This reading group guide for Before We Visit the Goddess includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction Before We Visit the Goddess
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tells the story of three generations of mothers and daughters whose experiences in Kolkata and the United States reflect and diverge widely through the years: Sabitri, born poor in a rural village, who eventually runs a successful dessert store in Kolkata; Bela, her daughter, who flees India for America in order to marry her political refugee boyfriend; and Tara, Bela’s daughter, who, in the fallout of her parents’ divorce, descends into dark places. Through different perspectives—both male and female—and shifts in time, author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni offers a multifaceted look at transcontinental and multigenerational bonds and at love in its many guises.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Sabitri is named after a mythic heroine who snatched her husband from death. Is this an ironic or prescient comment on her relationship with Bijan? What do you make of Bela naming her daughter Tara, which Tara believes to be a Western name until she discovers otherwise? What effect do our names have on our actions and personalities?
2. Discuss Sabitri’s vision of death as “a giant brush loaded with white paint . . . obliterating the shape of the world” (p. 34). What informs her understanding of the effect of her death on those she leaves behind? Where else in the novel do you think the author uses the concept of cleansing as it relates to asking for forgiveness?
3. In “The Assam Incident,” Bela describes her parents as “colliding planets” (p. 35). Would Sabitri and Bijan have described themselves this way? Can or should we trust Bela’s reliability as a narrator during this time in her life?
4. Tara’s troubled adulthood is marked by interactions with two parental stand-ins: Mrs. Mehta and Dr. Venkatachalapathi. Why do you think the interaction with Dr. V affects her long-term in the way that her time spent with Mrs. Mehta does not?
5. Do you think Sabitri’s family caused her heart attack, as Bipin Bihari claims? Discuss the symbolism of literally dying of a broken heart. Does anyone else in the novel suffer this fate?
6. What do you think of the jumps in time and points of view? Were there any story lines or secondary characters you wished you heard more from? Did learning about the characters as the novel progressed change your opinion of them? Give some examples.
7. Is Bipin Bihari’s comment that Sabitri’s “daughter needed her more than Kolkata needed a new dessert” (p. 84) a fair assessment? Is Sabitri repudiating her daughter in favor of her mother? In favor of success?
8. How do Sabitri’s experiences as a young woman inform her attitude toward her daughter’s boyfriend (and later, husband), Sanjay? Under what, if any, circumstances do you think she would have been more welcoming to him?
9. One of the author’s most striking comments on the immigrant experience is via Bela’s observation of Sanjay and Bishu: “As she watched them it struck her that America might have saved their lives, but it had also diminished them” (p. 102). Do you agree with this sentiment? Explain.
10. A running theme throughout the novel is the effect daughters have on their mothers’ lives. Does the author present the mother-daughter relationship in a positive or negative light? Why do you think that each generation can only understand the previous one through the birth of the next?
11. During the titular chapter, Tara muses, “I don’t put much stock in remembering things. Being able to forget is a superior skill” (p. 126). What does this say about Tara’s character at this point in her life? Does her immediate recall of the scent of ashes from the temple call the validity of this statement into question? Why or why not?
12. The novel presents the Indian and American reactions to the traumas of death and the dissolution of a marriage. Compare and contrast the different ways Sabitri and Bela react to these life-cycle events. Which seem more familiar? Does one seem more valid than the other?
13. In the chapter “Bela’s Kitchen,” Kenneth says to the reader, “Mrs. Dewan was important to me because she was worse off than I was. I found it easy to be reasonable with her because her life made me feel less wretched about my own” (p. 149). Does this aspect of Kenneth’s personality color your opinion of him? Why or why not?
14. Consider the statement, “I’m not sure catalysts of change can be so easily identified” (p. 192). What does this mean in the context of the larger story that the author is telling? Can we as readers draw a straight line from Sabitri’s arrival in Kolkata to Tara turning her life around?
15. Before We Visit the Goddess
is framed with the adage “Good daughters are fortunate lamps, brightening the family’s name. Wicked daughters are firebrands, blackening the family’s fame.” Do you agree with Sabitri’s definition of personal achievement being a bright lamp? Why do you think her mother, Durga, left the second half of the saying unspoken? In what ways does this concept weave in and out of the story?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Cooking is a source of income, pride, and happiness for Bela and Sabitri and a way for the women to connect to their mothers, through Bela’s Kitchen
and Durga Sweets, respectively. Have each member choose an Indian dish mentioned in the novel and bring it with them to the next meeting. Or have each member cook a dish from his or her own heritage and relate how it is connected to the previous generation.
2. Read Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novel Sister of My Heart
with or after Before We Visit the Goddess
. Compare the way the author presents female bonds in the two books. Do you see any common themes? Different themes?
