‘Immigration made me into a writer. I thought about India all the time’: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was born in Calcutta. She is an author, poet, and the Betty and Gene McDavid Professor of Writing at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. Two of her best-known novels are The Palace of Illusions, and The Forest of Enchantments, in which she revisits the myth of Draupadi and Sita, respectively. Her short story collection, Arranged Marriage, won an American Book Award in 1996. Her novels The Mistress of Spices and Sister of my Heart, as well as a short story, The Word Love, have been adapted into films.

Divakaruni’s works are largely set in India and the United States, and often focus on the experiences of South Asian immigrants, especially women. She has published novels in various genres, including realistic fiction, historical fiction, magical realism, myth and fantasy. Her books have been translated into 29 languages, including Dutch, Hebrew, Bengali, Hungarian, Turkish, Hindi, and Japanese.

She is the recipient of an American Book Award, a PEN Josephine Miles award, a Premio Scanno award, a Light of India award, a SALA award, two Pushcart prizes, an Allen Ginsberg poetry award, a Rona Jaffe Award, a Barbara Deming Memorial Award, and a Houston Literary Award. In 2015, Divakaruni was included in the Economic Times’ List of 20 Most Influential Global Indian Women.

Her latest novel, Independence, was published in November 2022. In a conversation organised by the 2023 Jaipur Literature Festival, Divakaruni spoke to Scroll.in about her new book, writing about women and sisterhood, and how immigrating to the US turned her into a writer. Excerpts from the conversation:

You are one of the few Indian authors who has consistently written novels about women. Is this a conscious choice?
Yes, definitely. Growing up, I loved reading books about women characters, but I noted that very often
these novels and stories were written by men. I felt from the beginning that women writers can
understand the psyche and challenges of women in a special way, so I decided to make that my mission.

As someone who was born and raised in Calcutta and now lives and works in the US, what are the issues that concern you the most as a writer?
I am very interested the roles of women, and their triumphs as they flourish in new areas. However, I am also concerned about the disparity in opportunity between women in large urban areas and in small towns or rural areas, and also about violence against women.

The Palace of Illusions and The Forest of Enchantments are women-centric retellings of the two
most important Indian epics. What inspired you to put Draupadi and Sita at the forefront?

I was always fascinated by Sita and Draupadi, two amazing characters who are central to Indian culture. But I also felt they were misrepresented through the male gaze down the ages, Sita being portrayed as a role model who passively accepts her fate and is willing to suffer silently, and Draupadi being accused of being the headstrong woman whose anger causes the war in Mahabharata. But my instincts said there was a lot more to these two heroines, and my research later proved that this was indeed the case. So I was inspired to share my findings about these two powerful heroines in my novels.

What was it about Jindan Kaur that fascinated you so much that you wrote a novel about her?
Jindan Kaur came to me when I was not expecting her. I happened, very much by chance, to see a
historical portrait of her, and I was struck by the beauty, strength, willpower, and stoicism in her face. It led me to research her, and I realised that here was a woman pushed aside by history whose unusual rise from a very humble background – her father was a dog-trainer – to become Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s favorite queen was a story well worth telling. Additionally, her brave resistance of the British and unselfish love for her young son attracted me to her.

Despite her courage, Maharani Jindan could not defeat the British troops. Was it only natural for you to continue the story of women and Indian independence in your next (and newest) novel, Independence?
You got it! I was so upset by Maharani Jindan’s defeat, due to British treachery, that I HAD to continue
the story of India’s struggle for freedom from the British yoke. That is why I wrote Independence, which points to a turbulent but ultimately triumphant moment in the nation’s history.

Did you have to take help from personal narratives of the partition and the independence movement while writing Independence? What did the research for the book entail?
I did indeed. In addition to book and newspaper research, and examining old photographs, I went back to the stories that my maternal grandfather and mother told me about the 1930s and 1940s. Both were followers of Gandhi, and they lived in Calcutta and a nearby Bengal village. Additionally, my grandfather was a doctor and operated a free clinic in his village – like Nabakumar, one of my favorite characters in the book. So you could say that my family stories had a lot to do with inspiring the book.

Sisterhood and female friendships are integral to your fiction. Can you tell us how this came to
It’s a bit of a mystery to me, as I don’t have any sisters. Perhaps that’s why I write so poetically about
sisterhood – there’s an unfulfilled longing inside me. I do have several strong female friendships. When I first moved to America, far away from family, at a time when there was no email and no internet, and long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, I depended a lot on the women friends I made, on campus and at the women’s nonprofit where I volunteered. They provided the support I so badly needed, and they brought joy and laughter into my life. They became my sisters. Since that time, I celebrate women’s friendships in my writing.

Did you have a storyteller in your family? How did you become one and who was your first reader?
My grandfather was a wonderful storyteller. In addition to family stories, he would tell me stories of our epics and from Bengali folktales. He certainly taught me that there was magic in stories. As for me, I think immigration made me into a writer. Being far away from India, I thought about it all the time, and about how strange the experience of immigration was, at once exhilarating and adventurous and frightening and heartbreaking. I had to put all those thoughts into writing. Full confession: when I started, I was a very bad writer! But I revised and revised, and slowly I improved.

You are back on ground at the Jaipur Literature Festival after a while. What are you looking forward to?
It is so wonderful to be back at Jaipur Literature Festival. I am energised and excited by the presence of so many book lovers, both writers and readers. It is very inspiring to meet my readers and learn about how my books have touched their lives. It is equally inspiring to listen to other writers and learn from them. I often get ideas for a new book after JLF. Maybe that will happen this time too!

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