Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About this guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's novels Sister of My Heart
and The Mistress of Spices
, as well as her collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage
. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at and talking about these three books by a gifted writer, whose chameleon-like voice and mastery of rhythm create unforgettable characters and weave stories that are both exotic and familiar, fresh and universal.
About Sister of My Heart
In Sister of My Heart
, Divakaruni tells the moving story of two cousins, Sudha and Anju Chatterjee. Born twelve hours apart in the same house, the women consider themselves twins, and from a very early age get everything they need from life--love, respect, council, and friendship--from each other. Together they experience the joys, pains, mystical tales, and tiresome tasks that accompany growing up in a traditional Indian house in Calcutta. Their exceptional bond remains the core of the novel as their affection for each other increasingly shapes the course of their lives.
Intensely rich and complex, Sister of My Heart
eloquently reveals the underlying tension between the desires of the girls' mothers, who embrace traditional Indian culture, and those of the Sudha and Anju, who are more enticed by Western philosophies. But an even greater obstacle penetrates the Chatterjee household. The disturbing truth about the circumstances under which Sudha and Anju were born is only known by Sudha, and the secret tortures her and weaves a menacing thread through their friendship. When the cousins are physically separated by Arranged Marriage
s, their uncommon bond faces its hardest test. One travels to America, and one remains in India--each to lead lives of more secrets. When tragedy strikes both, they discover that, despite distance and marriage, they must turn to each other once again for support and friendship.
Exceptionally moving, dramatic, and exquisitely rendered, Sister of My Heart
is a passionate novel about the extraordinary bond between two women, and the jealousies, loves, and family histories that threaten to tear them apart.
For discussion: Sister of My Heart
- What kind of relationship is there between the older generation in India, who live in a world full of mystical tales and magical occurrences, and Anju and Sudha's generation, which is more drawn to Western ideals? Why are both cousins, especially Anju, skeptical of their own culture and interested in the west, particularly America? How do they incorporate each world into their lives?
- How are Sudha and Anju different, and how are they similar? Despite their differences, what continues to keep their relationship strong?
- How do money and position in society affect the way the Chatterjee women act? How much do the expectations of Indian society affect the characters' lives? Are there any inconsistencies between what society expects and what it actually does?
- The mothers tell the girls that loving someone too much is dangerous. What are they trying to achieve with this warning?
- What does the ruby symbolize? What is the significance of Anju and Sudha being so "unlucky" in the circumstances under which they were born? Why was it significant for Sudha to know the truth about her past and not be able to tell Anju?
- There is often a great disparity between what is the proper thing to do and what is the fun, exciting thing to do. How does this theme play itself out in the novel?
- Why does Anju's mother welcome Sudha and her mother into the family even though she knows the truth about Sudha's father? In contrast, why is Sudha's mother so harsh and seemingly ungrateful? Do she and her daughter belong in the house?
- The mothers often tell stories and gossip. What role do these stories play in their livesand in the lives of Sudha and Anju?
- According to Bidhata Purush's predictions, Anju is supposed to be brave and clever, fight injustice, marry a fine man and travel the world, while Sudha is supposed to have a life of sorrow. Do the girls live up to these predictions? If not, how else would you characterize each?
- How did having a man enter each of their lives affect the girls' friendship? Would the friendship have evolved differently had they not married? Are men portrayed positively or negatively in this book?
- Why is there jealousy between the two cousins? Is it inevitable despite their mutual love? Do they ever successfully rise above it?
- How does Anju change after she comes to America? Would she have been as independent and assertive if she had stayed in India?
- Sudha defies traditional Indian culture by leaving her husband and raising her child on her own. How do her actions affect her deep connection to Indian culture? How does the author portray Sudha's decision?
- The keeping of secrets and the telling of lies play a huge part in the novel. Why are so many secrets kept? Is it better to keep some secrets and to tell some lies or to always share the truth?
- Discuss your reaction to finding out Singhji's identity. Was Sudha's response reasonable?
- Should Sudha have gone with Ashok? Throughout the novel, does Sudha give up too much for Anju? Are sacrifices required of a true friend?
About The Mistress of Spices
In The Mistress of Spices, Divakaruni tells the story of Tilo, a young woman born in another time, in a faraway place, who is trained in the ancient art of spices and ordained as a mistress charged with special powers. Once fully initiated in a rite of fire, the now immortal Tilo--in the gnarled and arthritic body of an old woman--travels through time to Oakland, California, where she opens a shop from which she administers spices as curatives to the local Indian community.
