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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2013



C. Bharathi

Dr. S. Kalamani


Sisterhood is a Strength and Succour: Portrayal of sister-friend in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Sister of My Heart


Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni depicts the South Asian immigrant experience and possible appropriation by mainstream discourses has significant consequences. Readings of her work produce new meanings and new sites of contestation. Therefore she cannot claim to be outside of the power struggle that revolves around the authenticity of voice. Within the Indian community in the diaspora there are many versions of history being produced and the questions of what’s being said, by whom and who is representing who, become pertinent. Divakaruni writing about gendered identity politics needs to be careful of the ways in which her work can be used.

Sister of My Heart opens with the Chatterjee family already deprived of its male figures and its former economic status. As the three widows (Pishi Ma, the cousins’ paternal aunt, and their mothers) and two young girls (Anju and Sudha) of this family meander their way through the drama of life, facing marriage, motherhood, divorce, widowhood, etc., each stage brings into focus a certain aspect of the upper-class Bengali culture and tradition, which is cherished or criticized from the uniquely feminine and diasporic perspective of the author.
The novel depicts their gradual loss of financial status as they are forced to relinquish their riches and amenities of comfort, one by one. First, they cannot afford a paid chauffeur. Then, they have to sell the bookstore which had been meticulously run by Gauri Ma for years and been one of their major income sources. The final blow comes when the old inheritance, the grand mansion and childhood abode of the cousins, has to go to in order to make ends meet. So when Pishi Ma, the otherwise strong upholder of traditions, sounds adamant regarding her decision to sell the generations old patriarchal property and move to an apartment, even the sisters are appalled. Yet, with only the family name and the skeleton of its old fame to their credit, these women have no other choice. And for the first time the widows of the Chatterjee family learn to live their lives with a girlish lightness.

The novel Sister of My Heart portrays a woman’s world, this time of middle-class urban women, confined to houses in which their domain is strictly demarcated but which enables them to reach out to each other in sisterhood, and in so doing achieve far greater success as human beings than the men who straddle the outside and bigger world. Rendered in an often sensual and poetic language, the story primarily weaves around the magnetic love that pulls these two women together, though with birth, marriage, and pregnancy all occurring for the two Chatterjee sisters at about the same time, not to mention the fact that they also lose their fathers under the same malicious star. Psychological healing and memory-mending are orchestrated by the characters in the novel through the device of story-telling. And in spite of the mild allegorical overtones concerning the inscrutability of the human heart, this is a scathing critique of the patriarchal and religious institutions of Bengali Brahmins and the socio cultural traditions of postcolonial India.

In Divakaruni’s fiction sisterhood is always a deeply rooted, instinctual relationship that brings together women who are very different from one another in every way. This is especially so in “The Ultrasound” and its novelistic version, Sister of My Heart.   Anju and Sudha Chatterjee are very different in appearance, temperament and achievements, and grow up together under similar yet very different conditions: their fathers, cousins themselves, died together in the same accident, but where Anju’s father was the master of the house, and her mother from an equally aristocratic family, Sudha’s father was a poor relation, her mother’s background nondescript, lower middle-class. Sudha and her mother continue to live in the family mansion not out of ancestral right but because Indian family ties would not have it otherwise.

Anju’s mother, Gouri Ma, or Rani Ma, as her servants and battalion of lower-caste workers love to call her, is the main earning member of the family. With her bunch of household keys tied to her cream-coloured, toshar silk saree, her pearl broach on the shoulder, and her generous, calm, and calculating personality, she reminds one of the pomp and splendour, the grace and intelligence often attached to the “bou thakurans” or the leading ladies of the zamindar households. However, at the tail end of the zamindari system, the Chatterjees are no longer the awe-inspiring, lavishly wealthy family they once were.

The girls do everything together and love each other fiercely, demanding to be known not just as sisters but as twins, and not just because they were born on the same day: sisterhood to them is not just a matter of ties of blood but of love. As Anju tells Sudha, “I would love you because you love me. I would love you because no-one else knows us like we know each other” (61). They may be separated by fate and marriage once they reach adulthood, but they let nothing stand in the way of their love for each other, even jeopardizing the love of the men in their lives for each other. It is perhaps this that makes Divakaruni call Sister a novel of women’s friendship, not of sisterly bonding. 

The girls, Sudha and Anju, live in a patriarchal home in which there is absolutely no male control. The only male alive in the family is disguised as Singhji, the driver and exerts no authority over the household. What was originally conceived of as a restrictive boundary for the women is recreated into a female universe. The rules that are upheld in this world are laid down by the patriarchal society. It is only later that the world of the Chatterjee women is completely transformed into a modern.

