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Updated: May 6, 2010 18:47 IST

Mistress of tales

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Author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar.
The Hindu
Author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's latest work of fiction, “One Amazing Thing” bundles together stories from across the world and spills them out at a time of crisis. An earthquake has brought unlikely people and their tales under one roof. Some poignant, some predictable — they unravel personal histories starkly different from each other, yet their destinies now are entwined. The Houston-based author whose earlier works include “The Mistress of Spices” and “Palace of Illusions”, in an e-mail interview, talks about inspiration, observations and identity. Extracts:

“One Amazing Thing” brings together tales of immigrants and stories of Americans and gives them a common grounding/destiny. Was dissolving differences among your underlying thoughts when you began the novel? Dissolving differences has always been an important motive for my writing, right from “The Mistress of Spices”. But whereas in that novel the non-Indian characters were minor players, in “One Amazing Thing” they are all protagonists. This book is different from all my others because in it every character is equally important — together they form a multicultural community. So a major theme in this book is, can people of different races, ages, religions and economic backgrounds form a true community? Under what circumstances can this occur?

Were there any personal experiences that prompted the theme of a natural disaster and the need for people to rally round each other?

Yes, the genesis of this book is rooted in personal experience. When I was volunteering with Hurricane Katrina refugees in Houston in 2005, I first started thinking about the whole phenomenon of grace under pressure.

A few weeks later I was experiencing a similar situation first hand — Hurricane Rita was coming through Houston, and we were asked to evacuate. As we sat on the freeway late into the night, paralysed by traffic and wondering what would happen to us, I saw people around me responding in different ways. The pressure brought out the worst in some and the best in others. Some were toting guns, snarling at people, getting into fistfights; others were sharing their meagre supplies of water and snacks. That's when I knew I'd have to explore this phenomenon in a book.

The second generation immigrant story forms an intense part of the novel. Does that facet of American life continue to hold your interest as a novelist? As a mother of two sons born and brought up in America, I am very interested in observing the second (and now, in many cases, the third) generation and their relationships to India. I am interested in finding out how they relate to their birth heritage and how they combine that with their sense of being American. After 9-11, the idea of identity and of belonging to America has changed — sometimes painfully — for many second generation people of Indian origin in the U.S, because of the way they look (often confused by the public with people from the Middle East), the clothes they or their parents wear (for instance, turbans or salwaar kameezes) and their religion. So I feel this is a changing phenomenon and worth observing.

“One Amazing Thing”has an interesting format — of many short stories making a novel….

I've long been interested in the tale-within-a-tale phenomenon. I'm familiar with many tales which use this framework or the device of many people in one place, telling their stories, or multiple storytellers commenting on each others' stories with their own. In addition to “The Canterbury Tales” (which appears in my novel) and “Wuthering Heights”, I was drawing on works such as “The Decameron”, “The Arabian Nights”, and the “Indian Wise-Animal tales”, “The Panchatantra,” which my grandfather read to me when I was young. The structure seemed perfect for a novel where every character is a protagonist and each of their visions and stories is equally important. “The Mahabharata,” which inspired my novel “Palace of Illusions”, also has many stories embedded within the main tale. The many stories in “One Amazing Thing” also serve another purpose. They give the reader (and the characters) a psychological escape from the claustrophobic predicament of being trapped in a dark, flooding basement that is collapsing around them.

What are you working on next?

I am working on a quest novel, where a young Indian woman discovers that the father she believed to be dead is actually alive and living somewhere in the U.S. It is tentatively titled “Oleander Girl”.

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