Chitra’s newest book of stories is titled The Unknown Errors Of Our Lives. In this collection, featuring tales set in India and America, Divakaruni illuminates the transformations of personal landscapes, real and imagined, brought about by the choices men and women make at every stage of their lives.
The stories include “Love Of A Good Man,” a tale of a happily married Indian woman who must confront her past when her long-estranged father begs to meet his only grandson; “Mrs. Dutta Writes A Letter,” (selected for Best American Short Stories, 1999), where a widow living in her son’s Calfornia home discovers that her old world ways are an embarrassment to her daughter-in-law; “The Blooming Season For Cacti,” where two women, uprooted from their native land by violence and deception, find unexpected solace in each other; and the title story, where an artist faced with her fiance’s past a week before her wedding must make an important decision.
Praise for The Unknown Errors of Our Lives:
“Mrs. Divakaruni’s stories are as irresistible as the impulse that leads her characters to surface into maturity, raising their heads above floods of silver ignorance.” (New York Times Book Review)
“This is an extraordinary collection, intelligently conceived and passionately written. Most of the stories illuminate the pain, loss, and alienation of the immigrant experience and transform them into the drama of our common human existence. Besides elegance and delight, we can also find wisdom here.” (Ha Jin, Author of National Book Award winning novel Waiting)
“Her literary voice is a sensual bridge between worlds. India and America. Children and parents. Men and women. Passion and pragmatism.” (USA Today)
“Classically shaped but spiked with the unexpected, these potent tales portray families shattered by violence and stretched to the breaking point between the wildly disparate worlds of India and the US…These hauntingly beautiful stories of epiphany and catharsis place Divakaruni in the vanguard of fine literary writers who touch a broad spectrum of readers.” (Booklist)
“Sensuously evocative…image-filled prose…intensely touching tales of lapsed communication, inarticulate love and redemptive memories.” (Publishers Weekly)
“A current of compassion and heartache runs through this remarkable collection-from old immigrant conundrums Divakaruni has spun something wondrous and new; she has created the stories that we will require in this Age of Diasporas. Divakaruni is a brilliant storyteller; she illuminates the world with her artistry; and shakes the reader with her love.” (Junot Diaz, Author of Drown)
Ruchira is packing when she discovers the notebook in a dusty alcove of her apartment. It is sandwiched between a high school group photo in which she smiles tensely at the camera, her hair hacked short around her ears in a style that was popular that year, and a box of brittle letters, the sheets tinged with blue and smelling faintly of sweet betel nut, from her grandmother, who is now dead. For a moment she fingers the book’s limp purple cover, its squished spiral binding, and wonders what’s inside, it’s been that long since she wrote in it. Then she remembers. Of course! It’s her book of errors, from her midteens, a time she thinks back on now as her Earnest Period.
She imagines telling Biren about it. “I was a gawky girl with a mouth full of braces and a head full of ideas for self-improvement.”
“And then?” he would ask.
“Then I turned twenty-six, and decided I was perfect just the way I was.”
In response, Biren would laugh his silent laugh, which began at the upturned outer edges of his eyes and rippled through him like wind on water. He was the only person she knew who laughed like that, soundlessly, offering his whole body to the act. It made her heart feel like a popcorn popper where all the kernels have burst into neon yellow. She’d respond with a small smile, the kind she hoped made her appear alluring and secretive, but inside she’d be weak with gratitude that he found her so funny.
That, and the way he looked at her paintings. Because otherwise she doesn’t think she could have agreed to marry him.
