Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in conversation with Shrabani Basu
By Rushati Mukherjee, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Blogger
The jam-packed crowd gathered early for Indian-American novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s session was testament to the allure of her words. A luminous smile, gracious acknowledgement of every question, passion and compassion exuding from her responses: all this set the stage for the lively discussion that followed. In reference to her recent book, Before We Visit the Goddess, pertinent questions arose: what does it mean to be a successful woman? Does the idea of success change from country to country? What is the price that women have to pay?
Before We Visit the Goddess follows three generations of women over the disparate geographies of rural Bengal, Calcutta and modern Houston. It is the story of a family of women, struggling within themselves and with each other, but it is also the story of how women negotiate education, ambition, and success outside the familial structure, from which they have been excluded for so long. Divakaruni revealed that she had started writing the story soon after her mother passed away. ‘My mother was a strong woman who had a strong influence on my life,’ she said. Perhaps this is why Sabitri, one of the women who form the narrative and emotional anchor for the novel, was conceived as her contemporary.
‘For me, writing was a very personal action against forgetting,’ said Divakaruni. Confessing that she did not begin writing until she became an immigrant, she added, ‘Immigration pushed me out of my comfort zone. It forced me to look at things newly.’ The fear that she was losing touch with her culture prompted her to explore it in myriad ways. In Mistress of Spices, it was the culinary heritage that she dipped her toes into. ‘Memories, traditions, history: these are all found in food,’ she said. ‘It is a living cultural thing we change as we go along.’
The storyteller who has enchanted millions began her life with another storyteller: her grandfather. Every summer during her childhood, Divakaruni’s family would retreat to a village a few hours away from Kolkata, the city she grew up in. In the evenings, her grandfather would gather all the cousins and tell them stories. ‘He narrated myths and fairy tales to us,’ she recalled. In a way, her life as a writer is a testament to him: ‘I started writing to remember my grandfather.’
The personal was soon to be followed by the political however: a stance well known from her books. The backlash against immigrants after the 9/11 terrorist attacks hit close to home when one day, she and her young son became the victims of an ugly racially-charged attack. ‘Go home! Why don’t you go home?’ were the words the young men screamed at her, she remembered. It was at that moment that the idea of writing for children struck her. Young minds needed to know about multiculturalism in the United States.
Rather like her own heroines, Draupadi and Sita, Divakaruni tends to attract women of extraordinary character. Palace of Illusions, considered to be her magnum opus, is being adapted into a film by National Award-winning director Aparna Sen; Mistress of Spices was adapted by Gurinder Chadha; and Sister of My Heart was adapted into a Tamil-language film by Suhasini Maniratnam.
‘As writers, our job is to give, through individual lives of characters, the sense of a larger culture,’ said Divakaruni. Her stories are ultimately stories of human beings, whether mortal or divine. She weaves tales of conflict that aim at ending with compassion and understanding, because this is how she views her own journey through this puzzle we call life. On being called a ‘fearless writer’, she claimed that she was not fearless; it is only occasionally that one needs to ‘push through the fear’. Her impetus to write is as simple as it is moving: ‘there are simply too many stories that need to be told.’
Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor