As someone who has been in awe of her writing, I hadn’t expected to be instantly charmed by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. But as we sit down for an interview, I find her warm, kind and polite, wearing her literary celebrity status lightly. She attends to a fan just before we begin talking, introduces me to her husband who is sitting close by, and turns to me with a smile, making a quick joke about motherhood teaching her how to multitask.
She talks about how all her books – with their many traditional characters, and indeed, the more unconventional ones – remain relevant, and how she reimagines their stereotypical roles while making them “unapologetically complicated.” Every generation of women did, and continue to, have its own set of challenges, she observes, and what is important is to listen to each other’s stories in order to be more compassionate.
She also reveals details about her next writing project, on Sita, where she will counter the patriarchal spin to the “demure” wife of Ram that has been pushed onto women for centuries.
All your stories centre around very strong, very interesting women, even if these characters may not be as radical as modern readers might hope, because they are products of their times.
Yes, they have to be realistic.
But you think the very act of putting a woman at the centre of the story is a radical act?
I think so. And not only putting them at the centre of their stories but making them unapologetically complicated. They don’t have to be good women to be the hero of a story: she just has to be an interesting woman dealing with complex issues.
I felt that a lot when I was growing up, that an unfair burden is put on women to be something that they are not naturally. Of course we hope that we are good people, but we are a mix. And as women we have many challenges, and sometimes we respond to them well and sometimes not, and that is okay.
Was that a conscious decision when you started out, that these are the stories you want to write and this is the audience you want to write for?
Yeah. In the beginning, it was in my subconscious, but as I continued writing and especially as I continued working with women’s groups doing my activist work, I became more and more aware that that is important to me.
When you started out, was that an issue? Were you told men won’t read your books?
That was an issue. There was also an issue that I was going into risky territory. One of my characters in my latest book, Before We Visit the Goddess, is gay – she’s a lesbian – and in fact her story ends badly. One of the characters is an alcoholic. One of the characters has broken off from her family. It happens, this is real. There is no point saying that these don’t happen or shouldn’t happen.
Or that we should expect women to deal with them really well.
Yes. That women should always be strong – we hope we can be strong, but when we are not, there should be a space for us. For centuries, it’s okay for a man to do all kinds of things, but for women not so much.
In Before We Visit the Goddess you trace these generations of women, and how the actions of one impact the other. I also felt you were drawing attention to the fact that our grandmothers had it much harder than we do.
Or different challenges. Theirs were more visible. When you look at Sabitri’s life, her challenges are very clear. Her family doesn’t have money. There is no culture of going to college. If she falls in love with someone and she’s thrown out, it’s her fault. Her problems are very clear cut, and therefore it’s easier to be sympathetic towards them.
But I also wanted to point out that the current generation’s problems are psychological. Sabitri too has her internal psychological problems, but how do you feel when your husband has left you, when you built your whole life around that? That’s a huge problem, but it’s not external. If you deal with that badly and you become an alcoholic, how does society look at it it?
When Sabitri is struggling to gain an education, society – at least our readership – is like, yes we want that. But when this woman has become an alcoholic because she feels devastated, we are not so sure how to deal with it. So I wanted to show that each generation has its challenges.
And we need to know our mothers’ and grandmothers’ histories and learn from them?
Absolutely. Because if we don’t learn their histories, sometimes we are doomed to repeat them. That is why throughout the book there’s this gap in Tara’s life. Part of her problem is she doesn’t have that history, and when she will get that history it will heal something inside her. It’s like there’s this big missing chunk. I do hope that this book will encourage different generations of women to talk to each other. Certainly in families but even otherwise.
This is something I discovered to my personal cost a year ago, when my grandmother died and I realised I hadn’t talked to her enough, that I didn’t know enough about her life.
You don’t think about it until it’s too late. So I hope this book will encourage different generations of women to listen to each other’s stories. It’s so important. We learn from each other.
Also, often we have so many conflicts among women in the family, especially if we all have our own minds and are strong-willed. It’s because we don’t know each other’s stories that we can’t be as compassionate as we would otherwise be.
Going back to what you said earlier about Sabitri’s problems being easier to understand, do you think women of that generation judge younger women for having it easy and not doing enough?
Yes! They’re like, “Hey, we had to struggle for this. This has been handed to you. What is your problem?” And that is why in each generation I showed one similar problem. Sabitri has to drop out of college. Her daughter drops out of college. Her daughter drops out of college. But for very different reasons.
Someone from Sabitri’s generation might look at Tara and say, “Why are you dropping out of college? Everyone wants you to go to college.” But they need to understand the psychological space that Tara is coming from.
Sometimes as an immigrant who went through physical hardships, I feel that too: “You guys have it so easy!” But then I understand, not really. Their challenges are different!
And you wouldn’t wish your challenges on them.
We wouldn’t. They do have challenges enough of their own.
The women in your books are strong, they fight for what they want, but their weapons of choice are somewhat traditional. Like cooking in your last book, and spices in The Mistress of Spices. You use something that’s considered feminine and maybe not so important in the grander scheme of things and make that powerful.