To think that none of this would have happened, that she wouldn’t be sitting here this beautiful rainy morning, pale blue like jacarandas, packing, getting ready to move out of her Berkeley apartment into their newlywed condo in San Francisco in two weeks, if she hadn’t mumbled an ungracious agreement when her mother said, “Why don’t you meet him, Ru? Kamala Mashi writes so highly of him. Meet him once and see how you like each other.” Ruchira shudders when she realizes how close she had come to saying No, she wasn’t interested, she’d rather use the time to go to Lashay’s and get her hair done. Just because Aunt Kamala had written, Not only is the boy just two years older than our Ruchira and handsome looking, 173 centimeters tall, and holds a fast-rising job in the renowned Charles Schwab financial company, he is also a nephew of the Boses of Tullygunge—you recall them, a fine, upright family—and to top it all he has intelligently decided to follow our time-tested traditions in his search for a bride. It would have been the worst error of her life, and she wouldn’t even have known it. It saddens her to think of all the errors people make (she has been musing over such things lately)—the unknown errors of their lives, the ones they can never put down in a book and are therefore doomed to repeat.
But she had shown up at the Café Trieste, sullen in old blue jeans and a severe ponytail that yanked her eyebrows into a skeptic arch, and met Biren, and been charmed.
“It’s because you were so wary, even more than me,” she told him later. “You’d been reading—wasn’t it one of those depressingly highminded Russians?”
“Dostoevski. Brought along for the precise purpose of impressing you.”
“And for the first fifteen minutes of our conversation, you kept your finger in the book, marking your place, as though you couldn’t wait to get back to it.”
“You mean it wasn’t my suave Johnny Depp looks that got you? I’m disappointed.”
“Dream on,” she said, and gave him a little push. Actually, she’d been rather taken by the stud he wore in his ear. Its small, beckoning glint in the smoke-fogged café had made him seem foreign and dangerous, set him apart from the Indian men she knew, at least the ones who would have agreed to meet a daughter-of-a-friend-of-a-distant-relative for late afternoon coffee with matrimony in mind. But most of all she liked that he admitted up front to feeling sheepish, sitting like this in a cafe after having declared, for all those arrogant years (just as she had), that he’d never have anything to do with an arranged marriage.
“But the alternative—it doesn’t seem to work that well, does it?” he would say later, shrugging, and she’d agree, thinking back on all the boys she had dated in college, Indian boys and white boys and black boys and even, once, a young man from Bolivia with green eyes. At a certain point they had all wanted something from her, she didn’t know what it was exactly, only that she hadn’t been willing—or able—to give it. It wasn’t just the sex, though that too she’d shied away from. What throwback gene was it that stopped her, a girl born in America? What cautionary spore released by her grandmother over her cradle when Ruchira’s parents took her to India? Sooner or later, the boyfriends fell away. She saw them as though through the wrong end of a telescope, their faces urgent or surly, mouthing words she could no longer hear.
Thumbing through her book of errors, Ruchira thinks this must be one of life’s most Machiavellian revenges: one day you look back at your teenage self and realize exactly how excruciatingly clueless you were, more so even than you had thought your parents to be. And pompous to boot. Here, for example, is the quotation she’d copied out in her tight, painstaking handwriting: An unexamined life is not worth living. As if a fourteen-year-old had any idea of what an examined life was. The notion of tracking errorspossesses some merit, except that her errors were so puerile, so everygirl. The time she told Marta that she thought Kevin was cute, only to have that information relayed back to her, with crude anatomical elaborations, from the walls of the girls’ bathroom. The time she drank too many rum-and-cokes at Susie’s party and threw up on the living room carpet. The time she believed Dr. Vikram, who wore maroon suspenders and gave her a summer job in his dental office, to be so cool—and then he made a groping pass at her.
She tosses the purple notebook onto the growing pile of things to be recycled. (Recycling mistakes, now that’s a thought!) She’s come to terms with misjudgments and slippages, she’s resigned to the fact that they’ll always be a part of her life. If there are errorless people in the world, she doesn’t want to know them. She’s certain they’ll be eminently disagreeable. That’s something else she likes about Biren—all the mistakes he has already admitted to. How he dropped out of college for a semester during his freshman year to play electric guitar with a band aptly named The Disasters. How late one night, coming back to the city from Sausalito, he gave a ride to a hitchhiker of indeterminate sex only to have him/her try to throw him/herself from the car and off the Golden Gate bridge. How, for a short time last year, he got involved with a woman who had a knife tattooed on her chest, even though he knew she did drugs.
Ruchira was shocked and enthralled. She wasn’t sure why he was telling her all this. To impress her? To start clean? To gain her (or was it his own) forgiveness? Small disquiets nipped at the edge of her mind like minnows; she let them slip away. Questions filled her mouth. What had he lost by jilting Tina Turner for Standard and Poor? What had he said to the hitchhiker to stop her—Ruchira was sure it was a woman—from jumping? (He had tried to stop her, hadn’t he?) What made him break up, finally, with the knife-woman?
She pushed the questions into a corner of her cheek like hard candy, saving them for later. Meanwhile, he was the most exciting man she knew. His was a geography of suicide bridges and tattoo parlors, night concert alleys and skyscrapers rising into the sky like blocks of black ice. A galaxy far, far away from the blandness of auto-malls and AMC cinemas which she’d never really escaped, not even by moving from her parents’ suburban house to Berkeley. But now conjugality would confer that same excitement on her.
He saw the paintings when he came to pick her up for a concert. They’d discovered a common interest in classical Indian music, and Chaurasia was playing at the Zellerbach. She had not intended for him to come up to the apartment—she felt she didn’t know him well enough. She was going to meet him downstairs when he rang the buzzer. But one of the other tenants must have let him in because here he was, knocking on her door. For a panicked moment she thought of not opening it, pretending she wasn’t there, calling him later with a fabricated disaster.
He was severely suave in a jacket with a European cut and, although the sun had set already, dark glasses in which she could see herself, convex and bulbous-headed. She felt mortified. Behind her, she knew, paint rags were strewn across the floor. A cereal bowl left by the armchair, swollen flecks of bran drowning in bluish milk. A half-eaten packet of Cheetos on the counter. Jelly jars of turpentine with brushes soaking in them on the coffee table. The canvas she’d been working on (and which was totally wrong, she knew it already) was the only thing she’d managed to put away.
“Very nice,” he said, lightly touching the sleeve of her short black cocktail dress. But already he was looking beyond her at the canvases hanging on the wall.
“You didn’t tell me you paint,” he said accusingly.
This was true. She had told him a lot of things about herself, but they were all carefully chosen to be shielding and secondary. Her work as events coordinator in an art gallery, which she liked because the people she met had such intense opinions, mostly about other people’s art. Her favorite college class, “Myth and Literature” in junior year, which she had picked quite by chance because “Interpersonal Communication” was full. The trip she took two winters back to New Zealand to stay for a few nights in a Maori village—only to discover that it had waterbeds in the more expensive rooms and a Jacuzzi strategically positioned among the lava rocks. She felt bad now about her duplicity, her reluctance to give of herself, that old spiral with her boyfriends starting again.
He’d moved close to the wall and was standing very still. It took her a moment to figure out that he was examining her brushstrokes. (But only artists did that. Was he a closet artist, too?) Finally he moved back and let out a long, incredulous breath, and it struck her that she had been holding hers as well. “Tell me about your work,” he said.
This was hard. She had started painting two years ago, and had never talked to anyone about it. Even her parents didn’t know. When they came for dinner, she removed the canvases from the wall and hid them in her closet. She sprayed the room with Eucalyptus Mist and lit incense sticks so they wouldn’t smell the turpentine. The act of painting was the first really risky thing she had done in her life. Being at the gallery, she knew how different her work was from everything in there, or in the glossy art journals. Her technique was crude—she hadn’t taken classes and didn’t intend to. She would probably never amount to much. Still, she came back from work every evening and painted furiously. She worked late into the night, light-headed with the effort to remember. She stopped inviting people over. She made excuses when her friends wanted her to go out. She had to force herself to return their calls, and often she didn’t. She ruined canvas after canvas, slashed them in frustration and threw them into the dumpster behind the building. She wept till she saw a blurry brightness, like sunspots, wherever she looked. Then, miraculously, she got better. Sometimes now, at 2:00 or 3:00, her back muscles tight and burning, a stillness would rise around her, warm and vaporous. Held within it, she would hear, word for word, the stories her grandmother used to tell.
