Rakhi is a young, divorced mother, an artist and a coffee-shop owner. She is an Indian in name only, feeling she has been denied a real Indian upbringing. It seems her mother, the Queen of Dreams, has erased all traces of their Indian background, according to Rakhi, to the extent that Rakhi doesn't even know where her mother was born. Rakhi's mother does, however, have a special kind of Indianness -- if the term is to be defined as the mystical and magical. Rakhi's mother, you see, reads dreams. Not just her own, but she also interprets the dreams of others. It's the kind of stuff that has made Divakaruni's earlier books so popular. The men in Rakhi's life are also familiar -- the author has introduced variations of the same to readers before. There is the uninvolved, distant father -- kicked up a notch since this time he is an alcoholic and perhaps, as Rakhi sees it, someone to hold responsible for her mother's untimely death. Rakhi's husband is selfish and unreliable. In fact, in Rakhi's world, everyone and everything is against her, to the extent that if Rakhi's child wants to spend time with her father, even that is a conspiracy against Rakhi. Divakaruni makes it very hard for the reader to feel sorry for Rakhi-the-victim, particularly when Rakhi's actions and thoughts sometimes seem more childish than that of her young daughter.
The plot is difficult to describe, it is as vague and convoluted -- er, exotic and mystical, I mean, as some of the dreams that Rakhi's mother interprets. The book is modeled after a diary, sound bytes of events from Rakhi's contemporary life jarringly interrupted with entries from the dream journals of her mother. Rakhi uses these dream journals to figure out who her mother was and to learn more about herself. The only touching aspect about this process, and maybe in the book, is the portrayal of the widowed father who translates these journals into English for Rakhi, making him feel useful and closer to his daughter.
Since much has been made about the 9/11 aspect of Queen of Dreams, it stands to reason that this "plot device" be scrutinized as much as (if not more than) the storyline itself. In a clichèd sequence of events that are intended to illustrate (I presume) the fear and anxiety of Americans, of all colors and backgrounds, after the attacks on that day, the author has her characters "deal" with being brown-skinned in a new America. It will resonate with some readers -- Rakhi wonders if she isn't an American as some shout, then, what is she? The turbaned Sikh is attacked; the American flag is used as shield. All that seems to be missing are the public service announcements that sprung up on TV in that period in which people of many different skin colors proclaimed "I am an American." But, unlike real life, Divakaruni takes the easy way out by avoiding the more complex aspects of the attacks' aftermath. For example, while quite obviously building a case against the woman across the way for instigating the attack on Rakhi's place of business, Divakaruni conveniently skirts the issue of holding that American accountable. The character disappears and Rakhi muses in that oh-so-Indian way, "Can a person be vaporized by the deflected force of her own hate?" Dream on, Rakhi.
How different it would have been if the author had written about those Pakistani women she mentions as an aside, the ones who stopped coming out of their homes after the attacks. She could have written how the lives of women whose husbands, brothers or sons were rounded up by the FBI have been changed forever. If only a page or two more had been devoted to the question Rakhi asks: if I'm not American, what am I? Unfortunately, Divakaruni breezes past the hard stuff and ends up where she starts, in an exotic, mystical, magical dream world, one that bears little resemblance, in my opinion, to that of most Indians in the US.
Perhaps Divakaruni isn't able to write about more than what she knows; stories of unhappy mothers, wives and daughters living in the Bay Area, who for generations will not be free of their misery. One has to wonder why (we Indians are such a curious lot, you know). Why is it necessary to portray Indian women in America as dysfunctional humans? Does Divakaruni create these characters to fulfill some market niche? Do American readers, for example, expect to read about unhappily married Indian women for whom death or dreams are preferable to life? These women who seem to be crippled by their longing for what? We really don't know. Is there some market research report that says a book about Indians will sell if it portrays Indian men as cruel (at worst) and spineless (at best)?
Whatever the reason, Divakaruni has found her niche, perpetuating an image of the Indian-American woman that doesn't hold up when compared to stories published in NRI newspapers and magazines. Those publications tell the stories of Indian women in the US who don't simply exist but thrive, women who have found a way to connect with their daughters, daughters who don't blame their problems on their immigrant mothers, women who don't have to put other women down in order to tell a story.
Maybe the author isn't guilty of the above. Maybe she simply has no other story to tell. If so, then I'm sure we'll see more fresh and enchanting stories by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in the future.
And I'll continue to cringe when someone gushes that she has learned so much about Indians and the Indian culture from Divakaruni's books.
Book Description: Rakhi, a young artist and divorced mother living in Berkeley, California, is struggling to keep her footing with her family and with a world in alarming transition. Her mother is a dream teller, born with the ability to share and interpret the dreams of others, to foresee and guide them through their fates. This gift of vision fascinates Rakhi but also isolates her from her mother's past in India and the dream world she inhabits, and she longs for something to bring them closer. Caught beneath the burden of her own painful secret, Rakhi's solace comes in the discovery, after her mother's death, of her dream journals, which begin to open the long-closed door to her past.
As Rakhi attempts to divine her identity, knowing little of India but drawn inexorably into a sometimes painful history she is only just discovering, her life is shaken by new horrors. In the wake of September 11, she and her friends must deal with dark new complexities about their acculturation. Haunted by nightmares beyond her imagination, she nevertheless finds unexpected blessings: the possibility of new love and understanding for her family.
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