The first time I encountered Chitra Divakurni Banerjee’s delicious fiction writing was when I chanced on a Collection of Short Stories written by her titled “Arranged Marriage”. I read through them, completely enthralled. One story after another emerged as Chitra portrayed a very realistic world of an average Indian woman. I could identify with so many of the emotions she was writing about. The last story especially where she outdid herself was so raw with emotion, so replete with pathos, that it tugged my heart quite a bit. It felt like I was watching something unfold in front of my eyes. The events were believable and the commentary that went with the flow of the story was mind blowing. I especially liked the way how she meandered on about the protagonist’s thoughts, spot on! I have read some reviews saying this was a collection of sob stories, while I do agree they were, let me also tell you that each of these sob stories was not far off the mark. Things like this routinely occur in women’s lives wherein if they are satisfied and happy with one aspect of their life, then there is another aspect wherein they are very anxious and discontented about. Chitra lays that down beautifully. I especially was blown over in the last story wherein the heroine realizes that what had happened has nothing to do with her but mostly to do with a human being’s unquenchable thirst for happiness which leads him/her to different places to satiate the thirst. However, since the nature of the thirst lies is in the fact that it cannot be completely quenched, the human being is left in the same state they were before coming and trying out the new water hole!
That is basically the essence of all the stories – that human beings are very finicky creatures who don’t seem to find peace in anything and that they leave parts of themselves scattered. Since they have already moved forward, these pieces remain broken and can never be gathered again to make the human whole. We might try to retrace our steps back to find that important piece that fell off from us, but one can never quite recover what one has lost of themselves. She carries the essence of the stories into the second book I read by her – this one a novel titled “The Queen of Dreams.”
I have heard of an earlier book written by the same author, the very famous “Mistress of Spices” which was even developed into a movie. I haven’t read Mistress of Spices completely, just a few brief excerpts here and there and from what I’ve read, it seems like wonderful read. Divakurni seemed like an outstanding author and I was really excited about reading her Queen of Dreams.
The prose as usual was very good and true to her nature, she dives into the story with a splash. There is no build up or meandering about as we are thrown headlong into the dream world. It took me a while to understand what Queen of Dreams meant though. Once I got it, I found myself very interested with the goings-ons and as is usual with me when I have a good book to read, I was feeling elated.
Well, well, well, don’t judge a book by it’s cover they say – they should also include another disclaimer – don’t judge a book by the first few chapters. This turned out to be such a bad book, I had trouble finishing it. At the end of it, I had read first person, second person, third person and no person accounts. Pretty damn confusing. Not to mention the constant back and forth from the past and not just past from one person’s point of view but past from the first person, second person, third person and no person’s point of view that I am already very confused about.
Granted, sometimes it is fun to wade through these confusions. But only if your efforts are worth it. If the story had the punch, if the treatment had the twinkle, then yes, I am all for making it harder on the reader to catch on to the author’s way of thinking. After all, delayed gratification is worth something. But what if the gratification you have been looking for simply does not exist? That’s what happens here. The story is so predictable like a Bollywood Masala Movie, worse still like an Indian TV Soap Opera, that I found myself wincing at some of the tracks. The one where the lead protagonist (who is not the Queen of Dreams, mind you!) interacts with her best friend Belle. Reminded me of all those cringeworthy moments in Hindi Movies where the heroine is put on a pedestal and her every sigh, her every move is glorified by her lesser mortal friends. I find the whole concept of having a queen bee buzzing among her friends infuriating. For God’s sake, if you have put them on the same level and call them friends, don’t make it seem like the friend is a lesser human being to make your heroine more of a heroine. That vein of thought runs throughout the novel and I found that highly exasperating. When you must take the help of your side character to add more meat to your main character, you are basically cheating. You need to make your character whole by themselves. If you must make them appear better than those around them, then you have to raise them higher, not push the people around then lower to achieve the effect. That is how the heroes in our movies are given Demi-God status – by making us feel like they are the best amongst a bevy of moronic men and women. I was highly, highly disappointed with the caricaturing of Rakhi’s best friend Belle, who appeared to be much more of an interesting character but is relegated to playing the doting sidekick more than a friend.
Another thing I take offense with is how the relationship between Rakhi and her ex-husband Sonny is handled. Once again Divakurni takes a very liberal and soft approach to a divorce and once again to prove that her heroine is quite a catch, we have Sonny (who is a filthy rich successful DJ) following her like a puppy dog, lapping up her insults like they were pieces of bone! Everybody loves him except Rakhi and we are never quite sure why she separates from him. Even she isn’t! You would think you would get to know the reason at least by the end of the book. Think again.
