20 July 2010

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Not all that amazing, but a super read all the same
I enjoyed this book and found it very well written. It’s light and moves fast but it’s not a superficial book. Most of the others at the WIN book discussion I attended this morning felt the same, and also that its characters are defined with the sensitivity and detail that brings them alive in the reader's mind.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a skilled storyteller. Her main theme here is the power that stories have to heal people. A group of people waiting for visa interviews in the basement of an Indian consulate in the US is trapped when an earthquake strikes and the building collapses. This group has been well chosen and its members showcase the different ways in which India and the US are connected; they represent different parts of India, and even show us several different reasons for which people might want to visit India.

Using her special creator’s privilege, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni makes sure that one of these has experience rescuing earthquake victims. Another, an Indian-American woman, is a student of literature and understands the power of the story. She suggests that they each tell of something special from their own lives. They do so, and this proves to be a powerful method of keeping them calm. It also works to change perceptions, and perhaps also to improve relationships, among the group.
Would any random group of people in the world come out with personal stories as filled with drama and emotion as these? Probably. Because while these stories are certainly special, I don’t think they do justice to the word “amazing”.

And I was really happy that I enjoyed this book because the first time I tried to read one by this author I did not get a good impression. I felt that it was exoticizing India and contextualizing its situation to charm foreign readers. I found the language just too baroque for me. Even its title gave me the shivers.

Then around two years ago I read Palace of Illusions and interviewed the author, and this changed my impression completely because I found that Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is not some kind of wannabe who wants to charm stupid readers with the dictionary in her hand. I thought she was sweet, smart and anything but fake. Besides, I also learned that she is a serious academic with a PhD with any number of research papers and whatnot.
The interview appeared in Sunday Mid-day on 17 August 2008 and I’ve pasted it below, along with a photo of Chitra’s family – her sons Anand and Abhay and her husband Murthy.

Chitralekha Banerji Divakaruni was born in Calcutta and immigrated to the U.S. in 1976 when she was 19. She earned a Master’s degree in English and then a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. In 1991 she established Maitri, a helpline for South Asian women in abusive situations.
Her books are based both in the U.S. and in India, and invariably feature the lives and troubles of women. Much of her work is said to be based on her own experiences and those of other Indian immigrants. Her first novel Mistress of Spice was made into a movie (famously featuring Aishwarya Rai).
Palace of Illusions, her new novel, is Draupadi’s story, a "re-imagining” of the Mahabharat.
Chitra Divakaruni is one of those writers who evoke mixed reactions.
While one bunch of reviewers will use phrases like magical, lyrical, vivid, and timeless, to describe her prose, there’s always another scruffy, embittered lot who will snigger and stop just short of rude adjectives like preening and pretentious. Regardless, her books sell extremely well.

Of all the characters in the Mahabharata you could have picked, why Draupadi?
I have always been most interested in Draupadi, who seems more complex and interesting to me than any of the others. She also seems most timeless and modern because she has strong opinions, is assertive, and does not put up with abuse.
She is also interesting because she has to deal with her unique marriage to five brothers and because of her friendship with Krishna

Please tell us something about your own introduction to the Mahabharata.
My grandfather told me stories from the Mahabharata when I was little. I was fascinated from then on. Later I read children’s versions and still later the Bengali version by Kashiram Das.

What I like best about your Mahabharata is the circumstantial detail and lifelike characters. I’ve always felt that for those of us who read our Mahabharata in books, what we encountered was a mere listing of facts and events which gave them all the appeal of textbooks. Were any of the children’s versions you read any better?
They were not really that evocative, but the stories were already imprinted in my imagination by my grandfather, so when I read them again, the mind-pictures were already powerfully in place. A I thought more about them as an adult, the characters grew deeper and more psychologically complex.

From what sources did you draw to fill your story with so much colour and emotion?
Many, both primary and secondary. The primary sources: Kamala Subramaniam, C. Rajagopalachari, Kashiram Das. Secondary: critical studies by people like Irawati Karve and Pradip Bhattacharya. Also novels and poems by Tagore, Pratibha Ray, Shivaji Sawant and others. Ultimately I relied most on my own imagination. I studied several books and articles about lifestyle in ancient India.

How do you divide your time between India and your home in Houston?
I visit India every year or two. As a writer, India and Indian culture are important to my work so it is important for me to stay close to my roots. I wish I could spend more time in India because the country is going through such rapid changes right now and I would love to write about that. My family (husband and children) and my job (teaching at the University of Houston) are in Houston so that’s where I live most of the time.

