Excerpted from The Vine of Desire by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Copyright © 2002 by Chitra Divakaruni. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: In THE VINE OF DESIRE, Sudha and Anju, the India-born heroines of your second novel, SISTER OF MY HEART, are reunited in San Francisco. American society offers opportunity as well as confusion and pain to both women, and soon the foundation of their long-standing friendship is shaken in complex and perhaps irreversible ways. Is their experience a parable for the pitfalls and promise inherent in the immigrant experience for Indian women?
A: It is and it isn’t. What happens to the two cousins is individual to their particular situation, of course, and influenced by their pasts, their personalities, and the tension in their household, where Anju’s husband is secretly in love with Sudha. But the ways in which they experience America—Anju finding a space for growth through returning to college and Sudha feeling frustrated because the opportunities of America seem out of her reach—are certainly similar to the experience of many immigrants.
Q: What was it like to revisit the story of Anju and Sudha? Did you find writing a sequel different from writing a “stand alone” novel?
A: Because I came back to it after some years, I found The Vine of Desire a very different story. I had changed—and so had the characters. We’d all been influenced by what had happened in our lives! So this is a very different kind of book, I feel, in texture and tone. For one thing, the narrative technique is different. There are two male narrators here; part of the book is formed out of the college assignments Anju is writing. Part is dictated onto a cassette by her husband Sunil. Sudha’s voice has changed, too—grown at once more fragmented and more introspective, as a result of the traumas she has undergone. There is also an omniscient narrative voice. Much of the challenge in writing this novel was to make it a complete whole in itself as well as a continuation of an earlier story.
Q: Many of your readers have asked if you will write another book about Tilo, the beloved heroine of THE MISTRESS OF SPICES. Will you write about her again?
A: I do love Tilo! Who knows? Maybe she’ll come back to me again, and we’ll have another adventure together!
Q: You’ve lived in the United States for more than twenty years. What parts of your Indian heritage do you actively preserve? Are there traditions that you've purposefully discarded? What effect, if any, do the kept and lost customs have on your writing process?
A: The Indian notion of the importance of family has grown more dear to me as I’ve lived in America—perhaps because here I have to make a greater effort to stay in touch with family and interact with them in meaningful ways. But it has also made me realize that I have many families, not just my biological/marital one. The volunteers I work with at Maitri, the hotline for South Asian women in distress, form one of my families. The members of the Chinmaya Mission, the spiritual/cultural organization I also volunteer with, are a significant and loving family for me. I have a family of close women friends. I think living in America has given me this expanded notion of family. On the other hand, I’ve given up a lot of traditional notions about the place of the woman in the home, and what is not okay for her to do. I really believe in women making their own choices, standing up for their own beliefs, fighting for them when they have to. And this has certainly influenced my writing.
Q: You’ve mentioned influences on your work as diverse as Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Raymond Carver, and contemporaries Bharati Mukherjee and Anita Desai. If someone were to take THE VINE OF DESIRE on vacation to read and wanted a book to read immediately afterward as a “companion piece,” what book would you suggest and why?
A: I think a good companion piece would be Cristina García’s The Agüero Sisters. It’s a very different book, but also about sisterhood, desire, and balancing passion with virtue. It’s a wonderfully written book, magical in nature, one of my favorites.
Q: What are you working on now? Eager readers want to know!
A: I’m working on two book ideas side by side, a novel and a nonfiction book. I don’t want to say too much—that dissipates the energy that needs to go into the writing. But I do want to say that I’m very excited about both of them. Some of the themes they deal with are memory, magic, and dreams.
1. Anju tells her unborn son, Prem, stories of who she “used to be before the accident of America happened to [her]” [p. 12]. What does she mean by “the accident of America?” How are Sudha’s and Anju’s assimilation into American culture affected by the different circumstances that lead them there in the first place? Why does Sudha choose to return to India, while for Anju the idea of returning to India does not even seem to cross her mind?
2. How is the process of assimilation different for Anju, Sunil, Lalit, Trideep, and Sudha? Why are some more successful than others? Do the characters identify as “Americans” or as “Indian-Americans?” What do incidents such as Sunil’s attacking the valet at the party for making derogatory comments about Indians [p. 138] and Anju’s sensitivity about the portrayal of Indians in the movies her schoolmates attend [pp. 213–4] demonstrate about their comfort with their place in America?
