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April 18, 2016

Verve Exclusive: Excerpt From Before We Visit The Goddess

Illustration by Priya Sebastian

A tale of ambition, love, and familial ties…. Here is an exclusive glimpse into Indian-American author Chitra Banerjee Divakarurni’s latest novel that releases this month

One morning when Sabitri came down, there was no food. She ventured next door to find out why. The kitchen was in an uproar. Leelamoyi had ordered the cook to make rasogollas for a luncheon, and so he had. But something had gone wrong. The soft round balls that should have been floating in syrup had exploded into hundreds of pieces. There was no time to make another batch. How shamed Leelamoyi would be if the guests had to be served store-bought sweets! Cooks had been fired for less.

“I won’t be going alone,” the cook was shouting. “I’ll make sure you all come with me.” He transfixed Sabitri with a terrifying frown. “What do you want?”

Don’t meddle, her wiser side warned. But she heard herself saying, in a small voice, that maybe she could fix the problem. The cook glared at her effrontery, but then he waved her in. Her hands shook as she boiled milk, sweetening it with jiggery syrup. She shredded the exploded balls into tiny pieces, remembering how her mother did it. She added them to the milk, along with ground cardamom and chopped pistachios. She was late for college already. But the mixture needed to be stirred, constantly, gently, so it would not stick to the bottom of the pan. She could not abandon it.

By the time she got to the college, she had missed her first three classes. Even in the others, she was distracted. Her friends joked that it was because of the new Maths professor. Their regular professor was in the hospital with a lung infection, and the university had found a substitute, a recent college graduate, a lanky young man with an Adam’s apple that bobbed up and down when he got excited about what he was teaching.  Sabitri didn’t pay her friends — or him — much attention. Was Leelamoyi angry because her menu had been changed? Or did she like the new dessert?  If she did, the cook would probably take full credit for it.

But how Sabitri had enjoyed cooking! At home she would grumble while helping Durga. This morning, though, when the milk had thickened smoothly, perfectly, no ugly skin forming on top, she found herself smiling as she had not done since coming to Kolkata.

“Look at her grinning,” her friends whispered. “Ei Sabi, are you in love or what?”

Upon her return, she was summoned by Leelamoyi. She climbed the stairs with some trepidation. One never knew what pleased the rich, what affronted them. But Leelamoyi, reclined on her bed (did she ever do anything else?), chewing on betel leaves, was all smiles. The guests had loved the dessert. Even her husband and son had asked for second helpings.

“From now on when I have company,” she said, with the air of conferring a great favour, “I want you to make the dessert.”

Though she hated herself for it, Sabitri’s heart ballooned at Leelamoyi’s approval. But what about her studies? She had copied her classmates’ notes today, but she had not understood them well. If this happened often, how would she pass her classes?

Leelamoyi gestured to Paro, who walked over to the mahogany almirah with a face like she’d just bitten into a bitter-melon. From the bottom shelf she removed two saris and handed them to Sabitri. Sabitri held her breath, marvelling at the slip-shiny feel of the silk, trying not to show her excitement. She had never owned a silk sari. And these, though not new, were far more expensive than anything her family could afford to buy her.

“Rani Ma wants you to have them,” Paro said with her bitter-melon mouth.

In her room, Sabitri tried on the saris, wishing she had a mirror. The first was pomegranate-red with a border of green parrots. She would wear it to college tomorrow, even though she knew it was too showy. The second sari was more expensive, evening-sky blue with a thin gold border. Where could she wear it? Certainly not to the kitchen, where no doubt Paro was fanning the waves of resentment by telling everyone of these undeserved gifts. But she couldn’t bear to take it off. It was smooth as water against her skin, lighter than she had imagined a sari could be. She decided to go to the terrace.

Once there, she walked up and down the way she imagined a great lady would, steps tiny and elegant, the sunset breeze rustling the silk. She became a rich heiress who possessed two entire almirahs of saris like this. Her diamond nose-ring sparkled as she promenaded.

But she was not alone! In a corner behind a water tank stood the young man who had helped her upon her arrival at the Mittirs’, smoking and watching. Leelamoyi’s son. From overheard kitchen gossip she knew his name: Rajiv. He was studying to be a doctor so that he could take over the family business, a hospital. There was a smile on his face — derision, no doubt. She rushed back to the staircase.

“Please don’t run away!” said the young man, and when she didn’t listen, “Stop, I insist!”

******

Granddaughter, at that, I stopped. Perhaps a part of me believed that, charity case that I was, he had the right to command me. But a part of me wanted to stay because he was young and handsome and had been chivalrous. My heart beat unevenly as I turned to face him, and not just
out of fear.

She looks down at the page.

