Book Reviews

The Queen of Dreams by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Doubleday, New York

As a child growing up in Fremont, California, Rakhi Gupta longs to be exactly like her aloof, enigmatic mother. The “queen” of Divakaruni’s rich and unsettling novel not only interprets the dreams of clients, but occasionally warns total strangers that their untold dreams (which somehow reach her) harbor a threat. Rakhi sees her mother’s gift as “… a noble vocation, at once mysterious and helpful to the world. To be an interpreter of the inner realm seemed so Indian.” But the way her mother brushes off Rakhi’s questions about her past life and native country only increases the child’s hunger for all things Indian, and try as she might, Rakhi is no dreamer—a fact that disappoints them both.

As an adult, Rakhi’s path is indeed rocky. An abstract expressionist (her oil paintings won’t sell even in Berkeley), she’s a divorced single mother whose anxious six-year-old paints pictures of flaming wrecks and burning buildings. Beset by the rakish ex-husband who betrayed her, and ignored by her apparently alcoholic father, Rakhi is also co-proprietor of a homey Indian teahouse that’s being swiftly drummed out of business by the new pseudo Starbuck’s across the street. So when her mother phones one day to suggest that good news may soon be hers, Rakhi’s skepticism seems well placed. Is this from a dream, Rakhi asks her, or just a motherly feeling? “‘It’s one of the primary laws of the universe,’ my mother states. ‘There is no darkness but light follows. Haven’t you heard of it?’ She hangs up, leaving me to figure out if this is ancient Indian wisdom or New Age Californian.”

But bad news chases good, and Rakhi is left to seek the answer in journals she discovers after her mother’s sudden death. Dependent on her father’s translation from the archaic Bengali, Rakhi’s eyes are opened to his own disappointments. His revelation of “things Indian” draws the two together in unexpected ways and—on the eve of September 11—leads them to a diverse community of immigrant Americans.

Deft interweaving of “dream journals” with the intimidation of an immigrant community in the wake of 9/11 is acutely rendered and politically provocative. As in Divakaruni’s earlier novels, stories and poetry, her descriptions of food, music, art and landscape stimulate the senses and evoke the exotic. But when Rakhi’s dreams are threatened and reality turns to nightmare, the question becomes: What is American?

Queen of Dreams is a poetic page-turner. When you reach the end, can you resist turning back to the beginning? Dream on.

Reviewed by Blair Moser