Before We Visit The Goddess by Chitra Banerjee

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“Granddaughter, when you are poor and ill-educated, how unequipped you are to read the world. All you know is your place in it: down near the bottom. You believe you are meant for better things, but how will you ever climb out to get them? The first opportunity that appears, you grasp at it to pull yourself up. You don’t check to see if it can bear your weight.”

Grandmother is wise indeed. If only that wisdom could be had without screwing up your life, but no… the only good in it, the only use for it is to pass it on and hope your loved ones can benefit from it and to avoid the messes you stepped in. Sabitri has landed herself the chance for better things, an education through a well to do woman. As the young are wont to do, she makes a mistake- and some choices cannot be undone. This is the unraveling of her dreams. What does she do but step in it again in grasping at the first thing that shines in the hopes she can salvage a respectful life. But how can a woman ever know if the life she has chosen will be the right fit, particularly when pickings are slim? And how is it that the heart always seems to disobey us and understand things too late?
This is the start of all the struggles women in one family line face. From mother to daughter and on…Nothing is as they thought it would be, regardless of how sure they are they have escaped a difficult fate (like their mother’s). What one takes away- men are not the escape hatch they appear to be, no matter how charmed or passionate the beginning.
This is a story about mothers and daughters, in the Indian culture in particular but all women can relate. We never seem to be good enough, we screw up regardless of our choices. Poor love seems to be contagious for Sabitri, Bela and Tara offering neither protection, love nor companionship. Don’t expect love stories to pan out, this isn’t about happily ever after- this is a story of women, and how they fub their lives and yet still carry on. It is an exploration of the mother/daughter relationship more than anything else. I actually enjoyed Sabitri’s thoughts for her american granddaughter, kept from Sabitri by Bela and her husband. Reading about Bela’s struggle in her American life shows how much better having her mother’s support and presence would have changed things. It is also a window into cultural struggles as Bela tries to acclimate to America. It has to be said both Bela and Sibitri were manipulators to an extent, but sometimes it’s the only choice. Without giving too much more away, we follow 3 women who are estranged for various reasons, stupid reasons, because isn’t that usually the way of things in a family? I felt crushed for Sibitri, I cannot even imagine being in her shoes. Not sure she will be anyone’s favorite, but she was mine.

 

Of course, as a mother of two children now in college- I relate differently to each character than I would have when I was a young mother. All the ideas we have for the future, for ourselves and the hopes and dreams for our children. We imagine we will do things right, better than those before us. We have picturesque dreams of how loving and loved we will be. Mothering is hard, the hardest thing most of us will ever do. Our intentions don’t always match the outcome. We can do damage sometimes with a simple thoughtless word, you will never really be enough. Your child is their own being with different needs and desires, it’s so much easier when you imagine a child will think exactly as you do. That is the challenge of mothering, teaching but learning too and embracing that they are their own person. You can be a model mom (whatever the hell that is) and still let your children down and heap some serious issues on them. We are human, that is our beauty and our flaw. I think more than anything this story expresses how divided our dreams are from our reality and sometimes that disappointment can stain our children. But it doesn’t mean you can’t find a way back to understanding and love, even if you have to suffer first to make sense of the choices our mothers, and we ourselves, have made.

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