What made her write this foolishness?  She crushes the sheet in her fist, as though to crush the memory. But then she smoothes the paper out again. She is not equipped to advise Tara, she knows this. But perhaps, if she shares her life, the girl might see something there. For the first time, she feels hopeful.

*****

How long did they speak that day, and the next, and the next? And of what?  Later she would only remember fragments, torn clouds drifting in front of the moon. When she told him, shyly, why she was in Kolkata, he listened with careful attention. Then he talked about himself, disarming her with his self-deprecating honesty.  He hated medical school: the smells of illness, the pus and the vomit, the dark, jaundiced urine of the patients. But it wasn’t something he could tell his parents, who were counting on him. The terrace was his escape, too. He loved playing the flute. Would she like him to play for her one night? But already she knew he would never do that. They could not risk anyone finding out.

Days passed. How many? It is hard to keep track of such mundanities when one is balanced inside a fairy tale. After some time, he brought up an old red quilt, so they could sit in comfort as they spoke. One moonless night, he lay down on it so he could point out the constellations to her. Here is Kalpurush with his shining, here are the seven wise Saptarshis.  She was impressed. She hadn’t thought a city boy would know the names of stars. Maybe that was what made her lie down next to him on the worn malmal, though her mother’s warnings buzzed in her ears like mosquitoes. She told him her dreams: she would dress in a starched sari and teach history to schoolchildren, stories of conquerors and despots. Her students would be obedient; she would never need to cane anyone. She would become a principal with tortoiseshell glasses, the entire school standing at attention when she entered the assembly hall.

He nodded. She would make a great principal, he said with conviction. He wound a finger softly around a lock of her hair, which he had persuaded her to unbraid. That was what made her fall in love, finally: his belief in her, and his gentleness.

But even as she confessed her dreams, they were changing.

That first night, their conversation, so hard to break off, had continued beyond safety.  She rushed to her room to change the magical sari that had summoned her prince for an old cotton one. She was frighteningly late for her meal. But no one noticed. They were chattering about how the young master had been late to dinner. Leelamoyi had scolded him severely when he finally showed up. She demanded to know where he’d been. He wouldn’t tell her, though. The servants guessed it was at some bar with his no-good friends. Didn’t he look like he’d had one too many? The older retainers decried today’s youth, their lack of filial respect. The younger ones grumbled because now everyone would have to stay up late. Sabitri could barely swallow her food as she listened, her throat dry with guilty excitement, her heart hot and swollen with a secret power.

*****

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, down. 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.

******

She wore her red sari to college and was roundly teased by her friends, especially when, in Maths class, the young professor dropped his books while setting them on the table. You’re distracting him, Sabi! She laughed it off, but as he was leaving, in a spirit of mischief she looked him in the eye, with what she considered a sultry smile. He dropped his books again. Later her friends said they thought they would die holding in their laughter.

It was as though she had entered a golden time. She woke early and heavy-eyed and rushed to the kitchen to prepare desserts: mihidana and malpua, pitha made from sweet potatoes, fried and dipped in thick syrup. Leelamoyi’s friends loved them all. Even the young master — who had never had a sweet tooth, Leelamoyi told Sabitri — asked for two helpings of rice pudding. He told his mother that whoever had prepared it was a treasure. Make sure you don’t let her go, he said.

Sabitri wrote all this in a letter to Durga, along with elaborate descriptions of the sweets, which she had adapted to Leelamoyi’s citified taste. She did not mention her missed classes, how she was falling behind in her schoolwork. On the envelope, she wrote a line asking her father to please read the letter to her mother.  Perhaps the letter was lost because she never received a reply.

Late at night, after the terrace, (they had decided it was best to meet post-dinner, when everyone assumed they had gone to bed) she tossed and turned on her bed, longing to tell her mother about Rajiv. Her secret cramped her belly like indigestion. If there was a chance to see Durga face to face, she would have done it. Durga would have been shocked. Maybe she would have slapped her. But because she loved her daughter, she would have finally come around.

On the terrace, Rajiv told her how in the operating theatre he felt he was drowning in the blood, horrifyingly bright, that sometimes pulsed out over his hands. She shuddered and held him close, her lips in his hair.

“Thank God I have you to talk to,” he said against her collarbone. “Otherwise I would kill myself.”

This, then, was why he loved her. She was his confessional, his absolution.

Yes, she thought. She had never felt so necessary.

He took her face in his hands and looked into it as though it were the moon. When he buried his own face in her breasts, desire, dangerous as a sparking wire, travelled down her body into the pit of herself until she thought she would break apart.

“I wish this moment would last forever, Tri. That it would become my whole life.”

Yes, yes.

She loved the way he shortened her name, made it unique. But a moment cannot become a whole life. She knew that. She was hungry for more.

With permissions from Simon & Schuster.

Read our interview with the author, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, here.

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