You talk about ‘biraha’ or loneliness that creeps into the lives of migrants. What are your thoughts on biraha that seeps into marriages and relationships?
That is a quote by Amitav Ghosh after reading the book. That is what touched him about the characters. But I think he picked up on something really important in the book, which is that each of the women characters feels a sense of loss and loneliness at certain points in her life. And this is intensified after Bela immigrates to the US.
These tales are about love and longing, exile and loneliness. What are the most significant observations that your book takes us through in this context?
I think that in the lives of the three women in this novel, Sabitri, Bela, and Tara, each feels “exiled” from the family, from the ones that they love most. It seemed to me as I wrote the stories that almost all of us will at some points in our lives feel the sense of alienation from our loved ones, particularly in our romantic relationships, because often when there is a lot of emotion, it is easy to misunderstand the other person and also get easily upset with them. And then if we act hastily, we could cause irreparable damage to that relationship. This manifests in different ways in the lives of these women.
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Sabitri takes an ‘unforgivable’ misstep. Her daughter Bela makes another bold move but her marriage crumbles. She passes on important lessons to her daughter Tara. Does this generational journey go to show how women have, through the years, striven to find happiness and freedom and yet ended in shackles and disappointment?
Not at all. Although these three women will make mistakes in their lives, I do not look at their lives or relationships in a negative way. They learn valuable lessons from their disappointments and even from their misfortunes. That is a very important part of our lives as human beings on this earth. Almost none of us will go through life without feeling the pangs of sorrow in our relationships. But if we maturely deal with them, we will come out stronger and with peace of mind. And we will learn to forgive – both other people and ourselves.
What is the biggest lesson that Bela learns from her marriage? What does she teach about loyalty to her daughter in turn?
One of the lessons that Bela learns is that people change. The kind of relationship she has with her husband in the beginning – very romantic, making her heartbeat too rapidly when she sees him – doesn’t last. Yet she loves him more deeply later on so that when the marriage runs into problems, she is devastated. I think her daughter Tara observes the problems in her parent’s marriage and is very disillusioned about relationships at first because she is quite young at this point. She is at first cautious about trusting men as a result of that. It has been seen, over and over in different parts of the world, that daughters tend to replicate their mothers’ marriages, especially the problems. Tara will have to learn to overcome that. She will have to learn, in her way and through her own mistakes, how to create a strong relationship. It will not necessarily be an easy process, and it will not be like her mother’s relationship with her father because Tara belongs to a different generation. But I think the result will be satisfying.
What inspired their stories? Did your characters cross paths with who you were or what you were experiencing at any point in life?
My characters are not autobiographical. They come out of my observances of the people around me – friends, families, strangers, all become my subject matter, though I change important details and ultimately transform the character through my imagination.
What is common in a relationship that spans the countryside of Bengal to the streets of Houston? What makes or breaks a human relationship, no matter where?
I think respect has to be at the heart of a good relationship, no matter where you are in the world. Respect, trust and forgiveness – that’s the Holy Trinity of a relationship, according to my understanding of life.
Related reading: Indian gods teach us about mutual respect in relationships
The need for these things don’t change, no matter how long you have been in the relationship.
An excerpt reads thus:
Did I love him, granddaughter? I’ll answer by saying I was the best possible wife. Certainly, I loved our life in the capital, a flat in a wealthy colony, a motorcar, respectful servants who believed that I had been born into affluence. I took classes in English conversation and comportment and learned that I, too, had a talent. I built a reputation for hosting the best parties. I knew how to charm the most taciturn guest into the conversation. I never skimped on the alcohol, even if it meant we had to eat rice and lentils for the rest of the month. I created desserts that became the talk of the town. I wonder if Bijan realized that many of his tough deals fell into place because of my dinners.
What according to you makes a good wife? Or a good spouse?
A good spouse, I believe, is one who is committed to the welfare of the other spouse and is willing to make sacrifices for that person. As I said earlier, there’s got to be mutual love and respect in the relationship. Otherwise, bitterness will arise at some point or another.
How has the idea of love and longing changed through generations? Do you think it still stays the same at the core?
I think that although women have made great strides in terms of achievements and freedom, basically a good relationship stays the same at the core. However, we have certainly changed how we express love or romance. I think both men and women, especially in urban settings, have become much more demonstrative through actions, romantic words, gift-giving and taking time for ourselves as a couple. And that is all part of a healthy relationship.