‘I am obsessed with India and its complexities,' Indian-American author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
The author shares why it is important to tell the stories from women’s perspective
If there’s one author who reintroduced the Indian epics from the perspective of its female protagonists to the world, it has to be Indian-American author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Writing about strong, complex, and sometimes flawed women has been an essential part of
Chitra Banerjee’s books. Her female protagonists inspire readers and break stereotypes about women across the country.
Her characters like Draupadi and Sita from The Palace of Illusions, and The Forest of Enchantments spotlight women who weren’t given much space in the old stories. She celebrates these women in their life’s most dramatic and tragic moments.
While Indian history and epics hold a strong space in Chitra Banerjee’s books, her earlier works — Mistress of Spices, Queen of Dream, Unknown Errors of Our Lives, One Amazing Thing, and Before We Visit the Goddess are largely set in the USA and deal with issues of immigrant life.
The author released her 15th book, Independence: A Novel, last year, which tells a story of three sisters caught up in events beyond their control, their unbreakable bond and their struggles against odds during the partition of British India in 1947. She was recently in India at Jaipur Literature Festival where she squeezed in an interview with The Free Press Journal. She discussed women in her novels, writing process, her perception of India as an immigrant, and why it is important to tell stories from women’s perspective.
Excerpts from an interview:
What inspired Independence and The Last Queen?
I was inspired to write The Last Queen after I saw a copy of a painting of Maharani Jindan, the last queen of Punjab who is the heroine of my novel. Her face was beautiful, marked by strength, courage, suffering and stoicism. I knew she had a story, and I was determined to unearth it. Her story, ending with the British having taken away her kingdom through treachery, left me sad and angry. It made me determined to write a novel where Indians triumph over the British and force them to leave the country. Where India becomes a free nation. That became Independence.
Writing involves first or second-hand accounts and a lot of imagination, what is your process for writing a novel?
I have a different process with each novel. Contemporary novels require a great deal of observation and eavesdropping. Historical novels such as Independence require thorough library research. I used history books, old accounts from the 1940s, newspapers and photographs, political speeches and diaries, and contemporary songs. I wove into the book stories my mother and grandfather had told me about the freedom struggle.
You have been attending Jaipur Literature Festival quite often, how do you see literary festivals helping shape the literature and reading habits today?
It is wonderful what the lit fests, especially the JLF, have done. They have created a venue and invited readers to experience a wealth of writers and writing and important social and philosophical ideas, among other things. They have created exciting events where readers and writers can interact and where a reader can learn about a writer’s process and their intention in creating a work. They have brought great books to public attention and strengthened the reading habits of the country. It is wonderful, particularly, to see young people attending sessions with enthusiasm and buying books and standing in long lines to get them signed. I am full of admiration.
Your books are in-depth and research-based with interesting titles. How do you decide on them?
Usually, when I am halfway through a novel, I understand its purpose and the title comes to me in a flash of inspiration. It is quite a mysterious process.
How were you introduced to Indian mythology and want prompted you to tell stories from a woman’s point of view?
I was introduced to Indian mythology by my grandfather — he told me those wonderful stories when I was a child. But as I grew older, it struck me that the women characters, even though they were complex and strong and interesting, were always relegated to the edges of the narrative. It was frustrating. I wanted to understand these amazing women better — their thoughts, motivations, and feelings. So I decided to write my own version where Draupadi and Sita were centre-stage and spoke unapologetically in their own voice, expressed desire and frustration and anger when they needed to, and demanded to be heard.
How important is it to have mainstream novels that tell women’s stories from a woman’s perspective? Has Indian literature progressed in this sphere?
It is crucially important to tell women’s stories from a woman’s perspective — if only to correct the imbalance of centuries of women being interpreted by the male gaze. Happily, Indian literature has progressed a great deal in this regard in recent years. There are now many strong women’s voices being published, and they are being positively reviewed and read. But we still need more. More readers. More recognition. More men reading women’s stories. Looking at a recent top 10 fiction bestseller list, I noticed seven men — and only three women. So, yes, we need more!
You are an immigrant and have been living in the US for some time now. Has that changed the way you approach Indian characters and subjects, as opposed to a writer who lives in the country?
Yes, I am sure that has had an effect on me. Living at a distance, perhaps I am more obsessed with India. I cannot take it for granted. I am always watching, thinking, evaluating, appreciating, missing it, and trying to understand its long history and its deep complexity. I have certainly learned to value it more than when I lived in Kolkata as a college student—and also to see its issues and problems more clearly. I could not have written the books I’ve written except for this clarity of distance. However, there are powerful writers who live in India and write with intense truthfulness and courage about it; each of us is affected differently by our environment.
You have written on various subjects, starting from The Mistress of Spices bringing magical realism. What writing style do you hold close to?
My style changes at different phases of my writing. Currently, it is the historical style, realistic with detail but steeped in the life and customs of a different time period. Who knows what my writing future will hold?
Who are your favourite authors?
I love so many writers and have learned so much from them. I never went to a formal creative writing programme. The great books were my teachers. Some of my favourites are Tagore, whom I always go back to, Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Cristina Garcia, Mahasweta Devi, and Amitav Ghosh.
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