Divakaruni exposes women freedom, humanity, and the right to life. She also judges the often superstitious, planet-gazing conservative Bengalis through the highly critical eyes of a postcolonial commentator who scrutinizes the far-reaching impact of British colonialism on the Bengali psyche. Thus, the Chatterjee cousins go to English-medium convents, like most children of upper and middle-class Bengali families, and Anju looks forward to getting enrolled at Lady Brabourne College’s English honours program, both of these institutions being the fruits of British rule. Also, Anju’s excessive fascination with Virginia Woolf, or her craze for Elizabeth Barrett Browning are examples of modern education trends.

The writer through Anju gives us a clear picture of the need of economic stability for emancipating women. Sudha’s father left nothing other than debts. This has been one of the reasons for her inability to perform academically well even if she is as intelligent as Anju. On the other hand, Anju gets a lot of encouragement from her mother and she goes on to win spelling bees and debate contests and good academic achievements in college. Sudha, nevertheless, also does well with her cooking, knitting and crocheting even if she can’t excel like Anju. She chooses to be traditional which also demands a lot of courage and tolerance.
I want to design clothes, she says. Salwaar kameezes. Pleated wedding ghagras with mirrors stitched in. Kurtas for men, embroidered white on white silk. Babay frocks in satin and eyelet lace. I want to have my own company, with my own tailors and my own label, so that customers at all the best stores will ask for the Basudha brand. People in Bombay and Delhi and Madras will clamour for my work.(90)

Divakaruni expands the story with additional details that the cousins may not actually have been cousins at all, that Bijoy’s father had been deceived by Gopal, Sudha’s father, about their relationship. (That this is proved wrong in the end is beside the point.) This should have helped to establish the fact that their love is far deeper than the ties of blood. Anju, who knows nothing of the tenuousness of their kinship or of what Sudha’s father had done, his treachery and complicity in Anju’s father’s death, is sure that their sisterhood can never be broken; but it is clear that much of her certainty is due to her ignorance. Besides, as the social superior and the more intellectually gifted of the two, it is easy for her to be generous. But Sudha remains consumed by guilt for what her father has done and by her conviction that she must atone for his sins by always putting Anju first; when, therefore, she decides to sacrifice her own happiness for Anju’s sake it is uncertain whether she does it out of a sense of filial duty or out of love for a sister of the heart. Indeed, when she has to choose between her mother and her cousin when it comes to consenting to an early marriage instead of going to college with Anju, she chooses her mother, although, of course, it is a painful decision for her. Besides, she is always a very passive person, as contrasted to Anju’s energy and initiative, and her reluctance to elope with Ashok, the man she loves, seems as much due to her fear of action and her preference for going with the tide rather than her love for Anju, which makes her worry that this elopement might break up Anju’s engagement to Sunil.

In Sister of My Heart, Divakaruni rejects conventional myths and creates new ones. The first book in the novel is titled The Princess in the Palace of Snakes. In this part both the protagonists attempt to conform to the traditional feminine roles allocated by the male hegemonic society. This is symbolised by the traditional fairytale of the princess in the palace of snakes waiting for her Prince Charming to rescue her. The second book is titled The Queen of Swords,  is not a traditional fairytale.

 When Anju is upset over her miscarriage, Sudha tells her this tale and Anju recovers. Then she relates what happened to the three mothers. Then Pishi, the usual teller of tales, asks her about the story she told Anju.
‘I told her a story’.
‘Ah, a story’, nods Pishi. More than any of us, she knows the power stories hold at their centre, like a mango holds its seed. It is a power that dissipates with questioning, so she merely asks, with an odd, wistful look, ‘Was it a story I had told you, Sudha?’
I am sorry to disappoint her. ‘It’s a new story. One I made up, sort of, on the spot.’ 
‘Does it have a name?’ asks Gouri Ma.
I start to shake my head. Then it comes to me.
‘The Queen of swords’, I say. (312)
This new myth symbolises the new feminine world that Divakaruni envisages. It is a world across the rainbow (ironically a conventional symbol of hope) where women rescue other women and do not wait helplessly for the men.

This change is seen not only in the story that Sudha narrates but also in her attitude and her actions. During their childhood, the girls used to enact the fairytales that Pishi told them. Sudha always played the princess in danger and Anju the prince who rescued her. Even while they were playacting, Sudha would never reach out to the prince and help him to help her. She always said that it was the duty of the prince to do all the hard work and rescue her. Later when she falls in love with Ashok and the mothers decide to get her married elsewhere, she waits for Ashok to make all the moves and rescue her.

