Before We Visit the Goddess

Written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Review by Rebecca Kightlinger

“Without education,” Sabitri writes to Tara, the granddaughter she has never met, “a woman has little chance of standing on her own feet.” Recalling the desperate maneuver that enabled her own mother to send her to college, Sabitri urges Tara to stay in school. “If you are uneducated, people will look down on you. To survive, you are forced to accept crumbs thrown down from a rich man’s table. How can such a woman ever brighten the family name?”

Before We Visit the Goddess opens in Kolkata, India, in 1995, with Sabitri’s epistolary plea to Tara. Deftly blended with third-person narrative, the letter reveals Sabitri’s own ambitions, missteps, and shame, as well as the guts and hard work it took for Sabitri to ensure that her daughter, Bela – Tara’s mother – would have the opportunity to become educated and stand on her own feet.

When Sabitri lays down her pen, poet Divakaruni shifts the focus to 1963 and eleven-year-old Bela’s lonely, sometimes dreamlike existence with her quarrelling parents in Assam, India. Then, leaving Bela in a hospital bed feeling “a shift in the air, an imminent storm,” Divakaruni takes the reader to 1998 and Tara’s unsettled life in Houston.

This switchback journey from 1963 to 2020, between India and Texas, delivered in richly nuanced narratives, immerses the reader in the unforgettable lives of Sabitri, Bela, Tara, and the friends, lovers, and strangers who change their lives. In exquisitely wrought interwoven stories, each woman finds love, whether romantic, platonic, or filial; each makes an irrevocable choice based on love – or its detritus; and each must one day come to terms with feelings “as unambiguous as a knife” when confronted with the consequences of her choice.