The Queen of Feminist Perspectives – Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Swapna Narayanan

For some of us women, who have spent our childhood reading or hearing mythological stories and folk tales, the rhetoric of not to laugh like the Kuru queen Draupadi, or that the Mithila princess Sita is the ideal daughter, the ideal wife and the ideal mother, and thus the ideal woman, has always irked.

These questions offend sometimes, and hence remained in my mind for a long time.

Till I read the Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, which answered a lot of my asked, and unasked, questions with respect to Panchali (Draupadi). Chitra brought out a fictional account of the Mahabharata in this book with the perspective of Panchali – her views, her thoughts, her disillusionment, her voice, her perspective and so much more.

It was as if the author was speaking directly to those of us who had questions!

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an author par excellence known for writing on women’s perspectives in the context of life in general –history, mythology and in today’s world – especially in India and US etc. Her other novels such as The Last Queen – the story of Maharani Jindan, the queen of Punjab who fought the Britishers, Before We Visit the Goddess – a journey through the lives of three generations of women, were also well received and bring out strong feminist perspectives.

Known for her free flowing and highly readable writing style, her work has been published in over 100+ magazines & anthologies (Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Vogue, Verve, Elle, O. Henry Prize Stories etc.) and has been translated into 29 languages (Dutch, Hebrew, Bengali, Hungarian, Turkish, Hindi and Japanese, to name a few).  

She holds innumerable national and international awards to her credit. She wields a pen which narrates stories that touch the reader’s heart, appeal to their sensibilities, and share perspectives that often cross their minds but end up only partially voiced or never voiced.

We, at Eyra, are privileged to get an opportunity to interact with her and get to know her thoughts both as a family woman and a successful author.

Here is an excerpt from our conversation.

Swapna: Thank you so much for accepting to do this interview with Eyra. We all know about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni who writes about strong women characters, a Palace of Illusions that makes us adore and empathize with Draupadi, or a Forest of Enchantments that makes us delve deep into Sita’s psyche or The Last Queen where we dissect, comprehend and admire the daring Jindan Kaur. But who is the real Chitra? Tell us about her.

Chitra B. Divakaruni: I am a rather simple person. Writing, teaching, family, meditation, going on walks in nature, reading, watching movies and playing word-games to relax these are the things I spend my time on. I am not a big party-goer. I like peace and quiet and staying home with my loved ones. My characters provide me with all the adventure I need!

Swapna: All working women have a lot of management to do with respect to their myriad responsibilities. But an author, according to me, has to do a bit more. This is largely due to the authors getting deep into the mind of their characters and the context of the plot. How do you manage your writing along with your family responsibilities? 

Chitra B. Divakaruni: When my children were younger, it was really difficult. I am fortunate in that my husband was always supportive and spent time with our sons when I could not. I really think a writer – especially a woman writer – needs extra help with domestic duties because we have to spend many hours in the world of imagination, and if we are disturbed, that enterprise will fail. My husband and I decided, soon after having children, that we would cut back on luxury costs (traveling, eating out, buying expensive clothes, going for movies or plays, etc.) and dedicate that money to childcare. As a result, I always had very good nannies for the children, and that helped me focus on my writing without having to worry about the children’s welfare. Now that the children are grown, I have more time, but I have to be disciplined and set aside enough time to write each day. 

Swapna: Your next book, Independence, has just released in India in November 2022 and will release in the US in January 2023. The story line is intriguing, the title is so powerful, and the characters seem to beckon us to come and read the book! Tell us more about the book.

Chitra B. Divakaruni: Independence is the tale of three sisters in Bengal who come of age psychologically as they go through the harrowing Partition of India and the excitement of the country gaining her freedom. It is at once the story of the birth of a nation but also of women fighting against many challenges and learning what they are capable of doing, and what independence means to each one of them. It is a story of love, courage and betrayal, and it focuses on the Partition of India that took place on its eastern border, in Bengal. Not many stories in English deal with that aspect of Partition as most novels are set along the north-western border of the country.

Swapna: Did the Chitra Banerjee in her early twenties see a future like this for herself? An acclaimed author, who writes strong women characters, and who brings to the fore so many nuances from the deeper realms of the hearts of some famous characters such as Sita or Draupadi. Did you envision yourself like this back then? 

Chitra B. Divakaruni: When I was growing up, I never thought I would be a writer. A teacher, yes. My mother was a teacher and that was always something I considered. I loved to read but never thought I had any writing talent. Coming to America for my higher education, being alone here and very homesick for family, made me turn inward for solace. Slowly, stories and poems about India and the people I knew there began to take shape. Then I wrote immigrant stories, about men and women like me who found themselves in a strange and exciting but also scary landscape. At first my writing was no good. I threw away many, many pages. But I was very stubborn. I rewrote, revised, and paid attention to suggestions given by fellow-writers. Slowly I improved. That was my writing journey. I certainly never thought I’d have the ability or courage to tackle our amazing epics!

Swapna: What is your advice to upcoming authors? What would you tell the young, talented writers in our country? 

Chitra B. Divakaruni: I would say, go after your dream. Also, read good books. Read as much as you can. Books were my biggest teachers. And find a writer’s group to join, or create one with like-minded friends. You will get valuable feedback and you will find a community that supports you. That is particularly helpful when you are starting out. 

*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*

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