3. Divakaruni marks pivotal moments in each of the characters’ lives with references to significant current events. For example, while Anju anxiously anticipates Sudha’s arrival, Divakaruni writes: “It is the year of dangerous movements. Two weeks back, a major earthquake hit Los Angeles” [p. 11]. And, upon Sudha’s attending the party with Sunil and Anju, Divakaruni writes: “It is the year of taking risks, of facing consequences. In Bangledesh a woman writer criticizes the Quran and must go underground to escape the fatwa. In Abidjan a twenty-year ban against big-game hunting is lifted in the hope of attracting tourist money” [p. 127]. (See also pp. 97, 241, and 294) How do these global events inform the reader about the events taking place in the lives of the central characters? Placed in such a context, do the events in Anju’s and Sudha’s lives seem more or less significant? What does this global context signify about an individual’s relationship to the rest of the world? In what other ways does Divakaruni relate her characters’ private lives to the public world?
4. How do Sunil, Anju, and Sudha each interpret the O. J. Simpson trial in light of the events taking place in their personal lives? How might Anju or Sunil answer Sudha’s question: “What was the point of filling our head with their troubles?” [p. 111] How might Sudha answer her own question by the end of the novel?
5. One recurring theme is the difficulty the characters have in communicating with the people closest to them. What causes this inability to communicate? Of what might they be afraid? Should some things simply not be said? How effective are the other methods they use to communicate their feelings, such as Anju’s essays and letters or Sunil’s use of a movie plot to explain his feelings to Anju [pp. 234–6]? Is it easier for Sudha to communicate with strangers like Sara, Lalit, and Myra than with Sunil or Anju, and, if so, why?
6. Several characters in the novel experience emotional isolation. For example, Sudha thinks about the change in hers and Anju’s relationship: “Only now, in its loss, I know the value of what the two of us had. A metallic fog has wound itself around me. Is this how other people go through their lives? Hearing dimly, feeling less?” [p. 109] And, later, as Anju packs Sunil’s items in their old apartment she hears: “The newscaster announces another suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, a bus blown up this time, killing twenty-one and wounding forty-five. . . . Anju recognizes this as a tragedy far worse than what she is undergoing. . . . But her capacity for compassion has shrunk, somehow. Now she cannot relate to anything beyond the distraught confines of her own skin” [p. 300]. What causes this emotional isolation and can it be overcome? If so, how?
7. What mood is conveyed by the frequent references to the characters in conjunction with various modes of transportation, such as on the freeway [e.g., p. 123] or in an airport, [e.g., p. 294]? What do these images convey about life in San Francisco or in America? What do they relate or reflect about the characters’ emotions?
8. What are the different types of love explored in The Vine of Desire? What emotional and physical desires do the characters confront? Does love diverge from or intersect with these desires? Are these loves or desires within the individual’s control?
9. Is Sunil a sympathetic character? How might his behavior toward Sudha and Anju be characterized? Can he help his behavior? Does he pay for his actions? Are Sudha’s desires [see p. 335] understandable? Is Sudha really “immoral,” as she considers herself to be [p. 297]? What, if anything, should Sudha or Sunil have done differently? How does The Vine of Desire force the reader to reexamine his or her views on adultery, divorce, and marriage?
10. How does motherhood change Sudha’s life? And, conversely, how does not becoming a mother affect Anju’s life? Does Sunil’s paternal relationship with Dayita change him in any way?
11. How are families formed and how are they defined in the novel? Just as her mother had done in Calcutta, Anju accepts Sudha and Dayita into her home. Under what circumstances could Anju, Sunil, Sudha, and Dayita constitute a family? Why can’t the woman who saved Anju from suicide and with whom she shares a house ever really be a family to her [p. 302]? Could Sudha, the old man, and Dayita ever form a “family”?
12. Divakaruni employs a rich and original narrative style. She often switches the first-person narration between the voices of Sudha, Anju, and Sunil. She employs different devices to advance the plot and convey the inner thoughts of her characters, such as letters [e.g., pp. 71–6], unspoken dramatic subtext such as in the Lalit/Sudha conversations [e.g., pp. 181–5], and Anju’s stories [e.g., pp. 163–6]. Periodically, a third-person narrative voice intrudes on the fiction. For example, when Sunil is breaking up with Anju and he looks at the clock and thinks he will be late for work, the anonymous narrator asks, “Can we forgive him that glance, the way one forgives a nervous tic?” [p. 237] How is Divakaruni’s style effective in communicating the feelings of the characters and reinforcing the themes of the novel? Are her original methods more or less effective than more traditional methods of narration?
13. The opening quotation from “Late Fragment,” by Raymond Carver reads: “And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.” What do Anju and Sudha want? How do these wants change or evolve from the opening page of the novel to its end?
14. Book Two is inscribed with a quotation from Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, as follows: “One day a story will arrive at your town. It will come from far away, from the southwest or the southeast—people won’t agree. The story will arrive with a stranger or perhaps with a parrot trader. But when you hear this story, you will know it is the signal.” To what in The Vine of Desire might the “story” refer, or symbolize? What might it be signaling?