Bharati Mukherjee, a critically acclaimed author and winner of the National Book Critics Award, has already established herself as a formidable writer whose works combine her pride in her Indian heritage and her exploration of the complex relationship immigrants share with America, their adopted home. The Tree Bride takes up from her last novel, Desirable Daughters, ended. It’s the second in a trilogy.
The protagonist, Tara Chatterjee, is a savvy, cosmopolitan world-traveler very taken with her privileged life as a Silicon Valley magnate. But when her home is firebombed just as she may be reconciling with her ex, she begins to yearn for home and tradition. A trip back to India rekindles a desire to find her family’s ancestral roots and their place in the history of pre-independent India.
The novel begins on this note, with the most American of all searches: the desire to trace one's ancestry. Tara is fascinated by an ancestor: her almost namesake, Tara Lata, a five-year-old girl who was a victim of the archaic custom of child marriage - a tradition even her father, a university graduate and lawyer, willingly follows.
It is 1879, and Tara Lata's wedding party is traveling through a dark jungle to rendezvous with the bridegroom's family, who instead of greeting them hurls curses at the bride, calling her unlucky because the boy bridegroom has been bitten fatally by a snake. To save her from a life of degradation, widowhood, and shame, Tara Lata's father "marries" her to the God of the forest, and she becomes the legendary Tree Bride.
The young girl retreats to her father's house and makes it a refuge for the poor, the sick, and finally the fighters for Indian independence. She is dragged from her home in 1944 by colonial authorities, who announce her death six days later.
Mukherjee does not have an aunt like Tara in the family, but she says that "there were many Tara Latas, married to trees, so that they could have a life on earth, a place in society where they would not be considered outcasts, and a place in Heaven...The ancient Hindus believed that widows were unlucky and would descend to hell."
With a young woman trying to find herself and how she fits into her place in the universe, the story traces the British colonial rule in India, its contributions and its ultimate downfall.
While she is struggling with the thought of getting back with her ex-husband and being pregnant with his child, Tara tries to understand her heritage and the actions of her ancestors which may and may not have contributed to the sum total of the person she has evolved into. Every action in the universe has an equal and opposite reaction, nothing in the universe ever gets lost; everything is connected. That’s the abstract and yet very spiritual message of the book.
"For people like me, the question of identity isn’t just about who I am but all the cultural, political and social influences that have shaped an Indian born American writer," Mukherjee says.
The Tree Bride is very different from Mukherjee’s Desirable Daughters,
a brilliantly woven, thoughtful and intelligent story of three upper-class Calcutta, India-born Brahmin sisters, renowned for their beauty, brains wealth, and privileged position in society.
It was an eloquent, lovingly painted portrait of a family steeped in ancient culture and conservative tradition that adapt to all that modern education and technology can offer.
The Tree Bride is a one-person narrative of British history in India. A great deal of detail has gone into recreating the British men who left their homeland to fulfill what they believed was a higher purpose of instilling order and discipline in foreign lands.
The history lesson is long, sometimes tedious and sometimes boring. Mukherjee with her insightful understanding of human nature and deep psychological analysis never really succeeds in bringing the dead British men to life. But she does shine with her evocation of the city of her birth, the Brahmin society’s snobbery and in capturing the intricacies of Tara and her namesake the tree bride.
The Tree Bride weaves its way in and out of continents and timelines. Expect the same in the third book, as it is set in the future.