshaw to the post office early tomorrow morning. She promised to send the letter by express delivery.
Now she sits at the table that has been with her for decades, running her fingers over a gouge that Bela had hacked into the wood after they’d had a fight. What can she write in her rusty English to change Tara’s mind? She cannot even imagine her granddaughter’s life, the whirlwind foreign world she lives in. All Sabitri has is a handful of photos. The child Tara in a costume, brandishing a broomstick, celebrating some odd American festival, the point of which Sabitri could not figure out. A teenage Tara at a special party called a prom, alien and glamorous in a strapless dress. Sabitri had been intimidated by her glittery cheekbones, the sophistication of her plucked eyebrows. How different from the photo she kept in her drawer, under her sari-blouses: baby Tara in Bela’s arms, peering from under a woolly blue hood, a foggy orange bridge floating in the distance.
That had been the first photo. Sabitri still remembers the pang she felt on receiving it because she had so wanted to be present at Tara’s birth. But she hadn’t been invited.
Push away the past, that vessel in which all emotions curdle to regret. Start the letter.
Dearest Granddaughter Tara,
I am sure you are surprised to receive this, since customarily we write to each other only to send Bijoya greetings. Your mother informs me that you do not wish to continue with college. I am very sorry to hear this and hope you will reconsider. Without education, a woman has little chance of standing on her own feet. She will be forced to watch from the sidelines while others enjoy the life she has dreamed about—
Wrong, wrong, all wrong. An entire hour wasted. She balls up the sheet and throws it to the floor.
Dearest Granddaughter Tara,
You do not know how lucky you are to be sent to college. So many families are too poor to be able to afford such an expense. It would be a criminal waste if you do not avail yourself of the opportunity life has given you.
She hates what she has written, prissy, stilted, schoolmarmish. Tears it up. Her mind wanders, again, to the photos. Her favorite one, which she keeps on her dresser, is of Tara at the swimming pool, taken when she was nine. Dressed in a pink two-piece swimsuit, she balances on the edge of a board, about to leap into the water. Her face is filled with terror and elation.
How well Sabitri knows that feeling.
Sabitri’s own leap began, as so many things in Bengal do, with a platter of sweets. She has forgotten many things from that time—just a few years after Independence; she was only seventeen then—but the platter she remembers clearly: heavy, made of solid silver, with a sharp, raised edge that cut into her fingers as she carried it down a mud path behind her mother, Durga, who held a similar platter. Durga’s back was bent. As she walked, the knobs of her backbone bobbed up and down under her worn sari-blouse. She was the hardest worker Sabitri knew. But for her, their household would have fallen apart long ago, for her father was the kind of man the world routinely took advantage of. Sabitri felt a churning inside her as she watched her mother, a mix of sadness and anger and love.
The platters belonged to the Mittirs, the wealthiest family in the village. Their names were etched on the rims to discourage theft, or perhaps as a kind of proclamation. Mittir’s wife Leelamoyi had ordered the sweets from Durga for a luncheon. The Mittirs had their own cook, a brahmin imported from Kolkata, but Durga’s sweets, famous throughout the village, were far superior to anything he could have concocted. And Leelamoyi had to have the best.
Sabitri hadn’t wanted to come. Leelamoyi, who lived in Kolkata and only visited the village under duress during festival time, was known to have a sharp tongue, unpredictable moods, and an elevated notion of her own importance. She would surely remark on how tall Sabitri had grown and how, if her parents didn’t act fast, they wouldn’t be able to marry her off. But there was no one else to help Durga. Sabitri’s sister was too young. Her father was at the temple, where he was a part-time priest. And even if he had been home, he would have reminded them in his mild, surprised way that this wasn’t a man’s job. So here was Sabitri, sweating and irritated and trying not to step in cow dung.
Inside the Mittir home it was cool and misty, the windows covered with damp rushes. Two maids wielded large palm-leaf fans. Leelamoyi, surrounded by a gaggle of gossips, had spread her considerable bulk over a flowery silken sofa. She must have been in an expansive mood, because she tasted the desserts, pronounced them satisfactory, and handed Durga a stack of rupees without counting them. Then she looked Sabitri up and down.
