Welcome to another Thoughts On book review. You’ll see these pop up on my blog whenever I’ve found a book I just can’t put down.
Rakhi’s story may be about raising a daughter in the wake of a painful divorce. It may be about struggling to save her teahouse when mainstream competition moves in on the corner. It may even be about uncovering her mother’s clandestine Indian dream-telling education of yesteryear. But one thing is certain.
Rakhi’s story is inseparable from those that have come before it.
Intertextuality is an interesting little concept. It describes the relationship that exists between different texts in the literary world. Think of it like a giant telephone grid, with writers and stories from the past, present, and future all plugged into the same conversation. Ideas are shared, discussed, and reshaped by the time and context of the story they are destined to become. And whether you believe in this cosmic, we-are-all-one, collective unconscious line of thinking or you’d prefer corroborative proof, this novel presents a convincing argument for the existence of such a dialogue in our social world.
Take Rakhi’s relationship with her ex-husband for example. Despite having divorced Sonny, Rakhi has yet to shake the man from her life. This is not for lack of trying. Rakhi despises Sonny. She views him as a parasitic weasel that is mooching off her parents’ generosity and filling her daughter’s head with horrific, modernist ideas about the world. On a deeper, more emotional level, she harbors an even greater detestation firmly rooted in their past.
In the youth of their relationship, Sonny was hired to DJ at a nightclub in the Bay Area. He took Rakhi to a party thrown by the nightclub’s owner in order to network and show off what he could do with the records.
But although she had begged Sonny to bring her in the first place, Rakhi felt out of place once they arrived at the party. The music was too loud, the rooms were too shady, and the people were very physical. Soon she was pawed at. Her drink made her mind go hazy. When Sonny stopped spinning, she discovered him in a room with white powder on mirrored plates. When she began to yell, someone removed her dress. She struggled and was cut on the underside of her arm. She cried to Sonny for help, but he was busy smiling at someone else.
After this incident Rakhi no longer views Sonny as a redeemable human being. He becomes a villain in her mind. As time passes, she refuses to tolerate him or even attempt to understand his complexities. This continues until the very end of the story when Rakhi’s reentrance into the club scene inspires a change in her formerly brick-wall demeanor.
In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, Rakhi reunites with Sonny in order to provide some semblance of stability for their young daughter in this unsteady time. But although she is living under the same roof as Sonny, Rakhi still regards him with an attitude of cold-shouldered hostility.
It’s not until an illusive student of Tai Chi teaches her a variation of the Warrior pose that Rakhi tastes the nectar of fearlessness. Suddenly she is ravenous for self-growth and internal balance. She craves it. With this in mind, Rakhi returns to the nightclub to face the long-suppressed episode from her past.
As soon as she passes by the bouncer and steps inside the club, Rakhi is uneasy. She doesn’t fully understand the music that ignites the bodies around her. She admits she’s never attempted to learn the auditory medium, even when she was married to Sonny. She has always favored the visual arts. Even now, as she spots Sonny atop the DJ station, the complicated-looking equipment around him confuses her. The language of this world is completely foreign. Rakhi doesn’t understand the conversation that is going on around her.
All the while, her stomach muscles are tight. She is waiting for the memory of that night long ago to resurface and drag her back down to that place of vulnerability and fear. The night those men attacked her. The night Sonny didn’t intervene.
But the memory doesn’t come. Instead the unfamiliar swell of beats created by occasionally recognizable instruments draws Rakhi out onto the dance floor. She hasn’t danced in years, but for some reason she cannot resist the magnetic pull of the music in that moment. And then she is dancing her imperfect, off beat steps, surrounded by a circle of swaying bodies. The narrator lets readers into Rakhi’s mind to explain what this experience is doing to her.
“She’s beginning to understand, a little, what the club scene means to Sonny….To make a roomful of people lose themselves to the mood and become one with the sound!…Why, it was a little like being God!”
Holy Baldwin, Batman!
It was only at this very moment in the text that I suddenly realized what Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni did. By using music to help her main character understand Sonny’s role in the community, she recreated the ending of Baldwin’s powerful short story, “Sonny’s Blues.” In this final scene, Rakhi, just like Baldwin’s protagonist, begins to embrace how important a figure Sonny is to the music scene.
Now, in no way, shape, or form am I claiming that Divakaruni ripped off the famous Baldwin piece. After all, show me the part in Baldwin’s text where spiritual threads arise from the navels of sleepers and connect their unconscious REM thoughts to the minds of dream-readers like Rakhi’s mother. But I do believe there are similarities between each author’s Sonny character and his partner’s eventual understanding of a foreign world through the passionate pull of music.
Together these two stories contribute completely different messages to society. They convey two distinct meanings, play with different cultures, and even contain noticeable disparities in narrative form and plot content. But yet they are undoubtedly related to each other by this one climactic scene.
That’s what intertextuality means to me. It means we communicate relationships and conflicts with each other through our written work. It means we create a dialogue between us and the people surrounding our existence, whether we know it or not. It means we are able to find someone else out there who has experienced a variation of our own emotional state, no matter how uniquely ours we may perceive that emotional state to be.
It means that, like the mystic threads that link dreamers to the minds of Divakaruni’s interpreters, our written words connect us with the rest of the world.