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'Tree Bride' mixes past, present in eloquent tale

The Tree Bride, By Bharati Mukherjee, Hyperion, 293 pp., $23.95

Early in Bharati Mukherjee's new novel the protagonist, Tara Chatterjee, says she is enough of a mystic to believe there are no coincidences, only convergences. This declaration lays the foundation for an elegantly written novel that travels between centuries, continents, and cultures, and links people, past, and present, sometimes in far from obvious ways.

In "The Tree Bride," Mukherjee picks up the story of her previous novel, the critically acclaimed "Desirable Daughters." Tara has reconciled with her husband, Bish, a Silicon Valley guru, after their home has been firebombed, leaving him disabled. Tara, who is pregnant, is doing research for a novel at the same time she's looking for a gynecologist. She conducts a name search for an Indian doctor and is led to Victoria Khanna, a European married to an Indian professor at Stanford who once taught her husband. Their chance meeting leads to more convergences and opens several doors in Tara's search into the history of her ancestral village and her great-great-aunt, Tara Lata Gangooly, the tree bride, whom she aims to immortalize in her novel.

Victoria's grandfather was Vertie Treadwell, a district commissioner in the Indian Civil Service, who served in East Bengal until India claimed independence from Britain. Victoria, who has kept her grandfather's personal papers, offers them to Tara. Until then, Tara had been collecting information about the tree bride and her ancestral village, Mishtigunj, mostly from family sources and old books and ledgers, but Treadwell's papers prove to be a gold mine. They form the backbone of this suspenseful story, which reveals the effects of colonialism and its aftermath.

Nineteenth-century Bengal is presented as a place full of contradictions and ironies. Its beauty comes along with desperation, and its suffering stems partly from the British Raj and its own customs. "Plenitude is its feeble precaution against starvation. In all that water, there are droughts. In all that wild profusion, starvation looms in shades of green. Muslims can take four wives and brahmins from my subcaste any number, all in the hope that a single son might survive." Mukherjee delves into the conflicts faced by the British who leave home, sometimes with good intentions, for a chance at respectability in colonized India. Many of them, such as young immigrant John Mist, were outcasts in Britain but once in India attained a status unachievable in their homeland. But Mist and Treadwell took divergent paths. While Mist rejected his language and British roots to embrace Bengali culture, others, such as Treadwell, insulated themselves from Bengali life. The expatriates' relationship with the wider society is almost always presented as contentious; most of the officers were viewed as corrupt and brutal. In comparing the two men based on Khanna's papers, Tara observes: "But violence implies heat and rage, like the violence of John Mist. Mist had a woman in his life only briefly, but love for her inspired him to murder. The violence of Vertie Treadwell is cold and calculating, something very modern, a menacing, bureaucratic rage." A key theme in "The Tree Bride" is Tara's attempt to reconcile the part of her tied to her Indian heritage with her life as an assimilated American. The man who firebombs her house, Abbas Sattar Hai, symbolizes a past that stalks her and demands that she face it even as she and her family cling to their life of affluence in San Francisco. Her reading of Treadwell's papers opens her eyes further to her homeland's history and how she, who has grudgingly embraced a Western education and culture, feels about it. "It has taken me twenty years to realize that Muslims had nothing to do with our relocation. It was the British, always the British. And it wasn't the 1947 Partition. It started in 1833." Tara finds that Gangooly, the tree bride, is linked to these men whose lives she has studied in her research. The story of the child bride whose groom dies shortly before the wedding and is thus married to a tree to spare her the humiliation of widowhood is what sets Tara out on her journey, but she finds more than she bargained for. Gangooly, it turns out, was a nationalist freedom fighter who used her dowry to aid the forces fighting for independence. She brought literacy to her people and was a source of wisdom for women and men in Mishtigunj. Tara finds in her a larger-than-life figure, a woman who forces her to rethink her stance on her own past and identity.

Mukherjee's smooth prose and intricate plotting serve the sometimes esoteric subject matter well. Her layering of several themes, time periods, and places requires that "The Tree Bride" be read slowly. But it is a worthy commitment rewarded by a deeply satisfying and eloquently told story.

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