“What’s your daughter’s name again?” she asked Durga.
“Sabitri, Rani Ma.”
“Ha! Ambitious, aren’t you, naming her after the mythic heroine who snatched her husband from the clutches of Death himself. Well, you’d better find her a match fast, else she won’t have a husband at all.”
Sabitri hid her fury and tugged at Durga’s sari, trying to get her to leave, but Durga said, “Sabi doesn’t want to get married, Rani Ma. She wants to go to college. Wants to become a teacher. She’s smart. Stood first in the matric exams in the Girls School. But we don’t have the money.”
Sabitri’s face burned. Go through life with your head held high, Durga had taught her. Why, then, would she humiliate herself—and Sabitri—by exposing to a rich, spoiled woman the tender dreams that Sabitri had entrusted to her? Dreams as impossible as sprouting wings. She would never confide in her mother again!
Sabitri thinks: If only one could erase the years—just long enough to say, I understand. But by the time she realized how much it had cost her mother to speak those words—Sabitri was a mother herself then, and alone—Durga was dead, beyond the reach of all apologies.
“Really?” Leelamoyi raised disbelieving eyebrows. Gold weighed down her arms. Just her bracelets would have paid for Sabitri’s college twice over.
Sometimes the unfairness of the world made Sabitri feel like she might burst. She pushed her way through the entourage toward the door.
Behind her Leelamoyi spoke sharply. “Girl, did I say you could leave?”
Sabitri considered disobedience, but an angry Leelamoyi could make their lives more miserable than they already were. She couldn’t do that to her family. She stopped, though she did not turn around.
“Tell you what, Durga,” Leelamoyi said, her voice indolent once more, “if your impatient daughter is as smart as you claim, if she manages to get into a Kolkata college, I’ll pay her fees and let her stay in our home while she studies.”
The sycophants jostled around Leelamoyi, jealously exclaiming at this goddesslike generosity, so much more than Sabitri deserved. Sabitri stood frozen in disbelief until Durga pulled her forward and told her to touch the Rani Ma’s feet in thanks.
The pure chill of marble against her forehead. Her thoughts whirling like a flock of startled birds. The drab dead-end wall of her future had just become a golden door. Thank you, she thought fervently, ashamed of her misjudgment. Leelamoyi’s voice, booming from above, did sound like a goddess’s. Sabitri could not decipher the words, though she heard the women titter in response.
A lifetime’s worth of impatience, days slow as cattle grazing in a parched summer field. Then she was in front of the Mittirs’ Kolkata home, peering through the wrought-iron gate, clutching a painted tin suitcase in a sweaty hand. She had expected grandeur. Still, she was taken aback by the hugeness of the mansion, three stories tall, the shuttered windows like heavy-lidded eyes. Under an enormous portico gleamed a motorcar. The brick walls surrounding the compound were topped with broken glass to keep out intruders. A gatekeeper, thick-mustachioed as a bandit, banged his lathi on the paved driveway and shouted in his terrifying voice for her to move along. When she said that Leelamoyi had invited her to live here, he sneered in disbelief and tried to snatch away the letter of confirmation the Mittirs’ manager, Sarkar Moshai, had sent her.
How the matter would have ended she did not know, but right then a young man emerged from the house. “What’s all the commotion?” he asked.
His shirt blazed in the sun, blinding her. She had never seen anything so white. Later she would ask him what kind of soap the Mittirs used. But his life had not taken him anywhere near the washing area of the house, so he did not know.
She gathered her courage, pushed past the gatekeeper, and held out the note with desperate, trembling fingers. The young man gave it a brief glance and ordered the gateman to send her in to Sarkar Moshai. “Make sure someone gives her food and water,” he added. “Can’t you see she’s exhausted?”
Before Sabitri could thank him, he stepped into the waiting car.