The extent of the woman’s oppression within the marriage is obvious. After her marriage to Ramesh, Sudha enters a household ruled by her tyrannical mother-in-law.  She is not allowed to pursue her financial independence. In many ways, she is the prototypical victim of an arranged marriage. In arranged marriages, an attempt to schedule an expression of female sexuality to coincide with institutional structures of marriage renders impossible an articulation of women’s desires. Her commodification is complete within the imbrications of patriarchal structures and economic systems.   She puts up with the ill-treatment there for a long time, still the conventional princess of the fairytale, waiting for her husband, the prince, to rescue her. When she conceives and it is established by tests that her baby is a girl, her mother-in-law tries to force her into an abortion and treating her as a baby machine. “You probably agree with all those Indian men who see a woman as nothing more than a baby machine.” (213)

In traditional relationships women are not expected to have the power to leave home; in fact, to have agency is to transgress beyond normative feminine behaviour.  But now Sudha decides that she should do something to protect her baby. She leaves her husband’s home and returns to her parental home in Calcutta.  Sudha leaves with her jewellery, possibly “gifted” by her parents during the marriage, to set up her own economic unit within which she can re-formulate her own identity. “I have five hundred rupees. I took them from Ramesh’s desk drawer. And all my jewellery that wasn’t in the safe. Just in case”.(261)

Amidst the different settings and ideologies, the writer brings home the similarities of the tradition and modernity through psychological and physiological changes accompanied with the experience of pregnancy of the two cousins. Sudha, who was bearing everything, now wants to stand up to defend the life of the child inside her. She is forced to run away from her husband’s house but she knows that nobody will entertain her and bear the stigma she carries. Even her mother will not understand her predicament as she has more to worry about her society than her daughter’s plight. Moreover, she can never come out of the belief that a married woman should always live under the shelter of her husband, no matter what the condition is.

The mother is the person most directly responsible for curbing the daughter’s independence, for facing her to adjust and accept the patriarchal norms she has internalized herself, even though she may do it out of love and fear for her daughter. The daughter in turn channelizes all her resentment of patriarchy towards her mother.  Nalini, the mother of the more beautiful Sudha, primarily comes across as a woman doubly handicapped in attitude, first by a patriarchal tradition, and second, by the modern need for reinforcing identities. She does not hesitate to sacrifice her own daughter’s happiness, or even her first granddaughter’s life, when it comes to saving face in her honour-conscious, prestige - and scandal –obsessed society. Thus, when Sudha is unable to kill her yet unborn daughter and, instead, runs away from her married home, risking a divorce, her mother is furious:
I told her to grit her teeth and put up with it, and try for another pregnancy. A woman can have many children, after all, but a husband is for ever . . . what will we tell our relatives? Uff, she’s smeared kali for ever on the Chatterjee family, to say nothing of my ancestors. (266)
The upholder of family tradition, Pishi comes to rescue Sudha. She renders support and says Sudha is old enough to make her own decision. The women in the Chatterjee family doesn’t allow Sudha to kill the girl baby to save the family’s face in the society, instead they bless her to be like the Rani of Jhansi, the Queen of Swords. Inspite of her mother’s lamentations she wipes off the sindur powder and wedding bracelets and accepts the divorce proceedings sent by Sanyals. Pishi mourns for the tyrannical rules of the society for a widow at the age of eighteen and says:
Why should she care any more what people say? What good has it done her? What good has it done any of us, a whole lifetime of being afraid of what society might think? I spit on this society which says it’s fine to kill a baby girl in her mother’s womb, but wrong for the mother to run away to save her child. (268)
Divakaruni’s women, however, face a different situation. They love their men, or believe they do, and they suffer agonies of jealousy and misery when they feel they have been betrayed by friend with husband; but they quickly realize that they love their women friends more than their men, a love that surpasses all other relationships. It is in her Sister of My Heart that Divakaruni most obviously explores this theme.    

Even after marriage Shdha is the most important person in Anju’s life, not Sunil, her husband. When, therefore, she learns that Sudha’s in –laws want her to abort her baby because the prenatal sex-determination test has shown it is female, in spite of Sunil’s evident disapproval she urges her to leave her husband and go to her (Anju’s) mother in Calcutta – apparently Sudha’s mother is not sufficiently supportive to start a new life there, promising herself that she would somehow bring her cousin over to America no matter what the cost to her, financially and emotionally.
Tomorrow I’ll think of all the prickly details: how to get them here, the visas, how much it’ll all cost. I can get a job and save for their tickets. That way I won’t have to ask Sunil for a single penny. Tomorrow itself I’ll go to my college library - I know they’re looking for an assistant. I won’t even tell Sunil about it. It’ll be my secret, mine and my baby’s. (276)

