I’m always fascinated by intergenerational stories. The pure clarity of mind needed to structure them cohesively sort of baffles me. And the ability to develop complex characters with such different ages and experiences is just awe-inspiring.
With these hurdles in mind, you can see why I consider Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Before We Visit the Goddess a work of art. It tells the story of three generations of Indian women, their lives and loves, hopes, dreams and failures. They are women of ambition and independence in a society that does not always tolerate such attributes.
To be honest, I didn’t find this a particularly relaxing read. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It had tension, sadness, and longing – but the good kind. The kind that offered hope. I kept turning the pages to find out what happened to these women and how they influenced each other so deeply, and I saw reflections of myself and my family as well. I saw my grandmother’s sadness, my mother’s hard work, and my own determination reflected in each of these women and it moved me deeply. I was reminded of the treasure that comes with family and culture, and the celebration that they should inspire.
It’s easy to see the connections between grandmother Sabitri, daughter Bela and granddaughter Tara as each of their very different stories is told. But as much as each woman shares the spotlight, Tara is the one who brings it home. As a first-generation American, she struggles with her identity in a very specific way that many of us can empathize with.
There’s a certain family resemblance to all their tales, even though the details vary. Sabitri is a self-made woman who takes her future in her hands when her world seems to be falling apart. Bela is a romantic who thinks with her heart more than her head, but whose resilience guides her through the heartache. Tara is headstrong and rebellious and has all but severed herself from her Indian background. Her search for family ties and cultural belonging help tie the three tales together as the story jumps around in time between 1963 and 2020.
Before We Visit the Goddess is a tender invitation to value our inheritance, whether that inheritance is our culture or our grandmother’s grit. It challenges us to see that we’re all part of a bigger story, and our lives are not meant to be lived alone.