Author of Palace of Illusions and Mistress of Spices among many other bestselling books, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is one of the most noted storytellers of Indian origin. When in the institute recently to give an EML, The Fifth Estate took the opportunity to interview her about her work and future novels.
I have read that you love multicultural authors. Being one yourself, what kind of a vantage point or lens does it provide?
What I have really enjoyed as I have read and studied multi-cultural authors is that they see the world in a slightly different way because they come from different cultures. When we read their books, our own narrow interpretations of what literature must be breaks down and we see that it is possible to tell a story in several other ways. The hero need not always be the hero. We learn to do things differently. While that is one thing, we also become aware of our common humanity when we pick out books of alien themes. We are learning about cultures and different ways of storytelling. What we see ultimately is just the human experience. Reading writers from many cultures opens up our minds and makes us more empathetic human being and that is great – particularly in this global world. If we are not going to be empathetic, we are going to destroy each other.
You have said that “writing what we know can become restrictive” in the Readers’ Digest piece on writing from the point of view of characters of the opposite gender. Your process of understanding men and male characters is quite fascinating. Forgive me if the question is redundant, but have you considered writing from the point of view of a transgender or a gender fluid/confused person?
In my newest book, Before We Visit the Goddess, I have written about gay and lesbian characters. I am moving into that area. And who knows what will be the process in the future? I have to feel a character before I can write a character. In The Palace of Illusions, I do have a transgender character. As with all of writing, I have to be able to imagine the character. I imagined how it was for the character who was Amba in a previous life to become Shikandi in the next. In this case, through the process of Tapasya, she transformed herself into a transgendered person. It is just fascinating that our ancient scriptures have these characters and they do not make a big deal of it. They just exist. They are a part of humanity as far as they are concerned.
You write fiction, short fiction and poetry and your recent book is a novel-in-stories. Do you see yourself playing with the form of the novel in the future?
I always have to see what feels right for a particular book. I do not want to experiment just for the process of experimentation because then that does not make much sense. In Before We Visit the Goddess, I felt that I wanted a novel-in-stories because I wanted three generations. But I did not want a long, drawn-out tale. I wanted to focus on really important, emotionally resonant moments. And I felt that that would be the way to bring out how these lives have changed – how these three generations of women are different from each other, yet similar to each other; how they disconnect from each other and yet ultimately need to connect back to each other.
The Palace of Illusions is a fascinating retelling of the Mahabharat. But that also raises questions about the creative freedom of an author who is seeking to retell with additions and omissions an age-old epic. Where do such retellings position you – as an author in your own right or as a translator of sorts?
I feel happy that I belong to this age-old tradition. I am certainly not the first person who has revised or reworked the Mahabharat. Many Mahabharats and even more Ramayans have been written. Not only the new retellings, like Mrityunjaya or Yagnaseni, but so many Mahabharats have been written down the ages. One of my major sources was Kashiram Das who wrote the Bengali Mahabharat several centuries back. I think our culture originally is a very healthy one where many retellings are permitted, even embraced. And so, I think that this is a way to keep the epics alive and relevant to our times. Each one retells the story in a way that makes it relevant to his or her times. That is what I was going for with Palace of Illusions. I am now writing a novel on Sita, hoping to do the same thing.
How did the love story between Draupadi and Karna come to you?
There are many hints of that in several of the Mahabharats and in several of the novelistic interpretations. Even in the original Vyasa Mahabharat, from Karna’s side there is always an attraction towards Draupadi and it seems to me very appropriate that Draupadi should also have such a feeling for Karna because she sees him at the Swayamwar when she thinks the Pandavas are dead. As far as she is concerned, he is the great hero. Obviously there is a connection and he has come there to try for her hand. Due to many circumstances, that does not happen, but the impact on the mind is still left. I took it imaginatively from there. The attraction is always there, but being righteous people, they do not do anything that they should not do. But that love is there and beyond death it continues.
As you mentioned, you are now working on a retelling of Ramayana from Sita’s point of view as a companion piece to The Palace of Illusions. Sita is the ideal wife while Draupadi is a name that no one gives their child. While a contemporary retelling of Draupadi is impactful and gives her a voice that leaves every reader enraged by the end of the book, what emotion can Sita’s voice stir?
I want to show – by doing careful research on many available sources and my own understanding of the character – that the popular belief of Sita as the docile wife is not accurate. When we go back to Ramayan – the Valmiki one as well as the many retellings – we see a much more powerful and assertive Sita than popular culture has led us to believe. And so, when popular culture tells us to be like Sita, it refers to this docile interpretation. But the original Ramayan does not show us a Sita like that. It shows us a Sita who is very strong. In my novella, I hope to bring out the Sita who is strong and show that when Indian women are told that they should be like Sita, what it means is completely different.
Your books have strongly scripted women and mothers. India has always had the tradition of worshipping women as mothers. Ram is Prabhu while Sita is Mata. From Goddesses to the country to cows, the female figure is worshipped and preserved as the mother. What is your take on this obsession with the female figure as motherly?
It is wonderful to appreciate and respect and bear appropriate to worship the female figure as mother. It should not just stop there because that is not healthy for a culture. We should also appreciate the woman in her many roles, so that we tell women that there are many wonderful ways of fulfilling one’s self and destiny. We should celebrate the woman in her family roles, but also as a CEO, professor, student, soldier, police woman and in all kinds of roles. There is no end to what a woman can be. If you go back to seeing the woman as Goddess, the Goddess also plays many roles. She is not just a mother.
Tell us about your new book – Before We Visit the Goddess.
I am very excited about this book. I have worked very hard on it. Stylistically and in terms of art, it is probably my best one because I have tried some very different things and worked very hard on telling the novel in stories and showing three women’s lives from male and female viewpoints. Some parts of their story are told by men who are close to them and that allows us an ironic and different look into their lives. When I am doing something, I think I understand why I am doing it, but someone who is watching me do it might see something quite different. This is a three-generational tale – grandmother, mother and daughter – and a transcontinental tale that moves from India to America. It questions what heritage means in this very fluid, global world and questions what it means for a woman to be successful and whether a woman has a price to pay for it. Do these things change from generation to generation or are women still struggling with some of the same issues?
Personal favorite of your works?
Before We Visit the Goddess
Prose or poetry?
Duryodana or Raavan?
Draupadi or Sita?
Chocolate Sandesh or Fluffy Omelettes?
Chocolate Sandesh (Read Before We Visit the Goddess to find out why)