Later she would say, “You didn’t even read that note, did you?”
“No,” he said. “But I read your eyes.”
“Eyes can lie.”
“Not yours,” he said.
Useless, these rambling memories. Focus on the letter, the one thing that might make a difference in the future.
Granddaughter, people look down on a woman without education. She has few options. To survive, she is forced to put up with ill-treatment. She must depend on the kindness of strangers, an unsure thing. I do not want that for you—
Even the most startling adventure, sooner or later, must become routine. So it was with Sabitri. Each morning she took the tram to the women’s college, where most of her classes were held. For science and mathematics, she walked to a nearby men’s college with a small group of girls. They sat in a nervous clump on a back bench because they had never had male classmates. The professors addressed only the men. Sabitri was mostly grateful to be ignored. The village school had not prepared her adequately; it was only with frantic effort that she managed to keep up.
After classes, she studied in the library with two girls who were also from distant villages, sharing textbooks since none of them had enough money to buy them all. Sabitri received a monthly stipend from Sarkar Moshai, but it was barely enough to pay her fees and her tram fare, and she was too shy to ask for more. In between homework, they spoke of their families, how much they missed them. The girls stayed in a run-down women’s hostel, six to a room. Once they went with Sabitri to see where she lived and stood staring at the mansion. Struck dumb by their amazement, Sabitri couldn’t tell them how unhappy she was there.
So many things run together in her head nowadays. But this she remembers: On the day of her arrival, Paro, Leelamoyi’s favorite maid, had taken her to the second floor. Leelamoyi sat on a four-poster bed carved with massive lion paws, playing cards with three friends. Sunlight dazzled an oval vanity mirror that stood, tilted, on a mahogany stand. On the wall was a clock unlike anything Sabitri had seen. Even as she stared, it struck the hour, and a little wooden bird popped out with a series of squawks, startling her so that she jumped. And the windows—with their shutters thrown wide, they were as big as doors. Through the bars, she could see hosts of treetops dancing in the breeze. It was like living in a leafy ocean. If this was Sabitri’s room, she would have sat on the windowsill all day, staring into the sky. But these women didn’t even glance out.
Paro gave a small, apologetic cough and Leelamoyi looked up, frowning.
“Who’s this?” she said.
Sabitri had prepared a careful speech about appreciation and gratitude, but when she realized Leelamoyi had forgotten her, she grew flustered. Her words ran into each other as she tried to explain her presence.
Leelamoyi raised her hand to cut her off. “Ah, yes, you’re that sweet-maker’s daughter. Study hard now, and stay out of trouble.” She turned back to her cards, and Paro pinched Sabitri’s arm, indicating that she had been dismissed.
Paro showed her where she would stay, a musty ground-floor room with a tiny, barred window set too high for Sabitri to look out. A weight pressed down on her chest—she can feel it even today. Their mud hut in the village had been rudimentary, but there was dappled light, the bright emerald of lau vines climbing up a wall. She knows now that Paro could easily have given her a better room—many lay empty in that mansion. But Paro had taken a dislike to her. Perhaps she resented her because she did no housework and yet received food and lodging. Sabitri wept that night for her mother, for the lost moon. For her own folly in believing that Leelamoyi’s benevolence had been something more than a moment’s caprice.
It took her some time to understand her complicated position in the household’s hierarchy: neither servant nor master. She was of a higher caste than the servants, but they made the important decisions: what she would eat, where she would bathe and hang her clothes to dry. They hesitated to ill-treat her because she was the daughter of a temple priest; but it was a small temple in a faraway village, so they did not feel compelled to treat her well. Someone would put her morning meal, a thala of rice with a dollop of dal thrown over it, a grudging piece of fish dumped on the side, in the passageway outside the kitchen in the mornings. She sat on the floor by herself and ate before leaving for college. The aroma of the dishes being cooked for the Mittirs—jackfruit curry, mutton kurma, biryani—assailed her. She hungered also for the bits of conversation floating from the kitchen: a moment of laughter, a raucous fight between the cook and the bazaar-servant. Her stomach ached with the longing to be included. At night she was afraid to arrive too soon for dinner; she didn’t want the servants to think she was greedy. By the time she sat down to her meal, the rutis were leathery, the vegetables dry. Dinner was when she missed her mother the most. At home they had eaten together, Durga listening with fascinated admiration to Sabitri’s recital of her day.
