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by Bharti Kirchner

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Novelist and award-winning cookbook author Bharti Kirchner has written a sweeping family saga, a first class fiction about forbidden love and family honor.

Set in the mountainous tea plantations of Darjeeling, India and in New York City, Darjeeling is the story of two sisters - Aloka and Sujata - long separated by their love for Pranab, an idealistic


Novelist and award-winning cookbook author Bharti Kirchner has written a sweeping family saga, a first class fiction about forbidden love and family honor.

Set in the mountainous tea plantations of Darjeeling, India and in New York City, Darjeeling is the story of two sisters - Aloka and Sujata - long separated by their love for Pranab, an idealistic young revolutionary. Pranab loves Sujata, the awkward, prickly, younger sister but, out of obligation, marries Aloka, the gracious, beautiful, older sister. When all of their secrets are revealed, the three are forced to leave Darjeeling. Aloka and Pranab flee to New York City and Sujata to Canada. The story opens ten years later, when their Grandmother summons everyone home to the family tea plantation to celebrate her birthday. Despite the fact that Aloka is still very much in love with Pranab, they are in the process of getting a divorce. Sujata, who is still single, runs a successful business importing tea, a business that doesn't fill her broken heart. This trip forces the sisters to wrestle with their bitterness and anger and to try to heal old wounds. What complicates matters is that Pranab, too, is going to India and is intent on rekindling his relationship with Sujata now that his marriage is over.

Although filled with the rich foods, smells, and social confines of another culture, Darjeeling is really about the universally human emotions of jealousy, rivalry, love, and honor. It is a complex novel about family, exile, sisterly relations, and how one incident can haunt us for the rest of our lives.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Two Westernized sisters who grew up on a tea plantation in Darjeeling waste a decade in rivalry over the same unworthy man in Kirchner's firmly grounded, workmanlike novel of Indian mores. Aloka Gupta, the elder, conventionally pretty sister, married the man, Pranab, her disgraced fiance and expert tea taster, despite the revelation of his affair with her younger sister, Sujata. The couple fled Darjeeling for the U.S. in 1992 because of threats by Aloka's outraged father, while brokenhearted Sujata was banished to British Columbia, Canada, by the family's matriarch, Nina. It is now eight years later, and the marriage has ended in divorce; Aloka is a successful journalist who writes a "Dear Seva" column for transplanted Indian immigrants in New York City, while Sujata, now called Suzy, has become a self-made tea importer. When grandmother Nina requests that the two sisters return home to celebrate her 70th birthday, their rivalry over Pranab, whose adjustment to American life has not been smooth, flares afresh. Kirchner writes most convincingly when delineating the frustrated lives of Indian immigrants in America, as evidenced through the letters Aloka receives as her alter ego, Seva. The sprawling, aromatic tea plantation in Darjeeling, in contrast, tends to be glimpsed through a gossamer nostalgia. Likewise, many of the rosy characterizations, such as that of Nina and Aloka's new boyfriend, Jahar, border on stereotype. However, Kirchner, a novelist (Shiva Dancing) and cookbook author, reveals a tremendous faith in her characters and their love of their homeland - especially its food - and if her portrayal of the clash between traditional and modern ways seems formulaic and sketchily handled, she does infuse her work with a genuine Indian spirit. Agent, Liza Dawson. Author tour. (July 15) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A novelist and Indian cookbook writer mixes a sensual and at times suspenseful transcontinental family saga as two sisters vie for the same man. This time out, Kirchner (Sharmila's Book, 1999, etc.) combines several ingredients to make for a satisfying tale, including family discord and forbidden love. After older sister Aloka and younger sister Sujata both fell for Pranab, a Sanskrit scholar and manager of their family's tea plantation, the two were forced to leave their home in Darjeeling. The story opens in New York ten years after that event, when Aloka, now a reporter at a newspaper for Indian immigrants, finds that her hard-won marriage to Pranab (she's the one who got him) is ending, and, cutting back to Darjeeling, the author retraces the drama that occurred a decade before. Although Pranab and Aloka were engaged, Sujata and he shared a desire to better the living conditions of tea workers, and common sensibilities bloomed into a passionate but prohibited affair. When Sujata's family discovered it, they banished her to Canada and threatened Pranab's life. Despite his tryst with her sister, Aloka managed to secure Pranab's vows, and the couple escaped to New York. A decade later, no one is happy. Pranab is bitter in marriage and unhappy in the US. Aloka finds letters suggesting Pranab's unfinished affection for Sujata, and she faces the stigma of being an Indian divorcee. Although she's built a successful tea-import business, Sujata resents the family who exiled her, and unresolved conflicts on all sides come to a head when the sisters and Pranab are summoned back to Darjeeling for a family birthday. Spicing her narrative with Bengali phrases, Kirchner suggests sympathy for hermany characters, but her resolutions of their conflicts can seem insubstantial: Aloka and Pranab's marriage is roughly sketched, and deeper tensions in the plot are too often resolved with a quickness that makes them emotionally unconvincing. A textured melodrama.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.71(d)

Read an Excerpt



Autumn 2000

Aloka Gupta gazed down from the window of her apartment at the gray-brown bustle of Manhattan's Fifty-second Street, her thoughts turning to her childhood home and the family-owned tea plantation in Darjeeling. Urged on by the chill of the short autumn days, the tea plants were now forming their third flush of tender shiny leaves, lending a tantalizing fragrance to the crisp mountain air. Eight years earlier, her life and love, like the bumblebees flitting from bud to bud, had been entwined with those bushes.