Although it is her duty to remain emotionally detached, Tilo breaks the rules of the spices and is drawn into the lives of the customers in her shop, helping them through their spirals of trouble: abusive husbands, racism, generational conflicts, drug abuse. And when an unexpected romance blossoms with a handsome stranger, Tilo is forced to choose between the supernatural life of an immortal and the vicissitudes of modern life. Spellbinding and hypnotizing, The Mistress of Spices is a tale of joy and sorrow and one special woman's magical powers.
For discussion: The Mistress of Spices
- The New York Times Book Review states that The Mistress of Spices "becomes a novel about choosing between a life of special powers and one of ordinary love and compassion." Did Tilo choose correctly? Why or why not?
- How do the spices become characters in the novel?
- Tilo only speaks her name out loud to one person in the novel. What is the significance of this action? What role do names play in the novel?
- What do the spices take from Tilo? What do they give her? Is it a fair exchange?
- Tilo left her shop for the first time early in the novel to look at Haroun's cab. But later she is drawn even further out by Raven. Was her course already set at that point? Would she have left again even without Raven's pull?
- In what ways is punishment seen as a natural force in this novel? How are punishment and retribution tied to balance?
- Tilo says, "Better hate spoken than hate silent." Does hate spoken achieve the effect Tilo intends or not?
- Divakaruni chose to write The Mistress of Spices in the first person present tense. Does this point of view add or detract from the story?
- What passages in the novelresemble poetry? How does Divakaruni make use of lyricism and rhythm?
- What role does physical beauty play in this story? In Tilo's feelings about her body? About Raven? About the bougainvillea girls?
- Does Raven's story (pp. 161-171) differ from Tilo's story of her past at the points where she tells it? Do these differences say anything about the differences between women and men, or between Indians and Americans?
- How are physical acts of violence and disaster (earthquake, beatings, guns) foreshadowed in the novel? What is the significance of foreshadowing in the Indian culture?
About Arranged Marriage
Divakaruni's exquisitely wrought debut collection of stories chronicles the assimilation--and rebellion--that Indian-born girls and women in America undergo as they balance old treasured beliefs and surprising new desires. For the young girls and women brought to life in these stories, the possibility of change, of starting anew, is both as terrifying and filled with promise as the ocean that separates them from their homes in India. From a young bride whose fairy-tale vision of California is shattered when her husband is murdered to a proud middle-aged divorce determined to succeed in San Francisco, Divakaruni paints eleven devastating portraits of women on the verge of an unforgettable transformation.
For discussion: Arranged Marriage
- How do the physical and psychological landscapes of India and America differ in these stories?
- "The Word Love" is written in second person. What does this unusual choice of voice add to the meaning and impact of the story?
- The mother-daughter relationship is a central theme in many of these stories. Is the author making a general comment about this relationship?
- Most of the stories in this collection focus on women who are in serious danger, be it physical, emotional, or both. Do the stories leave you reason to be hopeful for these women? How?
- Do the women in these stories view themselves as having choices? Are they correct in their views, or are they deluding themselves?
For discussion of the novels and stories
- What do the characters in Divakaruni's novels and stories lose and gain as they become more "American"?
- In the story "Affair," Abha says, "It's not wrong to be happy, is it? To want more out of life than fulfilling duties you took on before you knew what they truly meant?" How is this idea further developed in The Mistress of Spices? In Sister of My Heart?
- In Divakaruni's stories, women are wives and mothers, but the men are portrayed primarily as husbands, not fathers. How are the men's roles in the novels similar to or different from those in the stories?
- How does the Indian immigrant experience compare to that of other immigrants--Spanish, Italian, Chinese?
Suggestions for further reading
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Vikram Chandra, Love and Longing in Bombay
Natasha Chang, Bound Feet and Western Dress
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street
Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory
Anita Desaï, In Custody
Kiran Desaï, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard
Louise Erdrich, Tracks
Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate
E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
Gabriel García Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Bharati Mukherjee, Jasmine
V.S. Naipaul, A Wounded Civilization
R.K. Narayan, The World of Nagaraj
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
Esmeralda Santiago, When I Was Puerto Rican, Almost a Woman
Julie Shigekuni, A Bridge Between Us
Alice Walker, The Color Purple.
Page numbers refer to the Vintage paperback edition.
Reading group guide and suggested reading list reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Vintage.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.