The first thing that strikes you about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novels is that they unabashedly centre around the feminine experience. Whether it is the retelling of the Mahabharata through Draupadi’s gaze in The Palace of Illusions, or the magic realism of The Mistress of Spices, the emotional upheaval of Sister of my Heart, and her forthcoming retelling of the Ramayana, The Forest of Enchantments, focused on Sita, her writing has focused on the multi-layered experience of women’s lives from the subcontinent, whether mythical or immigrant, and her strong female characters have been positively received by both critics and readers.
A professor at the University of Houston, Texas, she has had her books being adapted to the big screen with The Mistress of Spices and Sister of my Heart, in The Mistress of Spices was shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize. She recently announced that The Palace of Illusions had also been snapped up for a screen adaptation.
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She extends her commitment to women and gender issues through the work she does with women’s groups that work with women in abusive domestic situations, she founded Maitri a non profit that works with abused women, she has also been on the board of Pratham, an organisation that works with underprivileged children in India. She’s served on the jury of many prestigious literary awards and won a number of awards herself, but she wears her distinctions lightly. SheThePeople.TV spoke with her on the women in her books, the power of storytelling, retelling mythology in a contemporary context, being a writer in a social media world and of course, her forthcoming book, The Forest of Enchantments and Sita’s version of the Ramayana.
When was it that you first realised the power of stories and storytelling? How did storytelling, the oral tradition of your childhood, impact the storytelling you do now?
I realised the power of storytelling while quite young–my grandfather was a wonderful and totally fascinating storyteller, and my favourite childhood memories are of the tales from our epics, myths and fairy tales and folktales he used to tell me. However, it would be many years before I thought I could try to write stories myself.
One of the most interesting things I’ve read in your interviews is that you say “Immigration made you a writer.” What was it about being an immigrant that manifested in you becoming a writer? Do you feel the immigrant writer brings a different gaze to the Indian experience, than a writer who is based in India?
For me, immigration gave me the necessary distance and perspective to view my culture and to think about it. Also, the very different kind of culture I experienced in the US allowed me to compare and contrast the two cultures. The tension between them helped me forge my first stories, which were published in the collection ‘Arranged Marriage’. Yes, I think because of the reasons I mentioned above, immigrant writers see things differently and focus on different things. That is not to say one is better than the other.
As a woman of the diaspora, writing about Indian women, do you feel a greater responsibility to present women who take on the patriarchy?
I am interested in presenting such struggles. They are powerful, dynamic, fraught with conflict, and sometimes tragic–and thus, a very good subject for fiction. I care about these issues, which adds a special incentive.
Presenting the Mahabharata from a female narrator’s perspective in The Palace of Illusions, that was as radical and subversive an act of challenging the patriarchal narrative all our mythology consists of. Why Draupadi as your primary narrator, given she’s a character who has, if anything, been vilified by the re-tellings as the cause of the great war?
I felt Draupadi was a timeless, very modern woman and thus the best choice, for me, for the narrator of the tale. Her perspective, I felt, would be unusual and hopefully make readers see things differently. Choosing her as the narrator made the writing more enjoyable and challenging for me. And I am totally grateful that readers have embraced the book and that it is taught in schools and colleges in so many cities in India. It makes me specially happy when young women write to me about how close they feel to Draupadi (or Panchaali as I call her.)
I felt Draupadi was a timeless, very modern woman and thus the best choice, for me, for the narrator of the tale.
And now your next is the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view. What is it about rewriting the epics through the female point of view that is the most challenging for you? What are the insights you come across while researching a character like Sita which might have got glossed over by the popular narrative?
I feel sad when I see that the powerful, dynamic stories of our epics have been “tamed” by popular narrative. The woman characters are the ones who suffer most in this transition. My project in writing my Sita novel, The Forest of Enchantments, is to give Sita back the power, charisma and courage–as well as the stubbornness and very human anger– she possesses in earlier texts such as Valmiki and Krittibas. My novel is a feminist retelling, yes, but I hope, first and foremost, that it’s a powerful story that readers will connect with and think about.
When you rework mythological characters, how difficult is it to contemporarise the characters with sensibilities in keeping with current times while simultaneously being true to the time and the cultural milieu they lived in? What are the debates within you as the one who moulds these characters?
It hasn’t been too difficult. I think the important thing is to choose characters that I feel are timeless anyway and therefore very relevant. And as for the cultural milieu, in many ways (except for in major cities and among educated classes) have things really changed that much for women where autonomy is concerned?
Your work is unapologetically feminist. You’ve said writing is activism. How do you see male readers reacting to your writing?
