I Wanted To Show That Sita Is Deep & Strong: Chitra B Divakaruni
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest book The Forest of Enchantments offers Sita’s version of The Ramayana. In this profound retelling, she places Sita at the centre of the story. In a Twitter chat by SheThePeople.TV, Chitra B. Divakaruni answered several questions, put up by the Twitterati and readers, about her book The Forest of Enchantments, her female characters, writing mythology, her inspiration, and more. Here are some key takeaways.
How did emigrating contribute to your emergence as a writer?
Being away from India made me appreciate my culture more and also see it with a clearer eye. It made me want to write about it.
You have rewritten the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective in The Palace of Illusions. Tell us about the journey of writing Sita’s story in your latest book.
Sita’s story was very challenging to write. There are so many patriarchal assumptions and misconceptions about her meekness and long-suffering acceptance. I wanted to show that she is deep and strong.
Your Sita is the one closest to the one in my imagination – calm yet firm, quiet but not meek. That said, if I had one complaint, it would be that she’s too zen, too empathetic, unnaturally so – even towards Ravan.
What can I say–she is an evolved soul! She has moments of deep, burning anger–towards Ram, Ravan, Soorpanakha, Kaikeyi. But she knows that ultimately our anger hurts us the most.
Sita is often portrayed as a weeping, enfeebled woman. At other times, she is the single, empowered mother who made informed choices. Who is your Sita?
Definitely the strong, single empowered mother. Though she has her tragic moments of heartbreak–like many of us.
I wanted to show that Sita is deep and strong.
How would you say you project women in your books? Do women have to be heroines? And not villains?
My women characters are complex and a mixture of positives and negatives, just like women in real life. Even Sita and Panchaali are this way.
My women characters are complex and a mixture of positives and negatives, just like women in real life.
Your books have strong female characters, often going through different and difficult experiences. How much of the activist in you is seen in your books?
I think my deep concern with women’s issues shows in my books. I hope it expresses naturally through my characters’ lives and concerns because otherwise the art would be lost.
When you write a character from mythology in the current times, what do you feel we can learn from their lives and their strengths?
Each one is different. But Sita, for instance, teaches us to stand up for our rights without hating those who are causing us pain. She is a very mature character.
Indian portrayal of women historically has been very unidimensional, lacking nuance, complexity or layers. Is this a reflection of societal impressions or just lazy writing?
I think it is more a case of a patriarchal lens. Many ancient writers were very gifted, Valmiki for instance. But they were more interested in men. I’m trying to right that balance through books like these.
I know the responses from women, I wonder how men reading the Palace of Illusions and Forest of Enchantments have responded and connected with your books?
I have been touched and delighted by the positive responses of many young men who bought these books to read with their mothers or girlfriends.
For someone who is starting to read your works, what would you say is the best first book of yours to pick?
Start with reading The Forest of Enchantments. I think it’s my best book so far. I hope readers will agree.
Do you have an interest in writing epics of women who build the 21st century?
Yes, I am working now on a historical novel with a strong woman who fights the British.
Your book characters are strong and depict a common behaviour. Like, how illogical sometimes we become in love and anger. Do you also take inspiration from women around you and rope the stories in your novel?
It is important to show women as human and not perfect. We need to be appreciated as we are. That is why Sita and Panchaali in my books have their faults as well as their strengths.
It is important to show women as human and not perfect.
Why do you think the readers yearn for a retelling of old mythological tales today?
There are deep archetypal truths in myths and epics. Plus, the characters are deep and complex and we can see ourselves in them and learn from them.
Do you feel your childhood experiences have a major impact on your way of storytelling and writing?
Yes, my grandfather told me all the epic stories and also folktales from Bengal. This has influenced all my books, especially The Palace of Illusions and The Forest of Enchantments. Also, my mother was a strong woman who underwent many difficulties. She became a role model for my life and my writing The Forest of Enchantments.
How do women react to the various female characters in your book?
Women of different generations have been so positive, especially to Panchaali in Palace of Illusions and already to Sita in The Forest of Enchantments. And, also to Sister of My Heart.
Social Media is both – a boon and a bane for a writer. What is your take on this?
I love social media because it helps me connect to readers. It’s like chocolate, though. Good in small doses! Otherwise, I’d never get to my writing.
Social media is like chocolate – good in small doses.
What’s your writing process like? How many hours in a day do you devote to writing?
On good days, I write for several hours. I set aside several days a week to write. Sometimes, I’m blocked and have to work through it by lots of outlining and free writing.
How do you think women writers can break the unconscious gender bias that comes from readers?
It is tough. I ask men readers to broaden their scope. Read for deeper understanding, not just entertainment. Women–please share women’s books with the men in your lives and discuss them.
Women–please share women’s books with the men in your lives and discuss them.
How can we read more women, promote more women authors and encourage more women to write their stories?
This chat is a great way to start–it raises awareness of what’s out there. Also, I like gifting my favourite books by women to friends. Bloggers can help by reviewing more women.