Ruchira has seen her grandmother no more than a dozen times in her life, once every two or three years during summer vacation, when her parents visited India. She loves her more than she loves anyone else, more than her parents. She knows this to be unfair; they are good parents and have always done the best they can for her in their earnest, Quaker Oatmeal way. She had struggled through the Bengali alphabet, submitting to years of classes at that horrible weekend school run by bulge-eyed Mrs. Duttagupta, just so she would be able to read her grandmother’s letters and reply to them without asking her parents to intervene. When a letter arrived from India, she slept with it for nights, a faint crackling under her pillow. When she had trouble making up her mind about something, she asked herself, What would Thakuma do? Ah, the flawed logic of loving! Surprisingly, it helped her, although she was continents and generations apart, in a world whose values must have been unimaginable to a woman who had been married at sixteen and widowed at twenty-four, and who had only left Calcutta once in her entire life for a pilgrimage to Badrinath with the members of her Geeta group.
Someday she plans to tell Biren all this.
When her grandmother died two summers back of a heart attack, Ruchira spent an entire week in bed. She refused to go to India for the funeral, though maybe she should have, because she dreamed over and over what she had thought she couldn’t bear to look at. The hard orange thrust of the flames of the cremation pyre, the hair going first, in a short, manic burst of light, the skin warping like wood, the eyeballs melting, her grandmother’s face blackening and collapsing in on itself with terrible finality. It didn’t help that her parents told her that the event, which occurred in a modern crematorium rather than the traditional burning ghats, was quick and sanitary and invisible.
She started the paintings soon after that.
“It’s a series,” Ruchira stammered now, speaking too fast. “Mythic images from Indian legends. I’ve only managed to complete three so far. The first is Hanuman, the monkey god, carrying the magic herb that can bring you back to life—you know the story? When Lakshman was hurt in battle, and Hanuman plucked up an entire mountain because he wasn’t sure which herb he was supposed to bring back -?” She’d painted Hanuman in purples and blues and looped his tail in an elegant, gentlemanly manner over an arm. In his right hand he held a miniature mountain the way one might hold a box of chocolates when paying a visit. She had given him a human face, her father’s (unexpectedly, she’d turned out to be good at portraits), his expression of puzzled kindness. She remembered the ecstatic day when the idea had first swooped down on her like a taloned angel. Now the painting looked fanciful, garish. It made her blush.
“But it’s brilliant. They’re all brilliant,” Biren said. “An amazing concept. I’ve never seen anything like it. This next one, isn’t that the magic cow, what’s her name, who possesses all the riches of the world-”
“Kama dhenu,” she supplied shyly, delighted by his recognition. The cow in the painting reclined on a cloud, her chin resting on demure, folded forelegs. A shower of gold coins fanned out from her hooves, carpeting the earth below. Her white wings were as tidily pleated as a widow’s sari. Around her head, words from old stories arched in a rainbow. Long long ago. Beyond the fields of Tepantar. Once there was a poor brahmin who had a clever wife. And the snake carried a jewel on its head. Her stubborn, alert face was that of Ruchira’s grandmother.
By the time they got to the third painting, it was too late to go to the concert and Ruchira no longer stammered. With precise gestures she explained to Biren that the huge eagle-creature was Jatayu, who died trying to save Sita from the evil ten-headed Ravana as he was abducting her. In Ruchira’s painting Jatayu’s feathers were saffron and white and green, the colors of the Indian flag. His face was that of her grandfather, whom she only knew from sepia photographs because he died long before she was born—in the Andaman prisons, where the British used to send freedom fighters. Her grandmother had told her the story. They had caught him making bombs, he’d been part of a conspiracy to assassinate Lord Minto, the hated governor-general. In Ruchira’s painting, Ravana, pasty-faced and with a prominent overbite, was clearly British, and Jatayu had knocked off all his bowler hats with one giant swipe of his claw.
