Author Interview: ‘There’s Something Special about Seeing a Woman Through a Woman’s Gaze,’ says Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Critically acclaimed and widely-loved author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest and first non-fiction book, An Uncommon Love, narrating the difficult and delightful early years of the Murty relationship, was recently launched and discussed at Kunzum. Taking the opportunity to talk to this maestro of fiction, and now non-fiction, Kunzum caught up with Chitra on the sidelines. Some excerpts from the interview: 

Sashrika: What got you into the business of writing fiction? 

Chitra: I never thought I would be a writer. I think it was immigration that made me into a writer, because I found myself, all of a sudden, in a strange world. It was a world that I didn’t know. And everything that I knew was gone. This is in the 70s, you know? There were no smartphones, none of the things that we have right now. No WhatsApp, no Zoom, nothing to keep me connected. So the world I knew was only inside my head and inside my heart. To bring it all out, I got into writing. 

Sashrika: Why history? What, according to you, is the significance of writing women into history? Or reimagining them? 

Chitra: It’s been a long, long-drawn project of mine. To write about women, to write them into history, because women are often forgotten. To write them into mythology. To see their world through their eyes. Because women are either often forgotten or they’re moved to the margins, or they’re seen through a male gaze. And there’s something special and authentic when you see a woman through the gaze of a woman. And, even more so, as in books like “Palace of Illusions” and “Forest of Enchantments”, when these women are given their own voice. And that’s been a project of mine for a long time. Through books like “The Last Queen”, based on Maharani Jindan’s life, or “Independence”, which is based on the 1947 Partition through the lives of three sisters, and now, “An Uncommon Love”, where I’m trying to give the world Sudha Murty’s story, her early years, which she has often not talked about. 

Sashrika: Do you think that women, in the liminal space that they occupy between home and the world, make for better characters in narratives involving history? 

Chitra: Women make for very strong characters because they’re often fighting a lot of odds that men are not. Because they are negotiating that space between the home and the world. Men have been comfortable in that world for a long time. Many women are comfortable, but many of our sisters are not. They are just emerging into that space. Almost like, you know, caterpillars emerge into being butterflies. That’s a dramatic moment. That’s a dramatic situation. I love writing about that. 

Sashrika: Would you call yourself a ‘feminist’ or even a ‘diasporic’ author? And what do those labels mean to you? 

Chitra: Well, you know, I am a feminist. I am a diasporic writer. I’m also an Indian writer. I’m also a Bengali writer. I’m a woman writer. There are so many ways in which I can be categorised. Categories are helpful for people who are searching for things, but ultimately they don’t limit us. So ultimately, I just see myself as a woman living in the world and trying to make sense of it through my writing. 

Sashrika: What has been your experience, as an author of mythological fiction, in a country that’s becoming increasingly defensive of its mythology? And what is the role of your books in contributing to the common reader’s understanding of Indian mythology?

Chitra: I’ll start with the second part first. I think that the role my books like “Palace of Illusions” and “Forest of Enchantments” have played, is that they brought the characters to life. And especially characters that people perhaps didn’t understand exactly in that way. Characters are getting their voices. And these are women which, I hope, my Draupadi and my Sita, are very contemporary. They’re really not different from us. Yes, their situation historically is different, but how they feel about it in their hearts or how they express their feelings, I think, is very contemporary. And that’s really important because I want to bring out the fact that our epics, our mythology, are very relevant to our times. We can continue learning from them. That is one of the most beautiful things about our Indian culture. I don’t think any other culture has this rich a mythology which continues to be so relevant in the lives of people. 

As with defensiveness, you know, I write my stories the best I can. I’m respectful of our mythology. Obviously, I love our mythology. In my research, I have seen that even books like “The Ramayana” have been rewritten many times over centuries. So that goes deep into our tradition of understanding our mythology, our epics, and making it our own. I certainly hope that, you know, people keep that in mind as they’re reading these different versions. I do believe we should be loving and accepting and respectful of our mythology because it’s truly worth doing that. That doesn’t mean we don’t question them. It’s like people in our family– we love them, but sometimes we argue with them. Sometimes we question them. And that makes for a better relationship. 

Sashrika: What challenges did you face in narrativising the Murty relationship, especially in writing a book about public figures who are part of our recent memory? 

Chitra: Writing “An Uncommon Love” about the Murty’s early years was very challenging. First of all, because it’s my first book of nonfiction, I had to learn a whole different way of writing. And I couldn’t just make up things anymore, as I lovingly and blithely did in my other books. I had to stay close to all the facts. But that was also easy in a way. It was like my whole plot was handed to me. But I had to understand the characters. That was the big challenge. And that’s why I spent a lot of time with the Murtys, talking to them about those early years. ‘How did you feel? Why do you think you felt like that? ‘What in your childhood maybe influenced you? What were your more challenging moments?’ But they were very honest and frank, and that helped me to write the book. And I think that’s what makes this book quite unusual. Because before this they had not opened up about a lot of these early years.

Sashrika: Do you have an audience in mind when you start to work on a project? And what do you hope to achieve vis-a-vis the reader’s experience of your book? 

Chitra: You know, I don’t have a particular audience in mind. And this is something I tell my students. I also teach creative writing at the University of Houston, and I have wonderful students that come from all over the world, including India sometimes. And what I say is that it’s very important to not think about the audience when you’re writing your book in the early stages, because then you start catering to this kind of unseen audience and you think ‘oh they would not like this’, or ‘oh, this would make them upset’, or ‘oh they would like this so I must put it in’. We must be authentic to our story and really forget about the audience. Until, perhaps, the very final draft. When you’re like, ‘ok, will people understand what I’m saying? Will they get the feelings? Let me make sure I have the imagery. Let me make sure my vocabulary is correct’. But before that, I really don’t think about the audience. I’m only… I’m only in love with the book, with the subject. And I only care for that. 

Sashrika: What has been your experience in interacting with young readers of your books? 

Chitra: Oh, I love young readers! And I’ll tell you something, one of the things I love about whenever I come to India for the release of a book is that there is such a large young audience. Ok, let’s face it. People in America are old and getting older. It is an older, you know, an older society and an older population. And I don’t know what the young people in America are doing. They’re probably on their phones when they’re in the bookstores. But I’ve been very delighted in coming to festivals. I just came back from the Jaipur Literature Festival. Or giving bookstore talks. And such a large part of my audience is young people. It makes me feel young also!

Pick up a book “An Uncommon Love” from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

1 thought on “Author Interview: ‘There’s Something Special about Seeing a Woman Through a Woman’s Gaze,’ says Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni”

Leave a comment