Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is back, with a novel about three sisters caught up in the aftermath of India’s Independence and Partition. We sat down with her at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023 to talk books, strong female characters, inspirational women writers, and more. By Sumeet Keswani
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is one of the most popular authors among Kunzum’s patrons. In fact, an all-women Kunzum Book Club chapter that meets in our Jorbagh Lounge recently chose her latest novel, Independence, as their book of the month. It wasn’t a surprise because the writer is best known for her strong and complex female characters. There are three of them, all sisters, in her latest work. We caught up with her at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023 to understand where this story came from, what makes her explore themes of sisterhood and immigration across her books, what she’s working on next, her essential reading list, and more. Here’s a conversation that throws light on what goes behind your favourite books’ creation:
A Conversation with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Kunzum: Your earlier works have retold epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata through the lens of women. What brought you to the story of the three sisters in Independence?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Before I wrote Independence, I wrote The Last Queen, which was set in the 1800s. It was the time when British power was almost at its peak in India. Kingdoms were falling under them, and the Kingdom of Punjab (the kingdom of Maharani Jindan, my heroine) was one of the last to fall. She fought valiantly, and I wanted to showcase her courage, but I was also saddened by how the British were able to [triumph]… think of the ridiculousness of it: a handful of Britishers were able to bring this whole country under, and we didn’t see it happening. It’s a sad moment in the country’s history, and I said, I can’t end with this, I must write the story of when the British are kicked out and India becomes independent. That was the end of the arc, and that’s this new novel.
Kunzum: That brought you to Independence. But where does the inspiration behind the sisterhood lie? This kind of bond between sisters also appears in your earlier works: Sisters of my Heart and The Vine of Desire.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: After writing a historical novel, I wanted this one to be about the common people. Yes, there were heroes during Independence, but it was really [the story of] a whole country. Sisterhood has been important to me for a long time. Some people say it’s because I don’t have any sisters so I’m always imagining sisters for my characters. (laughs) But I also thought sisterhood would allow me to show three different reactions to Independence— three women who are looking at what Independence means to them. That’s really important in the novel: what does Independence mean for the nation, but also, what does it mean for the common people, especially women.
Kunzum: It’s been said a lot that your female characters are strong and independent. But I also feel that they’re very layered and nuanced, with warts and all. Is it a conscious choice to introduce these complexities—to upend the narratives written by men—or is this something that naturally comes to you as a writer?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: I think it’s a little bit of both. Because the traditional portrayal of our heroines attempts to show them as perfect—that’s not real, and then to say, ‘You should be like this’. What a burden to bear! So, I want to show that heroines are normal women— they have flaws, and it’s perfectly okay to have flaws. When you see male heroes being portrayed, they usually have flaws, and that’s accepted. It’s a harmful trend, socially, to expect perfection from women. Who can live up to that? And where is the praise for an ordinary woman—to be the protagonist of her own life? So, I think it’s an important and healthy discourse to introduce.
Kunzum: Any writers who have shaped/informed these choices?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi has been a big influence because she writes women who are like this. But also my own activism since college, working with women who are victims of domestic violence, has informed a lot of this work. Often, when women find themselves in these violent situations, they’re told, “You’re not good enough, therefore it’s okay to abuse you.” I’ve seen how this narrative of perfection that’s pressed upon women leads to terrible things, and I’m doing my bit to change that narrative.
Kunzum: You spoke about Maharani Jindan. And I read somewhere that seeing a portrait of hers inspired you to write a book on her. Are there any other historical figures that you wish to explore in future books?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: One I’ve been thinking about a lot is Radha. I’ve written about Draupadi and Sita, and Radha keeps coming to my mind. So, perhaps… Who knows?
Kunzum: Is that what you’re working on next?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: No, that’s just an idea. My next book is a work of non-fiction. I’m not allowed to tell you the subject, but it is about a woman, an ordinary woman but very inspiring in how she has lived her life—coming from a humble background and becoming very successful.
Kunzum: It’s interesting that you’re writing non-fiction now. How has the process of research and writing changed for you?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Non-fiction is different because I can’t make up things. So, at first, for a writer of fiction, it was like having my hands and feet tied. One of the joys of writing fiction, a book like Independence, is that apart from the facts of the event, I have the liberty to create my fictional characters’ lives. But now [[in my non-fiction], everything has to be how it was. I have to do my research and stay with it, and within it I have to find what can be inspiring to readers. So, presentation becomes very important in non-fiction. I’m trying to figure out how to present this story so it has maximum impact.
Kunzum: What changes in the language do you employ? Do you stick with your usual style of prose, or does it get infused with the person’s voice?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Not so much their voice, but their vibe. So, the language has to be different to suit that, the time and the place. And of course, I will have quotations from that person, so those have to be worked in. It’s a big learning curve for me. But that’s exciting, I like learning new things with each book and setting challenges [for myself].
Kunzum: Another theme that connects your works is the immigrant experience. Is that something you draw from your own life?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Yeah, I think that after I went to the US, I became very interested [in the immigrant experience] while living through it—the challenges but also the excitement. It’s a multilayered experience—you miss your family and home, yet you’re in this exciting place; it’s a an adventure, you’re trying to build a home somewhere else. It’s an old story that goes back centuries. People have been immigrating for centuries. But it’s also a very current story. And slowly, I became aware of how my community was living, especially the women, because for the women it’s the biggest change, especially if you come from a traditional background. Also, how do you relate to the other people in that country? I think it’s a very important story: how we coexist with people who are different.
Kunzum: If you were to recommend five books written by women or featuring strong female protagonists to our patrons, which would they be?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Often people ask me, how did you learn to write? I never went through any formal writing programme, although now I teach in one. Sometimes I think that if I had had a chance to study in one, it would’ve been easier. But everyone’s life is the way it was meant to be. Great women writers were my teachers. So, I will recommend Mahasweta Devi — I grew up reading her books in my college days. I’ll recommend Mother of 1084. From America, Toni Morrison, and the book I love is Beloved. I think strong women write about strong women in difficult situations. From Canada, Margaret Atwood— The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d also recommend Amitav Ghosh and his Ibis trilogy, especially the first book: Sea of Poppies. The fifth one is an older book by [Rabindranath] Tagore called The Home and the World. What I really enjoy about Tagore is how he portrays his women characters. In his time, nobody was doing that.