Western influence and the Westernization of Indian society, especially in the upper classes stand in sharp contrast to the traditionalism of the middle and lower classes.  However, if the Eastern world is delineated at times in a rather negative light in this book, then the Western world is presented not without its own evils and shortcomings. Freedom and riches in the West are often bought, particularly by the immigrant, at the expense of the love and support provided by the extended family or the community. This is proved while Anju doubts on herself that “Did I push Sudha into making the wrong decision, misled by my American - feminist notions of right and wrong? Have I condemned her to a life of loneliness? (272)  

Hence the same Anju, who used to complain about the noise and lack of privacy in her mother’s home back in India, because of the host of servants and gossiping aunts, yelling neighbours, and shouting road vendors, now misses the din and bustle in her desolate apartment in America. Indeed, America provides “the advantage of anonymity”,( quoted in Hafiza Nilofar Khan 106) but it also adds the burden of responsibility and loneliness. No doubt America adds to the self-confidence of the Indian male, endowing him with a certain light- heartedness and ease that allow him to trust his partner’s vivacity and enterprise, which come in place of domesticity and docility, but America may also turn him into a reckless philanderer, as seen in the character of Sunil, Anju’s Americanized husband. But he is not supportive to Anju and argues with her regarding Sudha’s arrival to the chatterjee house. He also warns her that she is safe in America. Anju doubts and asks him:
Maybe you’d have wanted me to have an abortion too, if we’d been in India and my baby hadn’t turned out to be a boy.’ - - - Does it mean he’d be the same way towards me if ever I got into trouble? Does he love me at all? What if something happened to our baby? Would he love me still? (274-275)

The woman in the mirror is none other than she herself, but in a novel manifestation. She is that woman who has emerged victorious over all dilemmas, all oppositions, all crushing sensibilities, and is as bright and radiant as a bird, ready to fly into the exotic skies. Sudha refuses to go back to a tormenting past, she is ignorant of what the future holds for her, yet her eyes look forward, and the spirit of fire burning within her convinces everyone that none can now dare to stop her in her upward and onward journey. Sudha indeed, emerges as a triumphant woman.  She transforms herself, from the princess in the palace of snakes to the queen of swords. She refuses to return to Ramesh. When Sudha is given a second chance of happiness, when Ashok reappears in her life and wishes to marry her, she is once again faced with the choice between her own happiness and Anju’s, and chooses Anju’s. She also turns down the conditional offers of Ashok to marry her. The rejection of male - allotted stereotypical roles is complete. Anju wants her in California, and so she will go to California. But she doubts that would this have been a real friend’s decision. Both she and Anju know that Sunil was really in love with Sudha and had never been able to forget her; indeed, their friendship had almost broken up when Anju had discovered her husband’s feelings for her cousin. Not only will she be a financial burden on Anju, as she and her parents have always been on Anju’s family- a fact that she cannot forget and feels she must be grateful for - in a sense, in fact, Sudha is responsible for Anju’s miscarriage, for Anju feels obliged to pay for Sudha’s fare to the USA, since Sunil cannot afford it, and takes up a job, overworks, and loses her baby. It was not as if she would not have been able to make a fresh start in life in Calcutta; indeed, she had already begun to do so. Above all, she knows that her presence in Anju’s marriage will inevitably cause problems and unhappiness, something that Sudha had anticipated long before in an old dream:  “If only Anju and I, like the wives of the heroes in the old tales, could marry the same man, our Arjun, our Krishna, who would love and treasure us both, and keep us both together.” (131) Sudha’s journey to America is really the beginning of her journey to a new world of women.

Anju is a true sister of the heart for Sudha. Divakaruni makes Anju and Sudha speak alternately in their own voices, constantly shifting perspective, the narrative technique itself underlining their twinning as much as the events of their lives and Anju’s voice is always clear and unambiguous. The richer, the cleverer and the more talented of the two, but perhaps the less imaginative and sensitive, she has always stood by Sudha, doing what she thinks is best for her, being willing even to sacrifice her relationship with Sunil in her obsessed belief that she must have Sudha by her side if her sister-friend is to thrive. It is appropriate, then, that, a novel of sisterhood should end with Anju’s thoughts:
We’ve formed a tableau, two women, their arms intertwined like lotus stalks, smiling down at the baby between them. Two women who have travelled the vale of sorrow, and the baby who will save them, who has saved them already. Madonnas with child . . . for now the three of us stand unhurried, feeling the way we fit, skin on skin on skin, into each other’s lives. (347)

Despite the innumerable headaches that an American lifestyle entails, Divakaruni’s characters seem convinced about its ultimate superiority. This is well expressed in these words of Sudha, who is planning to leave for America with her fatherless, newborn daughter in search of a respectable life for both: “Best of all, no - one would look down on her, for America was full of mothers like me, who had decided that living alone was better than living with the wrong man” (274).