The most well-presented character in the book is Rakhi’s mother – the Queen herself. I really liked reading about her and the mystery surrounding her persona. I felt mesmerized by her like most of her clients do. She seemed to be the one character that Divakurni worked well on while relegating everyone else to mere shadows. Except the Mom’s, no other character is developed well nor do they have consistency. It is like one chapter they are this person and down the lane transform into a completely different personality.
Also, the story is haphazard. It seems like the author tried to take on more and more as she travelled down the road and kept shoving it into the vehicle without quite knowing whether she was going to use it later or not. The result is that we are left with all these loose ends that are never tied. At the end, she pulls each shoved in part out, mulls over what to do with it and decides that she can’t really do anything and just tosses them out. The part about the white guy in the park is a classic pointer in the case. I still do not understand why this character was introduced and why he took up so much space and, in the end, had nothing to contribute to the narrative. Also, I found it extremely childish the way Divakurni jumbles his name to Emmet Maerd to Emit Maerd which happens to be Dream Time in reverse. Ugh! And she offers no explanation about this. I would have loved to see her extricate herself from the hole she had dug herself into. It would’ve been awesome had she at least tried. Instead, she acts as if there was never a hole at all and we are supposed to understand what the secrets are. Yes, I do like it sometimes when the author leaves the reader the task of figuring out some aspects of the story and leaves it to their imagination. Here however, the clues are too vague and seem to be sprinkled at will which makes it very difficult for the reader to sort them out.
I understand that Divakurni might have wanted to keep the mystery of mistresses and queens going but this attempt is very, very weak though it tries to use every trick of the trade to make the tale exotic. There’s sand caves, there’s snakes with banana leave skin, there’s singadas, there’s Bollywood music, there’s drums, there’s the streets of Bengal, there’s Cha, there’s cacophony – almost everything that foreigners associate with India – but alas, the soul is missing. The only couple of times I got interested in the narrative is when Rakhi tries to cope with the loss of her mother. I wanted her to break free of her obsession with why her mom is the way she is and work on her own character. Instead she gets even more deeply embroiled into it. The sudden appearance of the dad as a main character who could do almost everything was a bit too much. As I pointed out earlier, inconsistent and not quite believable. But I have to say, I loved the descriptions of all those yummy Bengali sweets and pakoras being made. The opening of the restaurant and everything that went it, I enjoyed reading. But even that was abruptly halted as the restaurant and its employees come under a racially motivated attack in lieu of 9/11. As if the story needed any more drama to it, we have a few pages devoted to this tragedy and everything that happened after that. Just on the surface though. Does not do anything to leave an impact.
As if this mess was not enough we have a vile female manager from a competing business who I am not sure is good, bad or ugly. She seems to be starting ominously and putting her life on line to make sure that her competition bites the dust. Her character sketch is so bad, that I found myself getting uncomfortable whenever she came on. She was the classic vamp and villain mixed into one. Once again I felt that her character was there to make our Rakhi look better. Very cliched – the well dressed, fit and fanatical other woman, only here she’s after the business and not the man. Even that loose end is not tied as she disappears without a trace leaving behind in her wake a portly harmless old man!
All in all, this book was a damp squib. I wish I had not read it and my respect and awe for Divakurni would have had not waned. Well, I have heard that this is the only bad book she wrote. I want to test that out because I have yet another book of hers with me, The Vine of Desire. I am hoping this turns out better and Chitra can re-capture the magic I associate with her writing. This magic I saw sprinkled all over Arranged Marriage. Every story I read in there, every paragraph, every character and every line could have been underlined for retrospection later. As you could imagine Queen of Dreams has none of the going for it. However, I managed to find her spark here and there which I will reproduce here.
The best of the lot for me are these:
“Words are tricky. Sometimes you need them to bring out the hurt festering inside. If you don’t, it turns gangrenous and kills you. . . But sometimes words can break a feeling into pieces.” – Very thought provoking.
“Everyone breathes in air, but it’s a wise person who knows when to use that air to speak and when to exhale in silence.” – Absolutely Delicious!
“I liked his voice, rich and unself-conscious even when he forgot words and hummed to fill in the gap. What I didn’t understand, I imagined, and thus it became a love song.” – Sweet!
Not much, I am aware.