One evening, gathering her sari from the clothesline at the far end of the backyard, she noticed a narrow winding staircase, rusted in places. She climbed it—perhaps from a desire to escape. It led to a terrace, empty except for water tanks marked with pigeon droppings, a place where no one came. She made it hers. Each night after dinner she escaped to it, careful to ensure no one saw her. She looked at the stars and imagined them shining on her family. She finger-traced words onto the twinkling vastness of the sky, the things she would have written to her mother had Durga been able to read. Sometimes she wrote things she needed to believe: I’m lucky to be in Kolkata, getting an education. How many girls get this opportunity? Soon I’ll get a great job. I’ll earn enough money so my family will never be hungry again. Sometimes she whispered into the dark the saying Durga had quoted before bidding her goodbye: Good daughters are fortunate lamps, brightening the family’s name. There was a second part to the saying, but Durga had left that out. When she said goodbye to her daughter, her eyes had glittered like broken glass. To send Sabitri to Kolkata, she’d had to fight all their relatives, who warned her that she was sending the girl to her ruination. Remembering that gave Sabitri the strength to go down to her cheerless room for another long night of study.
Granddaughter, this is the truth: if you are uneducated, people look down on you. To survive, you are forced to accept crumbs thrown from a rich man’s table. How can such a woman ever brighten the family name?
One morning when Sabitri came to the passageway, there was no food. She ventured through the door to find out why. The kitchen was in an uproar. Leelamoyi had ordered the cook to make rasogollas for a luncheon, and so he had. But something had gone wrong. The soft round balls that should have been floating in syrup had exploded into hundreds of pieces. There was no time to make another batch. How shamed Leelamoyi would be if the guests had to be served store-bought sweets! Cooks had been fired for less.
“I won’t be going alone,” the cook was shouting. “I’ll make sure you all come with me.” He transfixed Sabitri with a terrifying frown. “What do you want?”
Don’t meddle, her wiser side warned. But she heard herself saying, in a small voice, that maybe she could fix the problem. The cook glared at her effrontery, but then he waved her in. Her hands shook as she boiled milk, sweetening it with jaggery syrup. She shredded the exploded balls into tiny pieces, remembering how her mother did it. She added them to the milk, along with ground cardamom and chopped pistachios. She was late for college already. But the mixture needed to be stirred, constantly, gently, so it would not stick to the bottom of the pan. She could not abandon it.
By the time she got to the college, she had missed her first three classes. Even in the others, she was distracted. Her friends joked that it was because of the new Maths professor. Their regular professor was in the hospital with a lung infection, and the university had found a substitute, a recent college graduate, a lanky young man with an Adam’s apple that bobbed up and down when he got excited about what he was teaching. Sabitri didn’t pay her friends—or him—much attention. Was Leelamoyi angry because her menu had been changed? Or did she like the new dessert? If she did, the cook would probably take full credit for it.
But how Sabitri had enjoyed cooking! At home she would grumble while helping Durga. This morning, though, when the milk had thickened perfectly, no ugly skin forming on top, she found herself smiling as she had not done since coming to Kolkata.
“Look at her grinning,” her friends whispered. “Ei, Sabi, are you in love or what?”
Upon her return, she was summoned by Leelamoyi. She climbed the stairs with some trepidation. One never knew what pleased the rich, what affronted them. But Leelamoyi, reclined on her bed—did she ever do anything else?—chewing on betel leaves, was all smiles. The guests had loved the dessert. Even her husband and son had asked for second helpings.
“From now on when I have company,” she said, with the air of conferring a great favor, “I want you to make the dessert.”
