Author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s books have always been inhabited by strong, independent women. Now, she asks how much of that is derived from their milieu
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (60) has written 17 books over 20 years. But it’s The Palace of Illusions — her 2008 novel which narrates the Mahabharat through Draupadi’s eyes — that enjoys cult status even today. The India-born, Texas-based author admits that this story has had “the most resonance with Indian readers”.
Her latest novel — Before We Visit the Goddess — is a tale spanning three generations: a grandmother, a mother and a daughter. The novel, which released on April 15, follows their lives from a small village in Bengal all the way to Texas. “I am aware of the generational flow — I have two sons who are in their twenties, and my dear mother passed away a few years back. So, I wanted to explore what it is that we pass on from one generation to another: the good things, but also the negative conditioning. What are our familial legacies?”
While Divakaruni’s protagonists are strong women who speak their minds, the book revolves around a common question: what makes a woman successful? And, does the definition of success change depending on when or where you live? “I feel strongly about women’s empowerment. One of the epigraphs of Before We Visit the Goddess is from the Manusmriti (the laws of Manu; a code of conduct): Yatra naryastu pujyante, ramante tatra devata (where women are honoured, there the gods are happy). I really believe this sentence hits upon something crucial about society and life,” she says.
Before We… marks a first for the award-winning author as she has never before written a novel-in-stories (interconnected short stories). “I love the form because it is so agile — you can skip from one important moment in the life of a character to another crucial one, and yet there is the power and expanse of a novel in it,” she says.
In the past, she has explored other forms of literature as well and has penned poetry, short stories and a children’s picture book.
How America changed her
Divakaruni moved from Calcutta to Ohio in 1976 to do a Master’s degree in English from Wright State University in Dayton. She later did her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. The move changed her perspective on life. “I began to appreciate many things I had taken for granted while living in India. I also began to question the traditional or repressive views about women. I could see what a powerful effect immigration has on the lives of people, as well as how immigrants are changing the landscape of America. That led to my poems, and then my first collection of stories — Arranged Marriage,” she says.
Her observations and experiences as an immigrant often reflect in her works, though she insists her books are not autobiographical.
As a student in America, Divakaruni did her fair share of odd jobs to save money for college: she’s been a babysitter, a worker in a bakery, a lab cleaner, and a kitchen worker at International House at the University of California.
“All these jobs made me respect labour and also made me aware of the hardship of living such a life. Many of my characters go through hard times and are involved in odd jobs as they struggle through situations of financial and emotional difficulty. My own hardships have made me more sympathetic to writing about such times,” Divakaruni shares.
Next project: Ramayan
Divakaruni is currently working on a mystery novel and researching a novel on Sita. For the latter, she is busy reading mythology. “For Palace of Illusions, I read many versions of the Mahabharat before I wrote a single word. I also read critical studies of the epic and modern novels that were written on it. I am doing the same right now with the Ramayan,” she says.
When she’s not writing, Divakaruni teaches a creative writing program at the University of Houston and is involved with organisations that help South Asian American women who have faced domestic abuse.
Heads up: fans of her work can meet the author who is heading to Mumbai in January 2017. It’s a trip that she is looking forward to, as she considers both America and India to be home. “I love them and they inspire me differently. But as I get older, I feel more and more that my true home is the internal, spiritual one,” she says.
Before We Visit the Goddess, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Simon and Schuster, Rs499