What differences do you see between your Indian readers (both fans and critics) and the international ones?
I think Indian readers enjoy my books because they are familiar with the context and see the authenticity of the details. They experience the pleasure of recognition. The international ones experience the pleasure of discovering a new setting, culture and different kinds of thinking patterns.

You haven’t mentioned your critics: Indian critics tend to feel that you exoticize and contextualize our culture. I’d really like to know your reaction to this interpretation. What about critics of your work in other countries?
I feel Indian critics who feel that I exoticize have not understood my project. I have always been fascinated by the magical and timeless part of Indian culture - which led, this time, to researching and writing The Palace of Illusion. That same impulse led me to weave folk tales, myths and fairytales of Bengal (Roop Katha) into novels such as Mistress of Spices and Sister of my Heart - in very different ways. This magical/mystical quality, I feel, is a central, true and unique aspect of India (although obviously not the only aspect). As a writer and a person, I am drawn to exploring it over and over. I like to juxtapose the mystical and mysterious with mundane events and settings - thus the spice shop in Mistress of Spices is set in the midst of crime-ridden inner city Oakland, and the ancient fairy tale of the princess in the palace of snakes affects the lives of two young girls in the Kolkata of the 70s.
Critics from other countries have been largely positive about my work, but sometimes they complain about the lushness of the language (a Bengali influence?) or a convoluted plot line, with several intersecting stories (maybe also an Indian way of storytelling?) or too much focus on the domestic space rather than larger political events. But that is something I choose to do because I feel the domestic space is crucial to women's experience. Sometimes people complain about the difficult names of characters!

I have tended to avoid reading your books because they make me bristle with the feeling, “this is not being written for me! It’s being written for someone who thinks and feels like an American.” I picked up Palace of Illusions reluctantly and was delighted to be drawn in immediately. I did feel it was written for me. You have not given a single justification for the story sub-texts that we in this country take for granted but which others would find strange and unreal. For example, the fact that penance will bring all kinds of gifts including strange and wonderful powers; the ability to lay a curse on another with the full confidence that what you say will come to pass, that when you share your pillow with someone you can glimpse into their dreams, that those dreams are often what actually happened. Few grounded in western culture would be able to relax and enjoy such ideas in their fiction. Could you please tell us how this happened?
I don't think I consciously tried to do anything different. Whenever I write a book, I try not to think of audience but only of the world of the story. I try to immerse myself in that world. I feel a well-written book will draw in its readers no matter where they come from - and I am very grateful that my books have large audiences in places as different as Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Italy, Japan and Israel. The world of the Mahabharata is particularly powerful and engrossing, and so is Draupadi's character. I tried to put myself in her mind as fully as possible, and this is the result. Perhaps surprisingly, audiences from different backgrounds are responding very positively to the book, and a number of western critics (the translations have not been published yet) have called it my best book so far.
On another note, I believe literature (and art) should be inclusive rather than excluding - it should invite all readers in, no matter what their background. That is why great books continue to touch us across centuries and continents.
The books I love most belong to this category, and I aspire to follow them.

According to Wikipedia, you once said: "Badly and tentatively I began writing early poems. You think I'm being modest but I'm not. I destroyed those sentimental and bad poems recently so no archivist could find them." More about this endearing quote, please!
I started writing (pretty much just for myself) a couple of years after leaving India. Those early poems were full of homesickness and self pity - understandably so, but hardly material for good literature! And yes, I did destroy them once I realized how bad they were. I did learn an important lesson from them, though: emotion is not enough unless it is strengthened by craft.

You are a serious academic, deeply grounded in research and teaching. Yet your books contain their share of Barbara Cartland moments. How come?

I guess I'm a romantic too!

You dedicate your books to “the three men in my life”. Please tell us something about them.

Murthy is my wonderful, supportive husband of 29 years. Anand is my 16-year-old son; he has a great, wry sense of humour. We discuss literature a lot. He is reading Crime & Punishment right now. Abhay is my 14 year old, very creative. He started writing a novel when he was in 4th grade - and he insisted on doing it on my computer, because he was convinced that that was the "writing" computer in the house. (That novel is on hold right now because he is busy mastering Guitar Hero). They keep me down to earth by teasing me and making fun of me all the time. And I must also mention Juno, our stubby-tailed, bald-elbowed hybrid canine who we think is the best dog in the world. She is my muse & keeps me company when I work, no matter how late into the night.

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