A solid if unexceptional second collection from Divakaruni (Arranged Marriage, 1995, etc.), this time focused on women striving to create new identities while gracefully incorporating the old.
Young or old, escaping or searching, Divakaruni's Indian characters find themselves at pivotal points where readers can clearly see the impact of traditional culture on the lives they lead in new lands. In "The Blooming Season for Cacti," a young woman escaping riots in Bombay strikes off on her own for California. Mira soon finds work at an Indian restaurant and a home with the restaurateur's mistress, but things are not so different in Sacramento; the mistress is consumed by shame, and Mira is the object of a diner's marital aspirations. American-born Leela visits India for the first time in "The Lives of Strangers" and on a religious pilgrimage befriends the "cursed" Mrs. Das. After a series of misfortunes, though, Leela appropriates the group's superstitions and shuns the old woman, gaining acceptance but losing the tender intimacy they had shared. "The Names of Stars in Bengali" offers a lovely portrait of rural Indian life: a young mother brings her two boys to India to meet their grandmother, revisiting at a leisurely pace the joys of her childhood, which she shares with surprised sons who are used to a far more harried, Americanized parent. In the best piece here, "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," a widow living with her son's family in suburban Sunnyvale struggles to write a glowing account of her new life to a friend back home. What Mrs. Dutta conveys instead is the confusion prompted by complicated machines, the shock of disrespectful grandchildren, and the painful embarrassment she provokes in her daughter-in-law: a touching and simply expressed account of feeling hopelessly lost in an unfamiliar country.
Well-crafted storytelling, with a few real gems.