SF Bay at sunset, from Oakland Hills

Queen of Dreams: Divakaruni, again

This book comes closer to home than the other two I’ve read by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Literally. It’s set in Berkeley. At some point in the story, Rakhi, the daughter of the Queen of Dreams, might have lived next to me on the Oakland Hills. If she had been real of course. Queen

Rakhi is real enough to me because she is a modern woman coping with problems I’m familiar with. For one, like me, she’s an ethnic minority, caught between two worlds. She has to earn a living and share the custody of a daughter (mine is a son, now grown).

My first two Divakaruni books are both set in India and are rife with Indian lore somewhat mystical to a Westerner. What unites the three books, for me, is a feminist perspective. A perspective that I think is, ironically, most pronounced in Palace of Illusions, the retelling of the ancient Indian lore, Mahabharata. Of the three books, Palace is also the most recent. The author’s own sense of her power as a woman might have matured by then.

Unlike Draupadi, Rakhi is angst-ridden and self absorbed, preoccupied with her problems—many of which she blames on Sonny, her ex-husband. It seems she had a traumatic experience—maybe rape—at some gathering she and Sonny both attended. She wanted him to rescue her, but he was too busy doing his own thing. She resents him for this. Later, she’s not even sure if the incident actually occurred. She was too out of it (drunk or drugged) to truly know.

She resents her mother, too, for her gift as a dream interpreter. A gift Rakhi doesn’t have.

I wondered if the ability to know what dreams mean might be the author’s symbolism for insight, by now a mundane Western concept. In a way, though, the gift goes beyond insight because the Queen can foretell the future from dreams. The gift has the added element of clairvoyance. I could argue, however—empiricist that I am—that deep insight might help with predicting the future.

For all the usual mother-daughter issues Rakhi has, she feels much closer to her mother than her father. He’s nearly a stranger to her. And she resents that, too, but not as deeply. It’s less likely for anyone to have strong feelings of any kind—including hate—for someone towards whom she’s indifferent.

The Queen dies in an accident that she, herself, might have directly caused. Anyway, the Queen was ready to leave this world. Maybe, she realizes it’s the only way her daughter Rakhi can grow on her own. If so, it’s a noble sacrifice.

In her absence, Rakhi begins to know her father more. He involves himself in her business and he surprises her. He’s a practical man with culinary skills unknown to his daughter. And, he could sing. It’s a gift that brings crowds to their Indian snack shop.

A stronger bond develops between Rakhi and her father.

Whether she becomes aware of it or not, Rakhi is more like her father than her mother. They both live in the uncertainties of the modern world. A western world. Her mother, on the other hand, remains not only steeped in her native culture. She also regrets having lost her ties to it and the extraordinary power her gift would have given her had she remained in India and devoted her life to interpreting dreams.

Her mother’s native culture is essentially alien to Rakhi. She knows of it and lives it in a superficial way through its food and exposure to its music and some of its customs—all of which are much older than the modern Western ways she’s grown up with. But touching the edges of a culture is not assimilating it. Underneath her skin, Rakhi is American. Plagued by problems that come with being one and being a woman, at the same time.

Does she have a feminist sensibility? I’d say only to the extent that she doesn’t depend on a man to live her life. She has her own profession as a painter but barely earns her keep through it. For that, she needs the snack shop.

What prevents me from calling Rakhi a true feminist is her tendency to blame others for the big and little “failures” of her life—she doesn’t seem to see her own culpability. She has internalized the modern stance that a woman should be able to live on her own. And yet, it seems she has this lurking desire to be rescued by a man.

Towards the end of the story, Rakhi does show signs of growing. Is this possible only now, when her mother is gone? When the Queen’s strong presence no longer looms over her? It is, it seems, the story of every daughter and her mother.

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