Tales of heritage that sweep across generations and continents | brunch$feature | Hindustan Times
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Tales of heritage that sweep across generations and continents

In her latest novel Before We Visit The Goddess, award-winning author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni explores the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, and the significance of heritage

brunch Updated: Feb 20, 2017 19:31 IST
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni reading out from her novel at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet in January
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni reading out from her novel at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet in January

When Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s mother passed away a few years ago, the author began thinking about motherhood and daughterhood, and the idea of heritage – what her mother had passed on to her and that she was now passing on to her sons. The reflections led her to the characters of her latest, Before We Visit The Goddess, released last year to much critical acclaim. “I wanted to write a three-generational story, where we see heritage being passed on and how that changes through immigration,” she says. The author was in the country on a promotional tour, and was a panelist at the recently concluded Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet.

Before We Visit The Goddess traces the story of three generations of Indian women – Sabitri is the daughter of a poor sweet-maker in Bengal whose daughter Bela, haunted by her mother’s choices, flees to America with her political refugee lover; Bela unwittingly ends up influencing her own daughter Tara’s worldview. Divakaruni says that with the story, she wanted to depict the challenges of each generation, and also question what makes a woman successful. “What are the prices women have to pay for success? Does it change from generation to generation? From continent to continent? These are all questions my mother and I used to discuss a lot when she was alive,” she says.

Divakaruni’s own mother has been a huge influence in her life – she brought her and her younger brothers up as a single parent, which later made the author realise how difficult her mother’s life was. “I saw a lot in her that I admired, but I also became aware of so many ways in which women are restricted in society.” She adds that her mother encouraged and empowered her so she had a career and creative fulfillment, both things that she could not have. The strains of this relationship ended up influencing the characters in Before We Visit… “We both were strong characters and often had arguments. In the book too, the mother-daughter relationships are complicated and sometimes, they move away from each other. But they do come back to each other because there’s a strong bond of love,” she adds.

The immigrant song

Like many of her previous novels (Queen of Dreams, One Amazing Thing, Oleander Girl) Before We Visit… also explores the immigrant narrative, a theme that seems to have become almost central to her work. Divakaruni is an immigrant herself – she moved to the US from Kolkata four decades ago and now lives and teaches in Texas. Writing about identity has always been important to her, and thus, percolates into her characters.“When I moved to America, my own identity kind of underwent a shock. I was living away from home for the first time, learning to be independent and really revising the definition of what it meant to be a woman, and a successful woman,” she says.

Divakaruni’s books have been translated into over 29 languages, and have also been adapted into a film (The Mistress of Spices), a Tamil TV series (Anbulla Snegithiye) and a play (a story from Arranged Marriage). Despite their perceptible cultural associations, what is it that makes her books have a global resonance? “I think it doesn’t necessarily matter what culture or social class they come from. In reading, we begin to share the same human experience. If you’re able to create characters that are complex, interesting and engaged in a struggle to gain what they desire, they resonate with many people,” says the writer, who counts Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Margaret Atwood and Maxine Hong Kingston among her literary influences.

A gender thing

Divakaruni, who also teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, is currently busy penning her next, a retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view. It’s something she’s immensely excited about, seen as it comes seven years after The Palace of Illusions, her book that achieved a cult status for its narration of Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective. “I think it’s very important to show Sita’s complexity and to put her in the centre of a narrative where she’s telling her own story. I want to complicate the notion of Sita as a compliant woman, which we’ve been given through popular culture,” she says.

Given the strong feminist streak in her works, what does she make of the recent women’s movements (Women’s March in the US and other countries/ I Will Go Out in India) we’re witnessing across the world? “It’s a very important time in world politics, where women have to assert the rights they already have and fight for the ones they want. It’s time to be aware and come together, because there’s strength in numbers and there’s strength in ‘marching together’, in a symbolic sense.”

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