The kinds of men who are interested in picking up my books are generally open to my ideas, which are basically that women are complex beings and should be accepted and celebrated as such. They should be allowed to make the important choices in their lives and be supported so that they can grow to their full potential. Once in a while, I meet men who disagree or dislike the books, and I listen patiently while they vent, and at the end, I tell them they should write their own books on the subject!
Once in a while, I meet men who disagree or dislike the books, and I listen patiently while they vent, and at the end, I tell them they should write their own books on the subject!
In Before We Visit The Goddess, you draw on generations of women and how the lives of those gone by impact the lives of those living, and how the past always impinges on the present. What are the challenges you see the current generation of women face that perhaps previous generations faced as well, and what must we learn from them?
This is a very tough question – there are so many challenges. Perhaps one challenge is that women today, knowing more about the world, want more autonomy – and society doesn’t necessarily want to give that to them. So the challenge is how to make this happen, how to allow women the space to grow and fulfil their dreams without destroying age-old and valuable structures such as the family unit, which do require a great deal of sacrifice. I’m still working on that balance myself – there are no easy answers.
In The Mistress of Spices, you put a woman as a magical healer, through spices, and through her story you tell the stories of countless mothers in homes across the world who in their own way, use food and spice to heal their families, and nourish them. Or even the stories of witches, who use herbs to do their magic. What are the archetypal feminine narratives that you feel inform your writing?
I am very interested in tales of healing, and of the woman healer as you rightly point out. Many folktales in India have wise older women at their centers – these women solve problems of various kinds and are powerful in unusual ways. So the narrative of the wisewoman/grandmother/crone is one I am very interested in. These characters appear over and over in my books–but hopefully in very different kinds of situations!
You have always been socially conscious and activism has been a part of your journey apart from your writing. Tell us about Maitri, the non profit you founded. What made you found it, what is the ambit of the work it does, as also Daya, where you are on the board? Also how do these experiences percolate into your creative work?
I have tried to incorporate working with women and children into my life since my college days in India, when I volunteered in Mother Teresa’s orphanage, Shishu Bhavan, in Kolkata. Maitri and Daya both work with women in domestic violence situations, and also victims of other abuse and of trafficking. I also work with Pratham, which brings education and vocational training to underprivileged children and youth. These themes make their way into my writing indirectly as I portray a character’s desire to live a better life, to overcome obstacles, to stand on his/her own feet and to be accepted as him/herself. Lately, I find myself writing a good amount from the point of view of men who are marginalized. Thus my last novel, Before We Visit the Goddess, has, in addition to the three women narrators–grandmother, mother and daughter – a gay man, an orphan boy who will later become an illegal immigrant, and an old man who has never married and lives frugally in his one-room flat.
Do you think we celebrate the quotidian enough in the literature of today, the everyday stories that we live and see around us?
I think there are many books that still do so, although they present the quotidian in very different ways, as in Mahasweta Devi’s powerful and heartbreaking stories of women, the layered work of Anita Desai, Anuja Chauhan’s fun adventures, or Aravind Adiga’s biting The White Tiger, or Jeet Thayil’s hallucinatory Narcopolis. But there’s space in literature for all kinds of books which we enjoy when in different moods. And thus the resurgence of the epic and the mythical in India today.
There’s space in literature for all kinds of books which we enjoy when in different moods. And thus the resurgence of the epic and the mythical in India today.
And finally, how important is it, as a writer to believe in self preservation in this age of social media and 24×7 accessibility. How do you deal with it?
As you know, I’m fairly active on social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, where I have a public page and welcome readers to write to me. It gives me a great opportunity to let people know my book-news and also to connect to readers from all over the world. But I strictly limit my time on social media. 30 minutes a day max, and then I close the tabs!
I strictly limit my time on social media. 30 minutes a day max, and then I close the tabs!
I believe strongly in self-preservation for artists. Otherwise we can burn out real fast. Some things I do for that: I socialize minimally and watch hardly any TV. I get all my news from trusted newspaper sites, and thus save myself a lot of time and frustration. I don’t get involved in gossip, although I keep my ears open (it’s a good source of stories!) I try not to create unnecessary drama in my life. (That way, I can focus my energies on drama in my books!) Family time is one of my favorite things. I also love being by myself. I read every day, both for fun and to learn writing skills. I try, when possible, to help people that the universe puts in my orbit. And finally, I try to meditate every day. It keeps me sane and in touch with the Source–I strongly believe that is where Creativity comes from.
Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV
Feature Image Credit: Facebook/Chitradivakaruni