Home India News I explore complex diaspora identities: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I explore complex diaspora identities: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : Award-winning Indian American novelist and poet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni tries to heal the distress she encountered in a post 9/11 America by writing books for children. She also strives to explore the complicated identities of diasporic communities in novels for older readers.

“I have both a personal and larger reason to write children’s books. After 9/11, there was so much distress in America that it led to an inter-cultural breakdown. Some of our communities were targeted. Many of our adults shut themselves off from other cultures. I tried to bring children of Indian and other cultures together in my literature,” Divakaruni told IANS in an interview.

The other reason for writing children’s books are the writer’s two sons, Abhay and Anand. “They wanted me to write books that they could read. My sons are the protagonists of two of my children’s books,” Divakaruni said.

The Houston-based writer was in the country to launch two new books this week: “Shadowland”, the third of a magical adventure trilogy for children, and a novel, “One Amazing Thing”, for older readers.

Divakaruni said she puts a “little bit of India, folk tales, history, fairy tales, myths, magic, boy, girl and the gender divide” in her children’s books.

Divakaruni, a professor of writing at the prestigious creative writing programme in Houston University, is known for books like “The Mistress of Spices” that was adapted into a movie starring Aishwarya Rai, “Sister of My Heart”, televised by Suhasini Mani Ratnam, “Arranged Marriage: Stories”, “The Palace of Illusions” and the “Vine of Desire”.

She has authored nearly 20 books. Most of her writing addresses issues pertaining to immigrants and the diaspora.

“I have a variety of readers from across the diasporic community; not just from South Asia. I like to write large stories that include all of us – about common and cohesive experiences which bring together many immigrants, their culture shocks, transformations, concepts of home and self in a new land. My experiences too are reflected in my work,” Divakaruni said.

Divakaruni’s new diaspora novel, “One Amazing Thing” (published by Penguin-India), a departure from her usual narrative, is about a rainbow group of nine people trapped in the visa office at the Indian Consulate after a massive earthquake in an American city.

Divakaruni said she wanted to “write a different book”.

“I was caught on the freeway for hours when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. The entire city had to be evacuated. I observed lives threatened by catastrophes and a whole range of behaviour. What could people do during a crisis? And I wanted to explore people like us stuck with strangers during disasters – when their behaviour becomes extreme,” she said.

She is a loyal advocate of Indian “ayurveda” medicine and magic that forms the heart of the bestseller “Mistress of Spices”.

“I wrote ‘Mistress of Spices’ at an unusual time when I had a near-death experience after the birth of my second son. I returned home after a long haul at the hospital and I wanted to write about what Tilo (the heroine) goes through. Immigration is also a kind of death and rebirth. I added folklore and spices to it because I grew up with the magic of spices in Bengal (which she left in 1976),” Divakaruni said.

The petite writer carries her ‘haldi’ (turmeric) pills with her while travelling.

Comparing the screen adaptations of her novels, Divakaruni said “the television version of ‘Sister of My Heart’ was closer to the truth than the ‘The Mistress of Spices'”.

She is also a believer in the idea of Draupadi, the heroine of her novel, “The Palace of Illusions”, “who pushes all boundaries”.

Divakaruni works for two South Asian women’s platforms, Daya and Maitri (of which she is the founder) in the US. “Both the organisations help women in situations of abuse with peer counselling, legal aid, training and safe places to stay,” she said.

Divakaruni has just completed the first draft of a novel “about a girl’s search for her American father”.

“Her mother dies at childbirth and all she has of her father is a name and the information that he lives somewhere in the US. The novel has mythic structures,” she said.

The writer is also collecting material for her subsequent book on “Sita” while in India.

“Like ‘Palace of Illusions’, I will explore Sita in her historical context. Differing versions of Sita lores abound in India. In south India, it is believed that Sita is the daughter of Ravana and his north Indian wife Mandodari,” she said, throwing nascent insights into her project.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])