The solace faced by Sudha in the novel is similar to the postmodern woman faced by all souls stuck between the crossroads of tradition and modernity. When certain aspect of conventional pattern of life become morbid and tormenting, one wishes to tear apart all boundaries and escape into a world where everything is replete with novelty, glory and adventure.

The mothers begin to lead a fulfilling life with a social purpose. They listen to the music that they like and take walks where they please. They no longer worry about the social stigma attached to a divorcee and keep Sudha with them. They lovingly take care of her daughter. The final gesture of the rejection of patriarchal norms and the acceptance of the rules of the new female universe is the gifting of the ruby left to them by Sudha’s father to Dayita, Sudha’s daughter.
The mothers have joined book societies and knitting classes. They go for walks around Victoria Memorial. They volunteer at Mother Teresa’s Shishu Bhavan and – chaperoned by an insistent Singhji-attend all-night classical music concerts from which they return, cheeks flushed with the early morning cold, humming a song in the bhairav raga. They take day trips to Dakshineswar and bathe in the Ganges - - - Already they are talking of a trip to Darjeeling in the summer. (296)

Divakaruni’s protagonists aspire to adapt to their newfound world. Though the female characters are firmly rooted in tradition, find it hard to break the bounds set by patriarchy, to experience what has so far been restricted in their life, and resolve the psychological conflict that is accompanied with the new situation. She presents very vividly the dilemmas of Indian women in traditional society. Her women characters represent the sentiments of women within traditional bounds and outside traditional bounds.

When Divakaruni declares, then, that she has made sisterhood her theme, she has clearly put herself squarely in the tradition of the West rather than of India. Certainly her fiction is part of the growing corpus of Asian American women’s writing, whose major theme is the lonely outsider, the first-or second –generation Asian immigrant in an often hostile, uncomprehending and incomprehensible environment, struggling to assimilate and to keep her ethnic identity alive at the same time, suffering the double yoke of colour and gender even more than the African American, for whom the USA has always been the only home she has ever known. For Asian or African American women, sisterhood is a strength and succour, enabling them to discover themselves as persons and to nurture their ties with their community; friendship with other women becomes, therefore, central to the fiction of all American “women of color”.

Chitra Banerjee focused her writing on friendships with women and trying to balance them with the conflicting passions and demands that come to women as daughters and wives, lovers and mothers. She believed that friendship with women is a unique one because of life-changing experiences that they share-menstruation, childbirth, and menopause. In an interview she states that the force behind her writing “is the desire to put women in the centre of stories, to have their voices be the voices of interpretation, their eyes the ones that we see through. There just hasn’t been enough of that in the world, if you look back at literary history” ( Lalita 23).




Works Cited


Primary Source

Divakaruni, Chitra. Sister of My Heart. Great Britain: Doubleday,1999.


Secondary Sources

Banerjee, Debjani. “‘Home and Us’: Re-defining Identity in the South Asian  Diaspora through the Writings of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Meena Alexander”. Asian American Writing: Vol.2 Theory, Poetry and the Performing Arts. Ed.Somdatta Mandal. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2000.

Barat, Urbashi. “Sisters of the Heart: Female Bonding in the Fiction of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.” Asian American Writing: Vol.2 Theory, Poetry and the Performing Arts. Ed.Somdatta Mandal. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2000.

Babha, Homi.K. Nation and Narration. New York: Rouledge, 1990.

Curtis, Sarah. “Rev. of Sister of My Heart.” The Times of Literary Supplement. 5054 (Dec 10, 1999) :  21.

Khan, Hafiza Nilofar. “Rev. of Sister of My Heart.” The Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad . 18.1 (Fall 1999) :  103-107.

Lalitha, R. “Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: A Rising Star in the Diasporic Literature.” The Commonwealth Review: Indian Society for Commonwealth Studies. 17.2 (2009) :  21-26.
Mandal, Somdatta. Asian American Writing: Vol.3 Theory, Poetry and the Performing Arts. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2000.

Nalini, M. “Sharpened Sensibility in an Exiled Woman Novelist: A Study of Bharati Mukherjee”. Indian Women Writing in English: New Perspectives. ed.S.Prasanna Sree. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2005.

Selvam, Veena. “Mistresses and Sisters: Creating a Female Universe: The Novels of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.” The Commonwealth Review: Indian Society for Commonwealth Studies. 17.2 (2009):  9-20.