“And I think what women everywhere need and women particularly in India need - is to be given choices, to be given some options and to have enough knowledge so that they can make educated choices,” says Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
One of the most recognised and celebrated names in the literary universe is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. From Mistress of Spices to Palace of Illusions, she has managed to enthral the audiences with her complex, gritty and vivacious manner of story telling. Here in the city for the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet, she took some time out to speak to Annesha Das Gupta about gender, sexuality and the Indian diaspora.
Indian folklore and epics are the two recurring motifs in your narrative. In this country, there is a tradition of passing on of stories from one generation to another, from the mother to her daughter, from the grandfather to his grandchild. Tell us if this flow of creations and narrations have been an integral part of your journey and evolution as an author as well?Definitely. Oral tradition and passing on of stories have been very important in my life. My grandfather was the first great storyteller that I knew. He used to tell me stories when I was little especially Bengali folktales, rupkotha and also the epics. And thus he passed on to me a great love for those stories. And my mother passed on many traditions as well. So, I think I learnt a lot from them, which later when I became writer I began to put into my own stories and this new book (Before We Visit the Goddess) is no different. Heritage is a big theme in it and I really thought about my own heritage that my mother passed onto me while I was transforming into an adult.
I think there is a new energy in Kolkata because there are so many young people here now. It is in some ways, a very young city.
It has been over three decades since you moved away from Kolkata. What new variation of stories and landscapes emerge every time that you visit this city again? Are the politics, the dialogues and the people the same? Or do you see them as a modified mixture of the retro and the contemporary?
Well, you know I find it a mix every time I come back to Kolkata. So much has changed just in the physical landscape of Kolkata with all the flyovers, the metro, new buildings coming up in many places. And yet Kolkata remains the same in many wonderful ways. Like I have come here for the Kolkata Literary Meet, which we are doing with the Victoria Memorial as a backdrop, a place I visited so many times when I was younger. Similarly, I think the lifestyle retains some wonderful, old customs but also it’s moving forward, which is very healthy and important. I think there is a new energy in Kolkata because there are so many young people here now. It is in some ways, a very young city. And India itself is a very young country and there is a new sense of hope that I see in them right now. Although it has its problems and complications but it is always nice for me to come back and rediscover the changes in India and in Kolkata.
Can you tell us what does the term diaspora means to you? What kind of trail does this particular phenomenon leaves behind in the sands of history?I think the diaspora is a huge phenomenon. It has been going on for centuries but right now and may be in the thirty or forty years the Indian diaspora, and I will say to the U.S. because that’s what I am familiar with, has taken on huge proportions. We are changed by it and America has changed by our presence. The city of Houston where I live has so many Indian shops, Indian temples. A while back, the Houston Grand Opera asked me to write the Libretto for them showing this Indian presence in America. So I wrote an opera with an Indian woman as the main character. There is a very nice exchange of cultures happening, which I think is very important. And now I realise that the diaspora affects people living in India as well. I have talked to so many people in Kolkata who has somebody or the other living in America – either it is their child, a cousin or a grandnephew. It is wonderful in many ways but I agree there is also this sense of separation in there somewhere.
They are always pushed off to the sides even when there are things happening to them – the story mechanically zooms toward how it is only affecting the men while erasing the women. I wanted to change that thing.
The Palace of Illusions, which is borne out the retelling of the whole epic of Mahabharata from the view point of Draupadi… I want to know why this foray into the waters of alternative narratives? Why did you decide to give a voice to the female lead of this epic?
I think I became very fond of the story of Mahabharata as I remembered it being narrated to me as a child by my grandfather. But then as I grew older I interpreted and understood some of the things by myself. And I do love mythologies and I have read the Ramayana, the Mahabharata. And I was always struck by how that there are such wonderful, powerful female characters in there, which haven’t been explored very well. They are always pushed off to the sides even when there are things happening to them – the story mechanically zooms toward how it is only affecting the men while erasing the women. I wanted to change that thing. I wanted to write a story where the female was the main character and we are going to see everything through her eyes and in her voice – the female gaze. And how this female gaze reacts differently than the male gaze, how she looks at the wars differently and everything that is unfolding around her. And therefore I am very, very thankful to so many people who have liked it. And that was what I always wanted to write. Also I think it is an essential enterprise to learn how to back a woman’s powers and rights and how to left it upon only them to give the right direction to their own life.
