A heritage of revenge and violence stalks the protagonist and narrator in Mukherjee’s latest, the second of a trilogy (Desirable Daughters, 2002).
Tara Chatterjee opens it with a terse account of her reunion with former husband Bish (the computer-genius “Raja of Silicon Valley”), crippled when their California home was fire-bombed by one Abbas Sattar Hai, whose motives are initially unclear. Answers lie in the history of Tara’s Indian family, specifically in the story of her Victorian ancestor Tara Lata Gangooly, literally betrothed to a tree when her preadolescent fiancé died of snakebite, and thereafter a secular saint who used the wealth of her untouched dowry to finance Indian resistance to British colonialism. The contemporary Tara accesses the Tree Bride’s story circuitously, through family papers supplied by Tara’s gynecologist Victoria Khanna. Gradually Tara plaits together two crucially related other stories: those of 19th-century foundling “Jack Snow,” whose misadventure aboard a Calcutta-bound ship overtaken by Danish pirates led him to a life of dangerous exploits and ignominy as freelance empire-builder “John Mist”; and Victoria’s grandfather Virgil Treadwell, a British colonial officer traumatized by an unconventional upbringing, lured by the beauty and mystery of the Indian subcontinent, shaped and stunted by his encounters with both the victims and the agents of his culture’s proprietary energies. Mukherjee’s tale itself displays similar energies, rising to a spectacular climax when Tara, hugely pregnant, barely escapes death again—and begins to understand how “an indiscriminate killer in India and America, was born and possibly raised in my family’s house.” The Tree Bride is thus filled with absorbing stuff, and really rather brilliantly worked out. But its past and present are so densely entangled that there’s almost too much information for a reader to absorb.
Still, it’s worth the effort. Mukherjee is a potent writer, and her contrasted and conflicting worlds and times seductively draw us in.