The cold jumble of glass, concrete, chrome, and steel before her now stood in cruel contrast to the allure of that idyllic time. As she turned away, the final divorce papers, legal-sized and officiously stamped with the seal ofthe state of New York and the day's date, stared accusingly from the top of her writing desk.

How was a divorce possible? She had always assumed that she would grow up to be a pativrata and remain devoted to her husband for the rest of her life. Having been reared on stories of powerful goddesses, Sita, Savitri, and Sakuntala, examples of devoted Hindu wives, she found it hard to believe that now, at age forty, she would be alone. Sita, Savitri, and Sakuntala would exist only on the pages of scriptures.

She sank down in front of her desk, pushed the divorce papers aside, and picked up the current issue of Manhattan, India, published by Girish Enterprises. Three years ago, she'd landed a journalist's position with the publication, primarily because of her master's degree in English and high school teaching experience. The widely read weekly reported news and events of interest to the flourishing Indian-American community scattered throughout New York and its environs. Subscribers devoured the newsweekly from cover to cover, passed it to friends, talked about it over chai latte, and sent clippings back home. Aloka wrote feature articles and reveled in the challenge of touching the emotions of the readers.

The first two pages of this week's edition were devoted to the profile of a taxicab driver who'd donated his total savings to his village in India to establish a school for girls, and that of a biochemist who served food to the homeless in her spare time. It also contained Aloka's own piece: an interview with a nutritionist about vegetarian sources for vitamin B12. Aloka enjoyed afresh seeing her work in print.

She flipped to page three. The entire top half of the page was dedicated to an advice column, "Ask Seva," the most popular section of the paper. It was her most important contribution, one she penned under the pseudonym. Nine months earlier, when she'd started the column, her editor hadn't been enthusiastic about its reception. Before long she had surprised him with her knack for sensing the needs, feelings, and concerns of transplants from her old country, and responding to them appropriately. By day the new arrivals, the disoriented desis, marveled at the broad avenues, monumental skyscrapers, and well-stocked department stores. By night they longed for the meaningful human contact so lacking in their new homeland. They would huddle in a tiny, dilapidated efficiency, shared with another desi. Their faces growinglong, their eyelashes dampening, they would moan, "My country, my relatives, my language, my food." They would speculate on whether the migration—most often forced by economic realities—hadn't been a mistake. One lonely man, a "married bachelor," was known to dial 800 numbers just to converse with someone. "The first three to four years is a curse," wiser members of the community would advise them. "Thereafter you stop crying."

Aloka did more than stopping tears. Her column was a skillful merger of optimism, guidance, and practical advice on how to make the adjustment to a new home: where to get a silk sari cleaned, how to locate a Hindu priest for an auspicious family event, how to order a vegetarian meal sans eggs in a restaurant, why must one wear layered clothing during the frigid months, and how to make the first move in a relationship.

"Seva" meant service and, as in much of the vocabulary of Indian languages, carried overtones of devotion. True to the spirit of her assumed name, Aloka didn't deliver a terse reply to a sensitive question, or enlist the help of a team of psychologists for a technically accurate answer. Rather, she dispensed commonsense advice a loving sister might offer. Young and the old, male and female, new arrivals and longtime residents alike read her column and conferred about it at the kebob house, as well as on Internet user groups. They corresponded with her and visited her website, www.askseva.com, seeking guidance on all manner of problems but especially those of the heart. They embraced her as a source of hope and wisdom. She was "their own."

This week's column had begun with suggestions of low-cost ways to enjoy the city: the Sunday band at Central Park, the cumin-spiked vegetable juices served by a blind vendor near Rockefeller Square, and the American release of an earlier Soumitra Chatterjee film at a Bronx theater. The column had ended with a plea to help find a missing Tamil-speaking child.

Her upbeat style, clear simple phrasing, and handwritten "Love, Seva" signature, done in a single stroke of the pen, had won hearts. Manhattan, India now boasted the highest circulation of all local Indian-American periodicals, some fifty thousand and growing.

But who was the real Seva?

The question was a hot topic of discussion at social and religious gatherings of the community. The current consensus—and it shifted often—was that the voice belonged to a chain-smoking, elite female novelist, Nandita Pal, who called a choice Fifth Avenue address home. Not even Pranab, Aloka's ex-husband, had suspected it was her. This was the first secret she had kept from him. As her marriage had disintegrated, she had felt a greater need to rely on her own career and identity. She told friends and acquaintances that she worked for a diversified company that counted publishing, music, and importing clothing among its activities. When asked, Aloka would offer, "Oh, I do a little writing and some market research." Seva's real identity remained the paper's closely guarded secret.

