Source : Times of India
No one writes about the multicultural experience quite like Write India author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. But she writes about contemporary America, women, history and myth as sharply and sensitively. Her latest novel, Before We Visit the Goddess , explores a favourite: the complex mother-daughter bond. Ahead of her session at the Times Litfest in Mumbai, she talks to us about earlier immigrants and recent migrations, and what makes her proud
From Mistress of Spices , 1997, to Before We Visit the Goddess , how have you changed as a novelist?
I’ve always been interested in the lives of women, but I think I’m more inclined to push the envelope now, having my main characters grapple with situations our community shies away from—broken marriages, alcoholism, gay issues, abortion. And yet I’m still interested in age-old themes such as mother-daughter relationships. And myth. I love myth, from Mistress of Spices to Palace of Illusions , mythic tales are a driving force.
…And as a person in your 41 years in the US?
I think I’ve become less worried about ‘Log kya kahenge?’. If I think it’s important, if I think it’s the right thing, I’ll try to do it. I think my work in the field of women’s issues, particularly family violence, has really influenced me in this.
You once responded that ‘the immigrant experience is never commonplace’. Do you think it’s a comfort zone that several of your peers have consciously abjured?Jhumpa Lahiri‘s new work is in Italian.
Writing about the immigrant experience isn’t a comfort zone for me. It’s a challenge and a necessity. It’s a political act, especially now in America. So many new issues are constantly coming up, and each generation of immigrants is very different from the previous one. I can’t speak for other writers, but I find it constantly changing and fascinating.
Can illustrious immigrants like you do anything to change the prejudice against migrants, or do they generally distance themselves ethnically/ emotionally/ economically; see the new refuge seekers as the ‘Other’?
Much of what I write about is for that reason, more important now than ever before in the US (and in many other countries, too, I think): to break down prejudices and show the complexity of immigrant lives, their tragedy and bravery, their humanness, and yes, their faults. Because just like other Americans, we have our problems and should be allowed to have them. I write to show that we are not the ‘Other’. As Langston Hughes put it beautifully, “We, too, sing America.”
What is it that you miss most about Calcutta, and what exasperates you most about the city?
I miss the sights and smells and sounds of the burgeoning streets, which are so rich and fascinating. I miss the street food and the College Street bookstalls. The long intellectual (or at least that’s what we believed!) chats in Coffee House or our Presidency College canteen. When I visit now, the traffic exasperates me, the difficulty of getting around, the fact that the streets have new names— but part of that exasperation is with myself, that I should find it so hard now to navigate the streets of the city where I was born
And what do you love and hate about Indians in the US?
I love the fact that we’ve largely kept the Indian values we were brought up with many of those have passed away even in India. We’re also a pretty philanthropic community, giving to many causes, a large number of them in India.
By the same token, we’re too nostalgic. We watch too many Hindi movies and listen to too many old songs! We’re always talking about how we came here with only eight dollars in our pocket. That’s my generation. Our kids are a whole different breed— they are like Tara in Before We Visit the Goddess , quite iconoclastic!
Jamini Roy’s Mother & Child is a favourite of yours. Before We Visit … is specifically about mothers and daughters. What makes this bond special, and do you think motherhood has been downgraded in women’s drive to be seen as individuals instead of ‘roles’?
These two issues have been locked in battle for a long time. Even Sabitri, the grandmother in Before We Visit the Goddess , struggles with it—how to balance motherhood with her driving desire to be creative and economically independent, and how to bring up her daughter to be strong, to be her own woman.
How much of your story is in your head before you sit down to write it? And are your characters born ‘fully grown’, or do they start taking charge on their own, acquiring their contours without asking you?
Only a little bit of my story is in my head when I start. I learn as I write. The story uncovers itself. When I’m about a fifth of the way into it, things become clearer and I create an outline. As for my characters, yes, very often they change and grow as I write. They surprise me at the oddest moments, doing things I’d never expected. Those are the best times.
n 2001 you published The Unknown Errors Of Our Lives . Are there some of your own, conscious or unwitting?
Definitely! But they are For My Eyes Only.