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~Tea and Strife~
Sisters Aloka and Sujarta Gupta grew up comfortably in Darjeeling in the Indian Himalayas. As the daughters of a family who own a tea plantation, they have a privileged but not a wealthy life. Growing and working tea is a hard living, subject to competition from cheaper teas from other countries and of course from coffee. Elder sister Aloka is the beautiful and artistically accomplished sister, destined to one day inherit the tea plantation whilst Sujarta is younger, rather plain but has a passion for tea that her elder sister lacks. When Aloka becomes engaged to the plantation manager, Pranab, the family expect the two of them to continue the business at the tea plantation but things do not go to plan. Pranab gets involved with Sujarta, meeting her regularly, telling her his dreams and sharing his plot to fight for workers rights at the plantation.
When the girls' father finds out that Pranab has been seeing both his daughters, he hires thugs to drive Pranab out of town, to kill him if necessary to protect the family honour. The girls' grandmother, Nina, sends Sujarta away to relatives, exiling her from temptation, from Pranab and from the shame she's bringing on the family. Despite knowing that Pranab is in love with her sister, Aloka still agrees to marry him, the two of them fleeing Darjeeling because grandma can pay off the thugs but can't be sure her son himself wouldn't kill Pranab if he saw him again. Thus the plantation goes from having two of the next generation living in Darjeeling, to losing both the girls to North America.
~A long way from home~
Pranab and Aloka set up home in New York, whilst Sujarta makes her home on the west coast of Canada, opening a speciality tea shop. Aloka works as a writer, moonlighting as 'Ask Seva', the anonymous agony aunt of a newspaper for expat Indians living in New York. We meet both the women again about a decade after they left Darjeeling. Pranab wants a divorce and has moved out and the girls' grandmother Nina has invited him and Aloka and Sujarta to return to Darjeeling for her birthday party. Nina knows she can't live forever and wants to try to mend the rifts of the past, to bring her two girls back together again and to settle issues around their inheritance. In theory Nina doesn't know about Pranab and Aloka's break-up but she's a wise old bird and has worked out already that things are not as they should be. Can the beauty of the mountains give Aloka a way to win back her husband or will he take advantage of the setting to pursue Sujarta again? Is there any prospect for the two women to find a way to forgive each other?
~Reading my way back to India~
I'm going back to Darjeeling in October this year and I wanted to start getting the 'feel' of the place again so I did some very random wandering around on Amazon.co.uk and Bharti Kirchner's book 'Darjeeling' was one of several I snapped up. I love books set in India and I love this mountain town with its amazing views, its tea bushes coating the hillsides like green corduroy and its controversial political situation with the locals demanding their own state of 'Gorkhaland' and freedom from its current status as part of West Bengal. If you want a place to set a story that's a character in its own right, then Darjeeling certainly qualifies and I was fairly sure that no book set there could completely fail to deliver. Certainly the city performs beautifully within the pages of this book.
I found the book started quite slowly and I didn't instantly 'like' either of the sisters. Aloka was so perfect, so sweet and - once she found out about Pranab and her sister - so crazily accepting of his deception that I found her a bit of a doormat. Sujarta was equally unlikeable, primarily for fooling around with her sister's fiancé. And Pranab himself seemed to be pitched as a rebellious, emotional man but struck me as far too self-serving and deceptive. Nina, the grandmother, was the star of the early chapters, supporting her son by paying off the thugs and supporting her granddaughters by finding them ways out of the mess they'd made.
Once the two women made it half way round the world to North America, their lives were really rather absurdly successful. It does seem to be a conspiracy of writers of books about the immigrant dream that everyone always gets to do remarkably well and nobody ends up washing dishes in a diner and living 20 to a room. Sujarta's tea business, her mission to teach restaurateurs about the delights of tea and to live as a successful single woman were a bit of a leap from the rather 'weedy' girl who'd left Darjeeling but made her more likable than her younger self. Aloka of course was still beautiful and successful too - only Pranab was right royally failing to achieve his potential. What's a man with tea and mountains in his blood to do when faced with life in the concrete jungle? He's given a passion for dance which seems to be intended to humanise him a little more but I just felt he needed a good slap - but that I'd probably have to form an orderly queue in order to deliver it.
The period when the girls return to Darjeeling is my favourite part of the book. Distance and time give them an appreciation for the place that they probably didn't have whilst younger. The author avoids the temptation to throw the two women together too quickly, giving Sujarta time there with her grandmother, offering her a potential suitor and giving her time to reflect on her life. Pranab is as weasel-like as ever, assuming that with Aloka cast off, he can now move on to Sujarta. Aloka has half a mind to try to win her man back but the buds of a new relationship back home are sprouting and she now has alternatives. When reconciliation eventually comes - as inevitably it must - it's a bit contrived and involves a lot of symbolically burnt milk, but it's actually believable that the magic of Darjeeling and the love of a good grandmother can rebuild bridges.
I appreciated that the author kept us guessing about the two women's relationships and their decisions to the very end and doubly appreciated that she didn't give into the temptation to roll everything up in a massive, syrupy 'happy ever after'. I didn't find either woman entirely believable but the star of the book was Darjeeling itself and when Kirchner wrote about the city and the tea plantations every word was entirely believable. Whilst I'm never a great fan of family sagas, plots of entwined romantic spaghetti, or slightly cartoon-like characters, I have to remind myself that my objective in buying 'Darjeeling' was to remind myself about the city and its surroundings. In that respect the book delivered exactly what I was seeking and I'm more than glad that I read it. However, if you just want a great novel set in India, I can recommend many better than this one.
RRP £9.99 with Amazon Marketplace offering second hand copies from 44p plus P&P