Aloka is "perfect"; she likes classical Indian music, and reading and discussing Bengali literature with her father. Sujata, on the other hand, prefers magazines, has a real sense for tea, is knowledgeable about agricultural trends and issues related to tea growing, and is not interested in makeup or classical music or the culinary arts. The representations of the sisters in obvious binary opposition to each other is a plot device that is supposed to provide an explanation for the events that occur in the first third of the novel. However, I found the author's reliance on outdated and baseless stereotypes disturbing, such as describing Aloka, the woman with "refined" tastes in literature and music, as beautiful because she has an "ivory" and "almond" complexion; whereas Sujata, whose interests lie in the natural world and who is equally intelligent, is described as "dark" and "homely." Despite their differences, they seem to understand each other whenever they are together until Aloka falls in love with Pranab.
Pranab is the activist manager of their father's tea estate. He organizes the workers to rally for better working conditions. He, like Sujata, is knowledgeable about tea; he is "a born tea taster" (24). Pranab's actions create havoc in the Gupta family, causing Bir and Nina (the father and grandmother of the sisters) to become involved in engineering and executing an incredible and implausible plan to restore the "harmony" of their family. Unfortunately, these machinations have the opposite affect. As a result, Sujata is packed off to relatives in Victoria, British Columbia and is followed by Aloka's and Pranab's arrival in New York City in 1993.
In the remaining two-thirds of this novel, I believe the author does try to disrupt the absurd conditions that were laid out initially. Aloka and Sujata's lives in the U.S.A. and Canada take on nuances and color that are more credible and interesting. Their relationship with each other remains strained, but they grow and develop as individuals through relationships with others. Sujata becomes a successful, independent, business woman and develops the confidence to be the person that she wants to be, and enabled in part through her friendship with Eva Pavlova. Meanwhile, Aloka takes on a career that appeals to her care-giving character. She assumes another personality as Parveen, thus freeing herself to challenge her traditional upbringing in remarkable ways.
In the latter half of the novel, Nina's relationship to her granddaughters is emphasized more. While she remains sometimes conniving, she also grows to be more accommodating, understanding, and evidences a will that shines through the ups and downs of her life. She provides a credible connection between the sisters over time and place and is also associated with their "home" in India -- Darjeeling.
I would recommend this book with some reservations. This is a novel that celebrates bourgeois middle-class values through the lives of the characters both in India as well as in the U.S.A. and Canada. It does not break or disrupt the current publishing trend to promote South Asian writers with this middle-class appeal. There is no deep examination of any particular issue--neither that of single South Asian women living overseas who belong to certain age groups--nor does the author explore characters' lack of any political convictions or motivations. The only character who shows any political potential ultimately becomes "[A] fallen leader" with "no place in the territory...lost" (94).
Events unfold either unbelievably or too smoothly. As alluded to earlier, the first-third of the novel requires a certain suspension of belief. Characters act in ways that make no sense -- a genteel person with literary leanings takes out what amounts to a death contract on another. A tea picker is described as an "intrepid soul" whose labor conditions are summarily glossed over as battling "rain, chilly weather, and precarious terrain to bring in the crop" (17). There are constant references to food and again the labor is erased, except at the end during the preparation of channer payesh. The success of the sisters in the U.S.A. and Canada alludes to but never seriously questions the paths open to certain women with particular advantages, such as fluency in English and an openness to "Westernization", that appear less threatening to existing hierarchies. Along with her characters, the author therefore ultimately becomes complicit in these hierarchies, rather than subverting them. Thus, in this novel the issues of race, politics, and economics simply reflect the status quo because ultimately one could "...own the most organic tea garden in Darjeeling and be able to distribute the finest product to the North American market" (298), thereby supporting global capitalism rather than disengaging or suggesting alternatives to that model.
Kirchner's earlier work on South Asian cuisine is evident in this novel. I found the references to food familiar and interesting, such as this description of a guava as "a jade-green fruit ... about the size of an apple...the flesh soft as room-temperature butter, except for the tiny, chewy seeds that occassionally got in the way" (42). However, I was somewhat put off by the repeated glossing of terminology for every Indic word and phrase, such as the unnecessary explanation when Aloka greets Sujata as bontee that it is the "diminutive for a little sister"(21). If the context is self-explanatory, translation is unnecessary and should be used carefully rather than liberally.
With regards to the tea industry, one that I support and contribute to with enthusiasm, I was disappointed that there was not a greater discussion both on the aesthetics as well as the complicated and interesting history of tea and tea growing in Darjeeling. I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about tea and Darjeeling, having been to school in Kurseong (a hill station close to Darjeeling), which is mentioned once in the book, but did not learn anything that I did not already know. My memory of planters is not of Hindu (Sanskrit) and Bengali literature experts living genteel lives on the foothills of the Himalayas managing their tea gardens without serious concerns over labor and economic issues, but rather hedonistic and even disturbed people, some of whom have no other choice than to be planters and find escape in alcoholism. There is no reference to all the mixed-race children of planters and their employees from the colonial and even post-independence periods who operated the Glenary Bakery, which is mentioned often by the author. These inclusions would have made the novel much more complicated and thought-provoking.
Notwithstanding all the limitations I have expressed in this review, I want to reiterate my initial recommendation, which is based primarily on the particular way in which the author works through the events in the lives of three women and the unique and remarkable ways by which their lives become resolved in the end. Setting the novel in a non-urban location, Darjeeling, in a Bengali family that also has ties to Bangladesh, and engaging with their occupations as owners and producers in the ever-changing industry of tea, as well as their personal lives, results in a story that is mostly well-told and interesting to read.
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