For many young women readers in India, the search for a writer who tells their stories is a continuous one. A writer whose stories may not necessarily make you travel the world while sitting on your bed, but one whose voice makes you feel closer to home, to family and to the shared memories you have with friends.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is one such writer whose stories make many feel just this. For over two decades now, she has been a fiercely powerful voice in the South Asian literary-scape, whose writing has been celebrated by thousands. With strong female protagonists and gripping stories about families, relationships and one’s belonging to their homeland; she has broken boundaries when it comes to depicting the seemingly banal in an extraordinary yet relatable manner.
Divakaruni is also one of the speakers at this year’s edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival. YKA found out more from the author of “The Mistress of Spices” and “Palace Of Illusions” about her plot-lines, what she thinks of social media, freedom of speech in present times, and more. Read on!
Lipi Mehta (LM): Your literary career is gloriously diverse and spans over 20 years. But with changing societal trends and diminishing reader attention spans, how have you personally seen your writing, characters or stories change or evolve?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (CBD): I have faith that in spite of all the changes you mention, there are serious and attentive readers everywhere. I feel my job is to continue writing the best stories and novels that I can. My belief is that if I can create captivating characters that readers relate to, they will be pulled into my books. I also try to write about themes that I feel are relevant in our changing modern world – and yet are timeless. For instance, my newest novel, “Before We Visit the Goddess”, is a novel about the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters and what they can learn from, and teach, each other. Palace of Illusions, on the other hand, takes Draupadi, a powerful character from one of our epics, the Mahabharat and gives her a contemporary and complex voice.
LM: Your book, “Palace of Illusions”, is a celebrated retelling of the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s perspective. You’ve also spoken about working on a book that will narrate the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective. Why are these retellings important for the 21st-century reader and what’s your view of how female voices have been represented in our epics?
CBD: The epics continue to be as powerful, if not more, in our time – perhaps because so many other things in Indian society and global society are changing, shifting, and breaking down. Epics such as the Ramayan and Mahabharat touch us deep in our souls, because they deal with timeless ethical issues. It is particularly important, for me, to reinterpret these epics in a way that highlights the women characters, who have so often been neglected in the original tellings. These major women characters and how they have been interpreted by society since the original Ramayan and Mahabharat were written have shaped the psyche of Indians and diasporic Indians and often contributed to our attitude towards women. (Sometimes these attitudes are negative or stifling towards women and put an unfair burden on them to be “perfect”). It is important to re-examine these powerful characters and thus re-examine what we feel about the lives of women, the rights of women, and the value of women in our society.
LM: The protagonist of “The Mistress of Spices”, Tilo, has been written as what many might call the stereotype of “exotic” and “unattainable”. Why was this so, and would you write her in any different way today?
CBD: I think sometimes people have misunderstood the character of Tilo in the “Mistress of Spices” and the way in which magical realist novels work. She is a mythic character (from the island of spices) who finds herself transported into inner-city America, into an environment where immigrants and minorities undergo many real-life problems such as racism, domestic violence, and intergenerational conflicts based on cultural differences that I wanted to examine through the vehicle of magical realism. I drew heavily on Indian folklore to create the magical parts of the story, such as the fact that in exchange for her powers as a Mistress of Spices, Tilo has had to give up the right to fall in love. I would write the novel the same way today. If I were to write it again – but perhaps I would put in a forward about the literary genres that I was drawing upon.
LM: Your plotlines are empowering and heavily focus on the relationships between mothers, daughters and sisters. Is this a conscious decision, and if yes, why?
CBD: I love writing about women. I feel a great need to write their stories and to place them in the center of the canvas, giving voice to their desires, pains, joys and hopes. So yes, this is a conscious decision – perhaps because for many centuries women have been relegated to the sidelines of fiction.
LM: You are very active on Twitter and interact with so many of your readers directly. What does being active on social media mean for you as a writer and how important do you think it is for other writers to be on it? Also, what’s your view on byte-sized fiction or storytelling in 140 characters?
CBD: I love using social media, both Facebook and Twitter, to connect with readers from all over the world. It is a great way for me to be in touch with people I would never have met otherwise. It is important for me to know what readers are getting from my books and their responses to my characters and themes. Each writer, of course, must make his or her own decision about the social media. The danger of social media is that if you aren’t careful, it can cut into your writing time! I have really enjoyed reading byte sized fiction– it has its own place in writing. Of course, one cannot expect it to deliver the same kind of effect that a complete story or novel would.
LM: When it comes to challenging the state and asserting their freedom of speech in India, how difficult do you think it is for women? Is the criticism or backlash more?
CBD: I think it is fairly difficult. Some of it depends on whether the women come from a privileged sector of society, and how much power they have. Women who are financially challenged or not well-connected have always had a difficult time. I am glad to see many more women’s groups speaking up in India. There seems to be more overall support for women.
LM: As a reader, what are some of your favourite moments or things about the simple and joyous activity of reading? Is it an ‘activity’ for you, or something else?
CBD: I love reading. In fact, I have to read a little bit every day. Otherwise, I feel something is missing from my life. I read in three kinds of ways: One is purely for enjoyment – I will read mystery novels or thrillers. One is to read serious books for information – I read nonfiction for that. One is to learn as a writer – that’s when I read literary novelists.
LM: Finally, there are so many female South Asian writers whose work hasn’t reached as many people as it should. For the many interested readers on YKA, which books and authors would you recommend?
CBD: Your readers may already be familiar with some of these writers, whom I admire for many reasons: Any fiction by these authors would be worth picking up: Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Mahasweta Devi, Deepa Agrawal, Arundhati Roy, Lavanya Sankaran.