Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – who lives in the US – is back with a new novel, Before We Visit The Goddess. Among her most successful earlier novels are Mistress of Spices and Palace of Illusions. Excerpts from an interview with the author.
Before We Visit The Goddess is a story about three generations of women. You’ve written about sisters before. What is it about families that interests you as a fiction writer? How did this story come to you?
I grew up in a home and a culture where family was very important. My happiest childhood memories are of summers I spent at my grandfather’s country home with my cousins. When I moved to America to go to college, I felt as though I’d lost all my family. And in a way, I had.
My grandfather died soon after – I never got to see him again. My parents separated, which was very painful. More so because I could not be with my mother at the time. By the time I had enough money for a trip back to India, my cousins had changed, or perhaps I had, so that there was a huge gulf between us. And though I loved many things about America and overall loved being here, I was lonely with these losses.
I thought a lot about family even while I appreciated my newfound independence. It created a dichotomy of sorts within me. Perhaps that’s why my writing goes back over and over to examining different kinds of families, families with their loves and their demands, families that are wonderful and exhausting all at once. The family and how the individual desires it and yet pulls away from it.
The three women are Sabitri, Bela, Tara. Do you have a favourite? Or someone you identify most closely with?
Not really. I identified with each character as I wrote from her point of view. At that moment, I had to be totally in sympathy with her goals, desires, battles. This was important because sometimes the characters are in conflict with each other, and giving myself totally to each woman’s voice and vision allowed me to create a certain kind of complexity and irony in the text.
In what way is this new book different from the others you’ve written?
I have never before written a novel in stories. I love this form, which seems to take the best of both: It has the amplitude of the novel and the sharp imagistic focus of short fiction. It is a wonderfully agile form. It is possible to leap over years – three generations, in this case – in this form in a way that would be awkward for me in a novel. I hope I’ve done justice to it.
What was the process of writing linked stories like?
With writing linked stories, the challenge was to conceive of the overall arc, then decide which moments were best suited to amplification, and who should tell the story at that moment. I’m particularly happy that some of the stories are from the point of view of the men who are important in the lives of the three women. This challenged me to create very different voices and different viewpoints which allow the reader to glimpse areas of these women’s lives they would not have seen otherwise.
How did you come up with the title? What is its significance in the book?
The title is actually the title of one of the short stories that hinges on a transformative moment in the life of Tara, the granddaughter, who is herself named after a goddess. In this story, she visits the Goddess Meenakshi temple in Houston, so there’s a literal meaning. But for me, the more metaphoric meaning is that before we can access the goddess who lives inside each one of us, we need to mature in certain ways, to understand our own lives and the lives of those around us. We need to understand what it means to be a good woman, a good human being. We need to learn compassion and forgiveness. That, in a deep, inner sense is the true meaning of success. That is what each of these characters must attempt.
You began writing about Indian immigrants in the US more than two decades ago. How has life changed for Indian immigrants now? And how has your fiction about them changed?
Life has changed enormously for Indian immigrants since I wrote Arranged Marriage. For one thing, they are not as isolated from India. Going back and forth is more common. And because of the Internet and the ease of phoning, you don’t feel as cut off from people back in India.
Most immigrants coming over already have a network here. Many of them are in technology, which means they come with work visas and are financially better off than we were when we came with the infamous eight dollars in our pocket!
Hindi TV channels are available so people here can enjoy the same movies and shows. Shops, restaurants, yoga classes taught by Indians, temples, groceries – everything is easily available, at least in major urban areas. There is a huge Indian American community in Sugar Land where I live.
So this is the reality I try to portray in my books now. How, within this changed immigrant reality, drama and heartbreak and joy take their unique shape. What these new families are like. Who are the children that we have raised in America, and what are their challenges?
You left India a long time ago now and things have been transformed greatly. When you return to India for brief spells, what do you find the most strange or interesting?
So many things – it’s hard to point to one. The new affluence in certain middle class circles, certainly. The lavish spending, the casual use of name brands. The malls, the burgeoning consumerism. But also wonderful strides – particularly for women, although recent violent episodes show there’s a long way to go. India is a global player now, and that’s exhilarating. And it’s such a young country – there are so many young people there, compared to an aging America.
India now has an interesting and complicated love-hate relationship with America. But also this: in certain places, very little has changed. When I go back to the old part of Kolkata where my mother lived, with the older flats occupied by older residents, it’s so much like when it was when I lived there. That’s amazing in a whole different way.
Related to the last question, are there any challenges of writing about life in India for you now? And how do you address these?
Yes of course – it’s a great challenge to write about a place in which one is not living now. I need to research and observe very carefully when I visit. I need to read literature about contemporary India. I need to try and feel the pulse of how people are thinking – that’s the toughest.
Of all your books, both for adults and children, which one is your favourite?
That’s like asking which one of my children is my favourite! I’ll say to you what I say to my boys: I love them equally, but in different ways! I worked equally hard on all of them. Perhaps I have a special soft corner in my heart for Palace of Illusions, based on Draupadi from the Mahabharata, because I love mythology, and the Indian epics are so rich, timeless and thought provoking.
What comes next?
I’m always looking for a new challenge, so my novel-in-progress is a murder mystery! And after that, a novel on Sita, based on my interpretation of the Ramayana.
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