Now Aloka reached for the pile of mail she'd brought from work and began sorting through it. She received mostly complimentary letters, along with an occasional diatribe—"truffles and arrows," as she called them. The first card in the batch happened to be from an admirer. It said:

Even if it turns out that you're forty and overweight, with rotten teeth and five terrible children, I'd still love you.

Aloka chuckled and shook her head, tossed the card in the corner waste can, and picked up the next.

I am absolutely positive you are a man.

Your replies are much too intelligent for a zanana.

Annoyed by the condescending term, which translated roughly as a mere woman, Aloka wadded the note into a ball and flung it toward the waste can, missing it by several feet. Her eyes were already focused on the next letter.

Why do women in New York wash their hair so much? The last three attractive women I asked for a date all replied, "I'd love to, but I have to wash my hair."

I wish I were Breck.

Aloka smiled to herself. A suitable solution to "Breck's" problem was beginning to form in her mind when she was startled by the sound of footsteps. She turned halfway in her chair.

Pranab was standing in the doorway. In the drab navy jacket of a telephone repair service specialist, he seemed ill at ease. His body emitted a faint oily odor.

"Oh, it's you." Why today, of all days? she wondered. "I wasn't expecting you."

He stepped into the room. At five-foot-ten, he towered over her; but in the deep afternoon shadows he appeared diminished. His deep-set eyes seemed to have retreated even farther behind the habitual tortoiseshell spectacles; his lips were compressed into a thin line, giving his face an icy expression.

"Just came for a book."

He paused uncertainly before the maple bookcase that contained old volumes bound in maroon, literature they had shared. This study, with its cherry-finished desk beneath the window and adjustable reading light, had always been his shrine.

A wayward lock of hair stuck out from the nape of his neck and her fingers trembled with the urge to smooth it. She rubbed them instead over her tight-fitting denim jeans, a cheerless reminder of the pounds gained over the last several months.

"Can I help you find anything?" She spoke in English, glad that they shared a second language. In propitious times, they had conversed in Bengali, or Bangla, their poetic mother tongue, with its mellifluous tones. Not today. Only English, a neutral language bare of emotions, could be trusted to convey the appropriate formality.

His silence knifed through her like a high wind from the Himalayas. She watched him remove a tattered volume with a cracked binding, his favorite treatise written in Sanskrit, musty scent emanating from it. With long tapered fingers he began to leaf through the book. His expression softened when he turned to a page that contained a favorite passage.

He snapped the book closed and gave her a glance. How quickly husband becomes stranger. Not even the hint of a question hung in the air. When there were no questions between them; she knew the marriage was dead.

He half turned toward the door. "I'm moving to my new place tomorrow," he finally said, in a tone that was low, mundane, and devoid of sentiment.

She wanted to ask: Where have you left the voice that once so forcefully exhorted the tea workers in Darjeeling to rise against their oppressor—my father, no less? In those exciting days, Pranab, his robust figure clad in a white kurta and his luminous eyes emanating fervor, had commanded like the mythical god Arjuna. She had loved him enough to risk her life for him.

"Here's my new address and phone number in case you ever need it." He dropped the apartment keys on a side table and pressed a blue Post-It into her hand.

How would he manage on his own? He needed a woman in his life. Right now she longed to massage his forehead with a fragrant oil to chase away the day's irritations, like a good Hindu wife would do.

She said, "I'll be sure to forward your mail."

He took a step toward the door. "If I can ever do anything for you, Aloka ..."

She heard the regret in his voice, witnessed the tentative movement of his legs. Perhaps their ten-year relationship hadn't ended. There were empty pages yet to be written.

She stood motionlessly, staring after his departing figure, hoping for him to swivel around at any moment. His image became smaller and his outline blurred. It was as though she were peering at him through a rain-drenched glass panel. Finally he floated out of the room. She listened to the familiar squeak of his Nikes descending the stairs. Then an ambulance siren smothered that tiny sound, but not her hopes.

Copyright © 2002 by Bharti Kirchner.

Meet the Author

Born in India, Bharti Kirchner worked as a systems software engineer for many years before becoming a prize-winning cookbook author. She is also the author of two acclaimed novels, Sharmila's Book and Shiva Dancing. She has written numerous articles for magazines, newspapers and anthologies. Ms. Kirchner lives in Seattle with her husband.

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Darjeeling 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There are so many errors in the Nook version of the book that it almost makes it difficult to read. I have read many books on my Nook and found an occasional error. This book has several on every page. As for content, it does a decent job dealing with the experience of the immigrant, the feeling that they sometimes have of yearning for "home" and yet not fitting in, and the conflicts that happen in families. Again, I found the errors so annoying that I fear that it interfered with an honest evaluation of the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book has many hidden surprises, but it's not that exciting of a book. Actually, it's pretty predictable. But if you want a light read that will take a day to finish, I would say this would serve the purpose.