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Lokvani talks to Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Chitra Parayath

The Indian experience in America — and the conflict between the traditions of her homeland and the culture of her adopted country — is the focus of much of Divakaruni's writing, and it has made her an emerging literary celebrity.
We meet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni at MIT where she is reading from her new novel 'Vine of Desire'. Greeting us with a soft smile she offers to talk before the reading begins. Her simple charm and elegance are apparent in her demeanor, she answers every question with endearing candor.
When asked how, she, a prolific poet, novelist, short story, writer, teacher, wife, mother and Social activist seemed comfortable playing all these roles with such consummate ease Ms.Banerjee laughed. "Not with consummate ease, certainly. It is a struggle but I do know that something has to give. Its always a juggling act, I prioritize and am able to do justice to all these roles ".
She bristles a bit when I asked her why her female characters were almost always better thought out and deeper than their male counterparts.
"That is not very accurate, while it is true that I do feel greater empathy with the women in my stories, I have tried to imbue my male characters with strength and integrity. In my latest novel 'Vine of desire' parts of the story are from a man's perception and point of view. In my earlier works, there have not been many men with as important a tie to the story as in 'Vine of desire' but their presence has always been an integral part of my stories." Ms. Banerjee's characters have a way of deciding for themselves their actions. I wonder if she bails them out of their perils.
She smiles fondly when she talks of her characters "Oh yes, my characters beckon to me to have their stories said! When I wrote Sister of my Heart I wasn't really planning to follow it up with a sequel. Sudha and Anju (from both books) called to me, asking to write their tale! I let them tell their own story, the resolutions and consequences are incidental and totally spontaneous."
Her writing is very visual, even desires and passions have shape and color in her work. Chitra tells us that she painted as a child, and being able to paint with words is a gift. She chafes when we ask her if she writes with Western readers in mind who are used to reading about either an exotic and mythical India or a deprived India.
"I love writers from other cultures who create a world where I may not know every single reference but the pleasure is to understand and feel the experience. My books are for everyone, Indians and non Indians."
She offers her readers a window into the multicultural world of her characters, she says. "I have no particular reader in my mind but a passionate desire to tell an honest, moving story," she adds. "If it is good literature, I know as all sensitive writers know, the reader and the writer will connect. It is inevitable."
When I tell her that my husband is my greatest critic and ask if her husband ever gets to see the first draft, she smiles. "No, he does not. Early in our marriage he tried that and got an earful. He reads only the finished version now."
And her sons?
"They are too young to read what I write but they do love to read. Actually, they have been asking me to write something for them and that is my next project. Something about India. Its time I introduced them to India and her rich past," she says in her gentle, flowing voice.
I ask if she has ever written in her native tongue Bengali and Chitra tells me that the only Bengali she practices is on her mother when she writes to her.
On being asked what genre of writing she preferred the most she said that she liked them all equally. "I love to write poems, short stories and the process of novel writing. I can't really tell you what I like most!" Chitra's narrative skills and keen psychological insights have earned her many awards and accolades.
About the sudden emergence of so many Indian writers in the English literary world today, Chitra says that it is heartening to see the success all these writers are enjoying, as there are so many stories to tell the world!
Though references to local attractions, Bengali culture are sprinkled liberally throughout her tales, Chitra maintains that the stories themselves - dealing with issues like domestic violence, crime, racism, interracial relationships, economic disparity, abortion and divorce are inspired by her imagination her observations of others experiences. Divakaruni once explained her reason for writing: "There is a certain spirituality, not necessarily religious-the essence of spirituality-that is at the heart of the Indian psyche, that finds the divine in everything. It was important for me to start writing about my own reality and that of my community" (Doubleday).
Her next work is for young adults she tells my daughter, 12, a fan of Ms. Banerjee's as she autographs her book 'Sister of my heart'. "The next one is for my boys, Abhay and Anand," she smiles.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has been recognized repeatedly for her excellence in writing. Her work has been included in over 30 anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize Anthology.
In 1995, her short story collection 'Arranged Marriage' was awarded the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize for Fiction, the Bay Area Book Reviewer Award for Fiction, and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, Gerbode Foundation Award, Two Santa Clara Arts Council Awards, Barbara Deming Fellowship, Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize, Pushcart Prize, Two PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Awards and Orange Prize for Fiction.
She has taught creative writing at the University of Houston, been the fiction judge for the National Book Awards, co-founded a domestic violence center in the Bay Area, and teaches second-generation Indian children about their culture. Her works include: Poetry: Dark like the River (1987), The Reason for nasturtiums (1990), Black Candle (1991), Leaving Yuba City (1997), Fiction: the Mistress of Spices (1997), Sister Of My Heart (1999), The Vine of Desire (2002) Arranged Marriage (1995) and The Unknown Error of Our Lives (2001), Other: Multitude (1993), A cross-cultural anthology.

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