3. Consider Sabitri’s definition of being a fortunate lamp: “[S]omething I had achieved by myself, without having to depend on anyone. No one could take it away” (p. 320). Let each member of the group share a way they have been a fortunate lamp within their family.A Conversation with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Why did you decide to begin Before We Visit the Goddess with epigraphs from Manusmriti and Jean Thompson? Was it important to have both Hindu and Western quotes?
Yes, it was important to me to have quotes from both cultures because the book, in my mind, straddles India and America. The Manusmriti quote is ironic social commentary as well as a hope. Manu says that where women are respected, the gods are pleased. This is clearly not always so in the world of the novel. The Thompson quote points to the hidden life of the individual, secrets we keep close to our own hearts. This is thematically important throughout the novel.On page 42, Sabitri inadvertently mixes up “stay” and “stray” during her recitation of part of the “The Lady of Shalott.” What other literary sources inspired the novel?
This novel has been inspired by so many books. Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine
was a major influence. I have long loved those connected tales that create for us a culture and a community. I am also influenced by the works of Amitav Ghosh and Maxine Hong Kingston. They achieve so wonderfully the portrayal of a world, a culture, and the human heart. These are all endeavors of mine in this novel.
The structure of this novel has been inspired by books such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad
, which moves back and forth in time. This was important for me because I wanted to find emotional
connections between events, not necessarily only the chronological ones.Your book is about the relationships between three generations of women, yet you end the last generation with a son. What was the reasoning behind ending the cycle of female offspring?
That’s just how things happen sometimes! It seemed realistic. But also, with Tara, the cycle of immigration has come to an end, and perhaps this parent-child relationship is therefore going to be a very different one. Tara’s relationship with her husband is also very different from what her grandmother and mother experienced.Mother-daughter relationships are at the heart of this book. What was your relationship with your mother like growing up? Is any of it reflected in the book?
Mother-daughter relationships have been important to me for a long time. Novels like Sister of My Heart
, Queen of Dreams
, and Oleander Girl
all feature significant mother-daughter relationships. My own relationship with my mother was multifaceted, often tempestuous. She was, essentially, a single parent. This made her very strict toward her children because we lived in a society where it was difficult for a woman to be the head of a household. We kept many secrets from each other. It was only after I became a mother myself that our relationship improved and we became very close. It was only then that I realized how many hardships she had gone through to raise me and give me an education. Looking back, I thank my mother for having forced me to become a strong individual and make the most of myself.All of the chapters in Before We Visit the Goddess are from the point of view of either the three main women or the men in their lives, save those that feature Dr. Venkatachalapathi and Kenneth, who are really outsiders to the story. Why use a relative stranger to show Bela’s immediate experiences post-divorce and Tara’s life after her abortion?
Although Dr. Venkatachalapathi and Kenneth enter the book relatively briefly, they are very important to the women with whom they have meaningful interactions, especially at a time when each woman is feeling alone, hopeless, and adrift. Through them I also wanted to bring up the theme that one can never know who is going to help you change your life around, or how they will do it. And bonds of the heart do not necessarily depend on the amount of time we spend with each other. There have been people in my life whom I met only once, or perhaps even only read their books, and they have had an enormous influence on me.Your book has many unfolding layers, and on page 104 you have Bela narrate that “you could be acquainted with a person for years, thinking you knew them. Then suddenly they’d do something that showed you there were layers to them you hadn’t ever suspected.” Which of the story lines was your favorite to tease out?
Actually, all of them were fascinating to me. When I began the book, I did not necessarily know how the lives of each of the major characters would turn out or the paths they would take to get there. The writing was a process of discovery for me. And even when I was revising the book, I was seeing new connections and putting them in. For instance, the phone call Tara makes the night before she gets the abortion shows up in a much later story. This was a detail I added almost at the end of my revision process, but I believe it made the situation a much more ironic one.Cooking is a very personal experience for Bela and Sabitri, but less so for Tara. Which end of the spectrum do you fall on?
I love to cook—but sporadically, when I get in the mood. Usually, I’m like Tara—from chopping board to dining table in thirty minutes flat! I like easy dishes and shortcuts to classic Indian cuisine. I’ve put a bunch of recipes up on my blog. Here’s one that relates to Before We Visit the Goddess
.What were the origins for Before We Visit the Goddess? Did you have any characters or story lines picked out first that you began writing before the others?
I think the story of Sabitri was the clearest to me—not so much her death but her early years as a poor student living in the affluent Mittir household. I love the old mansions of Kolkata. I imagined that house very clearly, before I imagined anything else in the novel. Old houses also feature in some of my other books—Oleander Girl
and “The Maid Servant’s Story” in Arranged Marriage
, for instance.At this point in your career, your written output is considerable. What themes and characterizations do you see yourself inadvertently returning to again and again?
I am fascinated by relationships among women, the intercultural experience of India in America, parent-child relationships, love and its fallout, and American life (one of the chapters in this novel has that for a title). I am also very attracted to mythological stories and often weave them into my work. My novel The Palace of Illusions
is a retelling of the Indian epic the Mahabharat