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Synopsis of Night Jasmine Tree

Night Jasmine Tree captures the mid-20th Century story of an Indian Brahmin man’s immigration to the U.S. as a result of his love for a lower caste woman.

Shankar questioned his conservative Brahmin family upbringing throughout his childhood in Calcutta, India. He wanted to be a physicist while his father’s goal was to raise his only son to be a reputed religious scholar. On his first day of college he meets and falls in love with a lower caste girl, Durga. He keeps this budding romance quiet through his college years, but as his final term ends, his father understands what is afoot and demands he end his relationship or be banished from the family. He chooses banishment, marries Durga, and emigrates to the U.S., vowing to forget his family and never to return home. He establishes a new life without the constrictions of India’s rigid caste system and their old-world way of living. His family in India falls apart because of his rebellious act and his father’s dogmatic allegiance to religion, but in his rage, he does nothing to stop his family’s destruction.

Their son is born while he is a graduate student in the U.S. His wife, sacrifices her academic goals supporting Shankar so they can stay in the U.S. permanently and not return to India. They move to Ann Arbor, Michigan where Shankar finds a teaching position at a small state university.

They raise their son with very little knowledge of Shankar’s family in India, but teach him Hindu ideals without any conservative biases about caste. Their son becomes a physician, marries an American woman, and settles in Bellport, NY with their two children. As soon as Shankar retires, his son brings them to live with them. Shankar delights his grandchildren with stories from his childhood in India. Telling these stories have the double-edged effect of charming his grandchildren and raking up unhappy memories of familial conflict—long suppressed during his busy career. The reader hears these tales and is also privileged to hear Shankar’s own thoughts and learns the back-story that Shankar does not tell anyone, not even his own son. He does not tell them, ever, about his conservative, high-caste Brahmin family, and that his love for Durga forced him out of his family, and eventually his country. The memories haunt him more and more in his retirement. Behind his outwardly calm and grandfatherly demeanor lie the silent torment and struggle that originated in his youth and his emigration.

The depth of his personal conflict is brought into focus when his granddaughter excitedly brings him a letter from his sister in India, thinking he will be so happy to receive a letter from home. Years before, Shankar had destroyed a letter from his sister without reading it because of his anger at her rejection of Durga. But now the innocent, eager face of his granddaughter stops him from discarding the letter. He reads it and his whole perspective is changed. His beloved sister has suffered so much in life! And for the same reasons he abandoned the family, namely, their father’s strict conservative attitude and practice, which didn’t admit the changing world. She is now dying. Shankar’s torment takes a heightened role.

He analyzes his life in a larger perspective. Had he done the right things in his life? Did he not forsake his responsibilities to his parents and his sisters? Wasn’t he selfish, thinking of only his own happiness?

Shankar can find no way to come to peace with his own decisions and failings. Then he remembers his mother’s wish: being the only son, he must perform their funeral service. He had promised her to do that, but has not. Both his parents are dead now. Further instances where he had not done the right thing come rushing into his mind and remind him of his less-than-adequate character. His wife suffers with him but does not know how to help him. His son’s simple, but probing questions bring more trouble for Shankar. He finds he is not infallible or as righteous as he thought.

As he suffers with new memories and realizations of his inactions and failures, his son informs him that he had quietly visited their family house in Calcutta during a trip to India, and found none of their relatives there. Shankar is forced to tell his son about his family and that he had lost touch with them. Shankar’s internal conflict multiplies as he hides the real reason for his father’s leaving Calcutta, and the reason for his sister’s sufferings.

Observing Durga introducing the grandchildren to the Hindu ceremony of Brothers-Sisters Day, Shankar remembers how he and his sister performed the same ceremony and has an epiphany. He doesn’t have to live his life reacting to his father’s ideas and actions, but must start to live and act on his own terms. He is able to reconcile with his past and find a path forward. He decides to go to India, reversing his earlier, inviolable decision. He will perform funeral rights for his parents and take care of his ailing sister. He realizes family is the most important thing in life, more than fame, money or anything else. He finds peace.