Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni attempts in her works to sensitise readers to how women feel and think

In Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s 2008 bestseller, The Place Of Illusion, Dhristadyumna, twin brother of Panchaali chides her, “The problem with you is that you are too beautiful for your own good. Boys are different from girls…when will you accept that?”

The book re-tells the story of the Indian epic Mahabharata from a woman’s perspective. Woman and women’s issues find insightful expression in Chitra’s works. The Indian-American author, on a visit to the State, read passages from the book at David Hall in the city recently.

“I want people to be sensitive about how women feel and think. Panchaali is an extremely intelligent woman but she has been kept in the background. I want my books to force readers to recognise the fact that a woman is a human being just like them,” says Chitra relaxing on the veranda of her friend’s Art Deco home in Ernakulam.

Chitra has to her credit critically acclaimed novels, books for children, and anthologies of poems. Two of her novels The Mistress Of Spices and Sister Of My Heart were adapted to films, the former being short-listed for the Orange Prize. Currently, Chitra teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, Texas.

Among the gamut of women characters that she has delineated she likes them all for different reasons, but Korobi, from Oleander Girl, to be released next month, holds a special place. Korobi grows into a strong woman overcoming her challenges. In Sister of My Heart, Sudha, the protagonist, walks out on her marriage to save the female foetus she is carrying. “These are some instances of women I really admire.” Panchaali, of course, is one of her favourites.

Do most of her women have hard lives, complex relationships? “No I write about happy relationships, like the one between Panchaali and Krishna. It is a very close, deep friendship, a very complex one.”

Immigration is another subject that Chitra has dealt with at length. . As an immigrant to America she negotiated the two worlds adroitly to find a balance. “Immigration was a huge force in changing my outlook. I moved to America 30 years ago. I had to reassess my beliefs, especially about women’s roles.”

She co-founded ‘Maitri’ (in 1991), a helpline that looks into domestic violence and abuse of women and is on the advisory board of ‘Daya’ that works with several women’s groups.

Until she made the big move to America Chitra, growing up in a traditional middle class Bengali family was “comfortable in her thinking.” Negotiating the transition offered her new experiences and images, hardships and friendships that she vividly recreates in her novels.

“You lose a support system, your extended family, but you gain a new identity,” she says, confessing that she learnt to be independent from a culture that values and respects individuality.

Despite her American identity she has consciously managed to keep in touch with the rapid changes in her country. Oleander Girl, set in 2002, is about Korobi a traveller to America and the picture through her eyes. It deals with the changed attitude towards brown skin post 9/11 and the aftermath of Godhra riots. “Such incidents have a ripple effect.” She is outraged that an incident like the gang rape in Delhi can still take place in modern India. The cultural intolerance saddens her. “India has been a very accepting culture. We pride ourselves on that. That is a global truth. In fact, it forms a major theme in my books.”

Autobiographical elements creep in her works quite effortlessly. Parenting in a different culture, migration, post 9/11 racism are all situations she has faced.

Chitra came out with her first book, a collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage in 1998, after which she began teaching creative writing. On the growing popularity of the course Chitra says that it helps focus the talent. “You learn the techniques; you get in touch with a writing community. It is very helpful.” Indo-American women writers Anita Desai and Bharati Mukherjee have inspired her besides other immigrant women writers. The publishing industry in America is on a slide whereas it is the opposite in India, she says. For pleasure reading she still loves the feel of a book in hand but for research and for writing she uses the computer. Her advice to deal with writer’s block, which she faces “many a times,” is to go on writing nevertheless.