Though she hated herself for it, Sabitri’s heart ballooned at Leelamoyi’s approval. But what about her studies? She had copied her classmates’ notes today, but she had not understood them well. If this happened often, how would she pass her classes?
Leelamoyi gestured to Paro, who walked over to the mahogany almirah with a face like she’d just bitten into a bitter melon. From the bottom shelf she removed two saris and handed them to Sabitri. Sabitri held her breath, marveling at the slip-shiny feel of the silk, trying not to show her excitement. She had never owned a silk sari. And these, though not new, were far more expensive than anything her family could afford to buy her.
“Rani Ma wants you to have them,” Paro said with her bitter-melon mouth.
In her room, Sabitri tried on the saris, wishing she had a mirror. The first was pomegranate-red with a border of green parrots. She would wear it to college tomorrow, even though she knew it was too showy. The second sari was more expensive, evening-sky-blue with a thin gold border. Where could she wear it? Certainly not to the kitchen, where no doubt Paro was fanning the waves of resentment by telling everyone of these undeserved gifts. But she couldn’t bear to take it off. It was smooth as water against her skin, lighter than she had imagined a sari could be. She decided to go to the terrace.
Once there, she walked up and down the way she imagined a great lady would, steps tiny and elegant, the sunset breeze rustling the silk. She became a rich heiress who possessed two entire almirahs of saris like this. Her diamond nose ring sparkled as she promenaded.
But she was not alone! In a corner behind a water tank stood the young man who had helped her upon her arrival at the Mittirs’, smoking and watching. Leelamoyi’s son. From overheard kitchen gossip she knew his name: Rajiv. He was studying to be a doctor so that he could take over the family business, a hospital. There was a smile on his face—derision, no doubt. She rushed back to the staircase.
“Please don’t run away!” said the young man, and when she didn’t listen, “Stop, I insist!”
Granddaughter, at that, I stopped. Perhaps a part of me believed that, charity case that I was, he had the right to command me. But a part of me wanted to stay because he was young and handsome and had been chivalrous. My heart beat unevenly as I turned to face him, and not just out of fear.
She looks down at the page. What made her write this foolishness? She crushes the sheet in her fist, as though to crush the memory. Then she smooths the paper out again. She is not equipped to advise Tara, she knows this. But perhaps, if she shares her life, the girl might see something there. For the first time, she feels hopeful.
How long did they speak that time, and the next, and the next? And of what? Later she would only remember fragments, torn clouds drifting in front of the moon. When she told him, shyly, why she was in Kolkata, he listened with careful attention. Then he talked about himself, disarming her with his self-deprecating honesty. He hated medical school: the stink of illness, the pus and the vomit, the dark, jaundiced urine of the patients. But it wasn’t something he could tell his parents, who were counting on him. The terrace was his escape, too. He loved playing the flute. Would she like him to play for her one night? But already she knew he would never do that. They could not risk anyone finding out.
Days passed. How many? It is hard to keep track of such mundanities when one is balanced inside a fairy tale. After some time, he brought up an old red quilt, so they could sit in comfort as they spoke. One moonless night, he lay down on it so he could point out the constellations to her. Here is Kalpurush with his shining, here are the seven wise rishis. She was impressed. She hadn’t thought a city boy would know the names of stars. Maybe that was what made her lie down next to him on the worn malmal, though her mother’s warnings buzzed in her ears like mosquitoes. She told him her dreams: she would dress in a starched sari and teach history to schoolchildren, stories of conquerors and despots. Her students would be obedient; she would never need to cane anyone. She would become a principal with tortoiseshell glasses, the entire school standing at attention when she entered the assembly hall.
He nodded. She would make a great principal, he said with conviction. He wound a finger softly around a lock of her hair, which he had persuaded her to unbraid. That was what made her fall in love, finally: his belief in her, and his gentleness.
But even as she confessed her dreams, they were changing.
That first night, their conversation, so hard to break off, had continued beyond safety. Sh
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