Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni revisits her favourite themes of immigration and self-discovery in her latest novel, Oleander Girl.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, like her protagonist Draupadi, in the Palace of Illusions appears to be “buoyant and expansive and uncontainable”.
The acclaimed author of 16 novels, which include The Mistress of Spices, Palace of Illusions, Sister of My Heart and Arranged Marriage has released her latest book Oleander Girl (Penguin Viking, Rs. 499 ) — a heart warming story of a young girl in search for her identity and roots. Over an e-mail interview she talks about her books, her roots, her characters, and her dreams.
There’s a complexity and latent strength in the characters you create — Panchaali , Korobi, Sudha, Anju. Do you identify with these women, at some level?
I definitely identify with these women, and even with women who are complicated, and not altogether positive, such as Mrs. Bose in Oleander Girl. I imagine my characters vividly, and go deep into their psyche, in order to write them.
Tell us about your tryst with the written word.
I started writing after the death of my grandfather — memories, poems, etc. It was very personal; for years I did not share my writing with anyone. Then I joined a writer’s group, which was very helpful as they gave me a lot of constructive criticism. I began to send things to magazines. At first I received many rejections, then slowly as I got better, I began to get published.
As someone who was born in India, but moved abroad as a young woman, did you find the transition difficult? Is that why immigration is a recurrent theme in many of your novels?
I came from a traditional family and it was an exciting but challenging transition to move to America and live on my own. The world around me was suddenly so different. Immigration was certainly a transformational experience and I tried to explore its intricacies in my early collections such as Arranged Marriage.
Though they do defy classification, many of your books are at some level a bildungsroman. Coming of age, search for roots and identity, the finding of love — they are all recurrent themes…
You are very right. I am attracted to the form of the bildungsroman. There is so much potential for character growth in that particular genre. Certainly that is the case in Oleander Girl. Korobi, our heroine, is definitely on the search for the self. This journey will impel her to leave the known world (Kolkata and the comfort of the family home) and venture to America. It will face her with some difficult choices and she will learn and discover many things, positive and negative, in that process.
There appears to be a bit of a power play between men and women in many of your novels. Why does that come in? Do you see all man-woman relationships as inherently complicated?
I think there is power play (perhaps we can call it conflict) between many characters in my books, not just between men and women. Some women have complicated relationships, too. For instance in Oleander Girl, Korobi and her potential mother-in-law Mrs. Bose have a complex relationship. I do believe human relationships are complex. That is what makes them interesting. Perhaps the only exceptions are children or highly evolved spiritual beings. For them, life is simple and beautiful.
Which are the characters you like the most and why?
I like all my characters; rather, I find them all compelling. Perhaps I am fondest of the flawed ones, the ones with human weaknesses and good hearts, the ones capable of deep generosity, like the character of Asif, the Bose family chauffeur in Oleander Girl.
Your Bengali roots are apparent in all the books you write. Your thoughts on that?
That is the segment of Indian culture that I know and love best. I feel I can express the nuances of the Bengali lifestyle and ways of thinking better than other cultures. This is particularly true of parts of Oleander Girl, which are set in Kolkata, some in an ancient mansion, some in modern discotheques, or in historic Kolkata locations such as the Park Circus Cemetery.
Tell us a little about Maitri and Daya and the work you do there.
I am on the advisory boards of both these organisations, one in California, the other in Texas, that help women who are survivors of domestic violence, trafficking and other abuse. I helped to co-found Maitri. Both organisations are doing excellent work in the community and both have grown a great deal in the past decade.
With more women joining the workforce, being better educated and economically independent, there has been a distinct change in gender dynamics over the last few decades which invariably changes the way we view relationships, marriage, motherhood. Do you see that as a good thing for society at large?
I do see that as a great potential advantage. Strong women, when respected, make the whole society stronger. One must be careful with such rapid changes, though, and make an effort to preserve, at the same time, the positive traditions of Indian culture.
What next? Is there another new project you are going to start work on?
I have just started work on a novel about the Ramayana — a retelling with Sita as the narrator.