I think what is central to the growth of women’s empowerment is allowing the women to have her choices. Instead of saying you must cook, we should say if you want to cook then that’s certainly open to you.
One thing I have observed while going through your personal blog is that you have posted a lot of different Indian recipes. In India women have often been stereotyped and relegated into the four walls of the kitchen. Do you think this scenario is steadily changing? Does it happen that a woman’s passion for the art and science of cooking is seen as something more than an innate attribute in the present times?Well, you know in my book Before We Visit the Goddess, one of the main characters Sabatri is going to open her own sweet shop. So cooking can also be an empowering thing. It just depends on what the woman wants to do. I think what is central to the growth of women’s empowerment is allowing the women to have her choices. Instead of saying you must cook, we should say if you want to cook then that’s certainly open to you. If you want to use your knowledge of cooking, to become an entrepreneur then that’s open to you. If you don’t want to cook at all, like Tara the granddaughter then that’s fine as well. You can go and work in the office. You can do whatever you want. And I think that’s what women everywhere need and women particularly in India need – is to be given choices, to be given some options and to be given enough education so that they can make educated choices. And not just choose something because that has been always done or that I don’t want to because it has been always done.
In your article The Reluctant Patriot, you write about various ethnic groups in the United States post 9/11. What will you call this practice of envisaging only the Whites as American citizens and excluding the other minorities to be the foreign elements or subjects of suspicion as? Is it xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia or an amalgamation of it all?
I think whenever a situation like this happens, when people are made into scapegoats, it becomes very unhealthy and very dangerous. It becomes very unhealthy for the community and certainly, as writer one of my tasks is to write about it and make people aware of it. Because a lot of times, people are not aware that this is going on and if the thing does not affect them then they continue to stay oblivious. Or else they are doing it and they are not actually aware what they are doing are detrimental because the prejudice is so deeply rooted. I think now in America, we are in a time where we have to watch out against this carefully. More so, because it’s a change of government and I think we shouldn’t overreact and I think we should watch carefully and take proactive steps like the Women’s March to let the government know that what exactly we feel is important as Americans.
And I think the more we can break down these barriers that separate us from other humans the better it is. We should make everyone feel accepted and if there is violence against anyone we need to make sure that they get justice.
While discussing the pan-Indian identities, we can’t miss out on the notorious caste system. What are your own thoughts on the current scenario surrounding caste?You know caste is such a complicated thing. And I don’t feel that I have any, let’s us say, expertise in it. So I will be speaking just as an individual. And I think the more we can break down these barriers that separate us from other humans the better it is. We should make everyone feel accepted and if there is violence against anyone we need to make sure that they get justice. And all of that will ultimately lead us to a stronger India. It’s very similar to gender violence against women and if we have something like that then how can we as a country prosper? We have to bring everybody together. They should be made to feel included and empowered. Where are these people going to go? They are Indians. They are citizens. This is what they are. How can we just negate it?
Do you think there is a lack of education especially when it comes to sex education and gender sensitisation?
Yes. I think there is not enough education about alternative lifestyles and there is not enough healthy education about sex. And truly there is not enough education about how to behave towards the other gender. You know, we are such a gender segregated society that many men don’t know how to even talk to a woman. I mean, I know when I was growing up here and I do come from a very traditional family… I was kept so separated that when I went to America, it took me a long time before I just could talk to men as equals. I just didn’t know how to do it. So I think the more we break down these restrictions, the healthier the society will become. And then, you know there are like all these pent up anger or misunderstandings or I don’t know pent up like desires because you never get to sit next to the other gender (laughs) and be friends with them. I think they are not healthy for our society. And that’s why I decided to put in gay relationships in Before We Visit the Goddess because I wanted to show that too is a part of our society.
And now coming to my final question for you, what can you tell us about your upcoming releases?
I am currently working on a novel based on the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view. And that, it is going to be a companion volume to Palace of Illusions, which is Mahabharata but was from Draupadi’s perception.
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