Men have always had the advantage of being able to tell their own story. And this has remained the general literary custom for the longest time. That male writers win more prestigious literary awards than female writers worldwide, is by now an unsurprising, but acknowledged fact.
As a culture, we still seem to be predominantly concerned with the lives of men or in themes perceived more “masculine” or “worldly”, while women’s work seems to be relegated to the space of the domestic, and the private.
Today, many women authors have been trying to change this, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni definitely stands out as someone who has done that through her work. Fueled by her own experiences as a first-generation immigrant, and a woman between cultures and traditions, Divakaruni’s books are known not only for their masterful writing, but also for their portrayal of strong women characters.
In an interview with Youth Ki Awaaz, Divakaruni talks about why putting women at the centre of the story is still risky business, the power women can draw from mythology, and her new book – The Forest Of Enchantments, Under the Sorrow Tree — a retelling of the Ramayana through Sita’s eyes.
Shikha Sharma (SS): All your stories centre around strong, interesting women. Do you think that even though we are in the 21st century, the act of putting a woman at the centre of a story is still considered a radical act?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (CBD): I personally feel it is quite natural, but from comments I get, it seems that many feel it is quite radical. But why should it be? No one thinks it is radical to place a man at the centre of a story!
SS: Is it risky business to be doing it? And if not today, was it risky to be doing this when you were starting out?
CBD: Yes, it is risky, then and now. More now, I think, because of social media, where people feel they can say anything without accountability. But really when you read my books, especially my recent ones, you will see it’s not as though it is a battle between men and women. It is just that I am interested in women narrators describing their own lives, their own emotions, and how they feel about their condition in the world. I hope my male characters are complex and nuanced. I’ve certainly tried to make them that way in The Forest of Enchantments.
SS: Your recent book Forest of Enchantments is a retelling of Sita’s story, as well as other women characters in the Ramayana. Could you tell us your inspiration for writing this book?
CBD: I have been wanting to write this book for a long time, ever since I wrote the Palace of Illusions. Because the Ramayan is our other great epic, and I wanted to retell that story, too, from a woman’s viewpoint. I felt that was really important because the popular interpretations of the Ramayana are from a rather patriarchal point of view.
SS: In the Palace of Illusions, you gave voice to Draupadi, and through this book, you bring Sita to life. What were the similarities/differences in your approach to re-creating these characters? And in your mind, how do the two differ?
CBD: To me, Draupadi and Sita are two ends of a spectrum. They are both strong characters who face immense hardships and triumph over them in different ways. But whereas Draupadi, especially in the beginning, is very feisty and rebellious, Sita is strong in a more mature, thoughtful manner. Negotiating husband-wife relationships is important to Draupadi in Palace of Illusions, and this makes her very contemporary. Motherhood –especially being a single parent—shapes Sita and this is an aspect of her life that many women today can relate to.
SS: What power can women draw from reading mythology?
CBD: The stories in our epics and myths deal with important human conditions and situations. These stories are evergreen. Reading them, and especially focusing on their strong, complex heroines, gives us a sense of our own place in the world, our own complexities, and our potential. And our spiritual selves.
SS: You always give your readers a strong sense of place, be it through imagery, scents, music. Could you tell us how you achieve this and why you think it is important to storytelling?
CBD: I love places. I think it can be symbolic and express many things about characters if used well. Draupadi’s longing for a palace of her own tells us a lot about her, and it also sets major events in motion. In the end, she must learn to discover her palace within herself. Sita’s love of forests and the animals that live in them tells us a lot about her nature. The forest will also sustain her in her darkest hours.
SS: If you were stranded on a deserted island and could pick one book, one character from your books, and one famous author of your choice to bring along, who and what would you bring?
CBD: I think I would bring the Mistress of Spices from my first novel, because she has magic powers and can get us what we would need on a desert island! Tagore has always fascinated me—he would be the one I would pick. One book—that’s the hardest. I think I would choose the Bhagavad Gita, because in all my difficulties, whenever I’ve turned to it, I’ve found answers.
SS: Of all your novels, which has been the one which is closest to your heart? Which was the one which was easiest to write? Which was the one which you had to struggle with? And why?
CBD: The Forest of Enchantments is the closest to my heart because I’ve been thinking so much about it for the last few years. It was also the hardest to write because it was a big and daunting task, and I wanted to get the character of Sita, whom I revered, just right. No book is ever really easy to write, at least for me. But maybe The Mistress of Spices was relatively the easiest. The ideas in that book came to me after I had a near-death experience, and they seemed to flow from some mysterious source.