“I love it!” said Biren. “I just love it!”
They kissed their first kiss soon after that. He tasted of salted sunflower seeds (his secret weakness, she would learn later). His tongue was thin and pointy and intelligent. She doesn’t remember leading him to the bedroom, only that they were there already, lying on the crumpled blue bedcover, his fingers, her fingers, the small hollow inside his elbow and the vein pulsing in it. She thought she could see a faint radiation of heat where their skins touched. Did his hair smell of lemons? In her hurry she tore a loose button off his shirt. (Later they would laugh about that.) The back of his ear-stud rasped her hand, raising a weal. He brought it to his mouth and licked it. The small mirrors embroidered into the bedcover pressed their cool disks against her bare back, then against his. His nipples were brown and hard as apple seeds in her mouth.
Then his hands were on hers, tight, stopping her as she tugged on his zipper.
“Don’t. It isn’t safe. I didn’t expect this. I don’t have anything with me. And I take it you don’t either….”
The blood rocked so hard in the hollows of her body, she feared she’d break open. He had to repeat himself before she could understand the words. She shook her head vaguely, not caring. She wouldn’t let go. Her body, thwarted so long, had seized on wildness like a birthright. A part of her cried, You’re insane, girl. She pushed her face against him, his chest hairs wiry against her tongue, until finally his hands were gone. She could feel fingers, their drowning grip on her hair. She heard him say something. The words were too close, out of focus. Later she would think they had started with God. As in God I hope you know what you’re doing.
Just three days left before her wedding, and Ruchira thinks, Does anyone ever know what they’re really doing? What the tightening of certain muscles and the letting go of others, the aspiration of certain vowels and the holding back of others, will lead to? What terrifying wonder, what injured joy? But she had known one thing that night, even before he asked her to marry him and she said yes. She’d known what this, the next and final painting in her Mythic Images series, would be.
She adds a last stroke of burnt sienna to the painting and stands back to examine it. It’s her best one so far, and it’s ready now, at least this phase of it. Just in time, because it’s to be her surprise wedding gift to Biren. She thinks how she’ll do it—steal into their new condo the evening before the wedding—she has the key already—and hang it in the foyer so that he will see it first thing when they enter together as husband and wife. Or maybe she’ll hang it opposite their bed, so they can look at it after lovemaking, or in the morning, waking each other up. The tree with its multicolored jewel leaves, its branches filled with silky birds. It’s the kalpa taru, the wish-fulfilling tree, and the birds are shalikhs, those bold, brown creatures she would find everywhere when she visited Calcutta, with their clever pin eyes and their strident cry. Her grandmother used to call them birds of memory. Ruchira had meant to ask her why but never got around to it. Now she doesn’t want to ask anyone else. She has given the birds the faces of the people she loves most dearly. And Biren too—she borrowed one of his photo albums, secretly, for this purpose. She has put him and herself, feathers touching, at the very center of the tree. (Why not? It’s her right as artist to be egoistic if she wants.) Below them she has left empty branches, lots of them, for the birds she will paint in. New friends, children. Is it sentimental to be thinking about grandchildren already? She’ll fill every space, and more. Maybe she’ll never be done.
Then Biren’s knocking, and she lifts the easel into the closet and rushes to the door and opens it. But it’s not him, of course not, it’s the middle of the afternoon, he’s at work. She really should be more careful and keep the chain on while she checks who’s outside, though this person doesn’t look particularly dangerous. It’s a young woman—well, maybe not so young, once you take in the cracked lines at the corners of her eyes—very thin and very pregnant, with spiky blond hair and a pierced eyebrow, wearing a shapeless pink smock that looks borrowed and a studded black leather jacket that she can no longer button over her belly. There’s a look on her face—determined? resigned? exhilarated? Ruchira gets ready to tell her that she has come to the wrong address. Then she sees it, above the smock’s meandering neckline, against the too-pale freckled skin. Red and blue. A bruise, or a half-healed wound. No. It’s the hilt of a tattooed knife.