Yes! And I wanted to do that because I think there is power in these traditional things that women do which have been devalued for generations because women do it. As Shrabani (Basu) was saying in my session (at the Jaipur Literature Festival), sweet-making is a big thing in Bengal, but traditionally all the great sweet-makers have been men! You think women were not making sweets? They were! But they were not celebrated for that.
So I wanted to take that and put my character in a space where she’s taking something very traditionally feminine but she’s going to become an entrepreneur, just like the men before her. And she’s gonna have to fight for it.
That’s similar to The Mistress of Spices, where spices are used to heal. And it’s drawing on the tradition of witches who help other women.
Yes, and in Bengal and probably in many other places in India there’s this whole tradition of the village medicine woman: you go to her and her medicines are always spices and herbs and things like that. It’s devalued, and she often makes very little money. And generally women will go to her, men will not.
So I was playing with all of these in The Mistress of Spices. Some people are like, oh, spices are so exotic. I’m like, where are spices exotic? We actually use them all the time and for these purposes. Spices are only exotic if you look at it from some kind of “Other” gaze. For us it’s not. It’s actually very central to the woman’s experience.
You’ve also said that “immigration made you into a writer.” The hardships that you faced, the cultural shock you experienced…Do you think it’s becoming easier for young people now, when we’re all so connected?
They’re just not having the same kind of immigration experience. Is it easier? I don’t know. Is Tara’s life easier than Sabitri’s? We can’t tell. I think it depends very much upon a person’s pscyhology as to what is challenging to them.
But certainly they don’t have the same kind of disconnect that I had. But this disconnect, which was so challenging for me, made me into a writer. It pushed me into a whole different world and worldview that I wasn’t familiar with. But people going now are already familiar with it, and they won’t get the same kind of shaking up of all you thought was true. Your ideas are shaken up. That’s when you’re forced to create new ideas and understand afresh what you thought you already knew. That made me into a writer.
It impelled you to dig into elements of your culture that are not present around you, and make them more powerful.
Things that I took for granted all the time, suddenly I had to think about them.
Your activism also influenced your writing, especially in The Mistress of Spices, where you write about women who face domestic violence.
Now I’ve been doing activism for thirty years. But in those first days, it was so painful for me when I was working with women in situations of domestic violence that I just had to put them in my books. Things that I couldn’t do for women in real life, because sometimes they wouldn’t leave their abusers – they didn’t have the courage or they weren’t ready for it. In my book, I wanted to give them a solution, get them out of that situation. And also my hope is someone reading that would feel empowered to change their life. I do believe that books can be inspiring. Books have certainly inspired me.
And it’s a universal problem – domestic violence – though you’ve drawn on Indian culture for The Mistress of Spices. That’s something that’s true of all your books; they transcend the Indian cultural experience. You don’t have to be interested in the Mahabharata to read The Palace of Illusions: it’s a universally relevant story.
That’s my hope. I’m always happy when readers from Indian backgrounds connect to the stories because they will connect to it on a particular level. They will connect with knowing, they’ll connect with recognition. Others will connect on another level; they’ll be discovering things. They will also discover an element of universality which I hope Indian readers will also discover. But there are things that I’ve put in my books that only Indian readers will get.
You don’t pander to a white audience. They get it or they don’t.
They can get it or they won’t, and I certainly hope that on the level of humanity of the characters undergoing certain troubles, or triumphs, I hope on that level they connect.
I’ve read books from different cultures, I didn’t understand everything about those cultures but I loved the books anyway. I don’t believe in explaining things, because that makes the book a worse book.
It detracts from the story. Tell us, are you working on something right now?
Yes, I’m working on a novel on Sita. I’m very excited about it! The Ramayan from Sita’s point of view.
That’s interesting because, unlike Draupadi, Sita is considered more demure. She seems to submit to her fate.
Yes, and that’s really what I hope to address in this book. When you really look back and read the character of Sita as presented by many people in the history of the Ramayan, Sita’s not like that at all. At some point a patriarchal interpretation of Sita was created and pushed onto women. Sita is very demure, she’s obedient to whatever her husband says, she’s a doormat, she accepts everything that happens to her – and ladies, you better be like Sita.
That’s what I want to counter. Look, it’s not just me: it is already there in the story. It’s just, the patriarchal spin has been given to it. Sita makes a number of important choices, some of them right, some of them wrong. She’s a very active character. My goodness, she’s the world’s first single mother in literature, and she brings up those children with great courage!
It will be a challenging project. I pray that I can do a good job.
We’re very much looking forward to it. One last question: you’re very active on your Facebook page and you invite comments from readers. Does that help your writing process?
I just love to hear from readers, but it really does help me. When people say I liked this about this book, I understand what works to connect the reader to the book. I have my idea of what the book is doing. But when I see what the book does for people, then I understand what’s working. If I want to write an effective book that will touch the hearts of people, I understand I have to do certain kinds of things. That’s helpful to me as a writer.