Chita Banerjee Divakaruni is an Indian American author and poet, born in Kolkata, India in 1956. She is an award winning author. She has got the nationality of India as well as of the United States. Her works are widely known, as she has published over 50 magazines including the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker. Her works have been translated into 20 Languages, along with Hebrew, Japanese, and Dutch. Her writings have also been integrated in over 50 anthologies.
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Divakaruni’s three volumes of poetry, American Book Award winning short story collection Arrange Marriage (1995), and novels Sister of My Heart (1999) and Mistress of Spices (1997) have established her as a major Indian American writer. Divakaruni’s writing often centers around the lines of immigrant women. She was an acclaimed poet also and her poems encircle an extensive variety of themes. South Asian women are always the focal point of her writing. She shows the struggles and experience involved in women annoying to discover their own identities. Thus, she is measured as an Indian immigrant woman writer or an Indian Diaspora writer also. She works as a volunteer for battered women. Her interest about women’s rights began after she left India and then she came to know about the problems of immigrant women. Divakaruni says:
Women in particular respond to my work because I’m writing about them, women in love, in difficulty, women in relationship. I want people to relate to my character, to feel their joy and pain, because it will be harder to (be) prejudiced when they meet them in real life. 1
There is a long list of her occupations; She is a professor, novelist, poet, essayist, short-story writer, non-fiction writer, children’s fiction writer, book reviewer, columnist, and of course a very good wife and a mother also.
She belongs to a very traditional, middle-class family of Kolkata. She spent almost 18 years of her life in her homeland with her family. She lived there till 1976, and at the age of 19 she came to the United States. Divakaruni and her brother were permitted by her father to come to the U.S. when her brother got a job here. But things were not that much easy for her. To continue her higher studies she did a lot of odd jobs. She sustained her education in the field of English by receiving a Master’s degree from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. But to get established in a very new place was a little tough for her, that’s why, she earned money for her own education. She held many odd jobs like babysitting, selling merchandise in an Indian boutique, washing instruments in a science lab, and slicing bread in a bakery. All these are the experiences of her life which made her realize about her own identity. Somehow, this is also getting reflected in her works.
She did her Ph.D. in 1985 from the University of California at Berkeley. The subject of her Doctoral dissertation was Christopher Marlowe. She lived in the International House; there she worked in the dining hall and removing dishes from the dish-washer. Then after graduation, she settled down in the Bay Area and began her writing career and also finding time to start a family. She often writes about Northern California, where she has used up most of her life. She briefly lived in Ohio, Illinois, and Texas.
At present Divakaruni teaches at the University of Houston in the nationally ranked creative writing program. It has the second best creative writing program in the nation. The program is very international, very multicultural, with students from all over the world. She lives in Houston with her two sons Anand and Abhay, her husband Murthy, and Juno, the family dog Juno who is recently passed away.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni started her writing career as a poet. She has also won a number of awards for her poems, such as an Allen Ginsberg Award, a Gerbode Award, and a Barbara Deming Memorial Award. Her two latest volumes of poetry are Leaving Yuba City (1997) and Black Candle (1991). Her Major novels include One Amazing Thing (2010), Queen of Dreams (2004), Vine of Desire (2002), Sister of my Heart (1999), and Mistress of Spices (1997) are well known works of her. Although the greater part of the novels is written for adults but she has also written a young adult fantasy sequence called The Brotherhood of the Conch. Three books are integrated in this whole series- the first is The Conch Bearer (2003), which was nominated for the Bluebonnet Award in 2003; the second is The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming, was published in 2005; and the third book is The Shadow Land, which was published in 2009. Including her novel Neela: Victory Song (2002), all these novels are a great contribution in children’s fiction. Her latest novels for adults are The Palace of Illusions (2008), a re-telling of the Indian epic The Mahabharata by a female character Draupadi; and One Amazing Thing (2010).
In a short span of 15 years, Chitra Banerjee has received an accolade for her novels, volumes of poetry, and collections of short-stories:
The Reason for Nasturtiums – Poems (1990)
Black Candle – Poems (1991)
Arranged Marriage – Stories (1995)
Leaving Yuba City – Poems (1997)
The Mistress of Spices – Novel (1997)
Sister of My Heart – Novel (1999)
The Unknown Errors of our lives – Stories (2001)
Neela: Victory Song – Novel (2002)
The Vine of Desire – Novel (2002)
The Conch Bearer – Novel (2003)
Queen of Dreams – Novel (2004)
The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming – Novel (2005)
The Palace of Illusions – Novel (2008)
Shadow land – Novel (2009)
One Amazing Thing – Novel (2010)
1.2 Favorite Nonprofits:
In addition to, all these academic achievements, Divakaruni has also given her contribution in non-profit works. Through her personal Experience or after realizing the problems of the immigrant women and the question of their self-identity, she serves on the Advisory Board of Daya in Houston and Maitri in the San Francisco’s bay area. This association aids South Asian or South American women who locate themselves in insulting or domestic violence situations. She has always been paying attention to women’s conditions, issues, and desirous of making changes. When she was living in India, she was totally immersed in the culture. She never thought about women’s rights or their problems. Her coming to the U.S. gave her the distance that needed to look back on her culture. She studied cautiously the lives of other women around her who are Indians. The author also observed that many of them were still wedged into the old value system that a man has control over them and he is superior.
In 1989 and 1990, she approached several women who were victims of abuse. The fact is that, they were unfamiliar with working of American Society. She realized all these problems and decided to help them. Maitri is an organization which was founded by Chitra Banerjee in 1991, with the help of a small group of friends. This is a kind of helpline, the first South Asian service of its kind on the West Coast. Those women who are in the state of distress call in and talk to trained South Asian volunteers. She explained,
Our Volunteers speak many South Asian Languages, and this, together with the understanding of the cultural context, helps to put the caller at the case. Depending on how acute the situation is, we refer the women to sources that can help her, or advise her to contact shelters or the police, or provide other necessary information. All our services are free and confidential. We have legal and medical help and family counseling available as well. Most of all, we provide a sympathetic ear, a sense that the women is not alone, and a strong belief that no women should have to put up with the abuse, ever. 2
The word Maitri means friendship; they offer educational workshops in the society to instruct women legal and financial independence or survival skills. They also offer awareness workshops to aware the community from the problem of ill-treatment which is open for all. They are completely volunteer and a true grassroots organization. Her work with Maitri has been at once precious harrowing. Maitri provides a broad range of services such as legal advocacy, counseling, transitional housing, child care, transportation, peer support career counseling, court accompaniments, and training on cultural competency. It also works to raise awareness about domestic violence.
Like Maitri, Divakaruni is also related to some other non-profit organization. She serves on the board of Pratham, Houston. Its mission is, “Every child in school and learning well”. It has brought literacy to 23 million Indian children. It is also dedicated to removing illiteracy in India. Pratham works in urban slums, labour sites, prisons, rural outposts where children are employed and many other areas. Divakaruni also serves on the advisory board of a Houston based organization Daya. That work is to prevent violence against women and to promote healthy family relationships within the South Asian Community. Daya has an active education and outreach program. Their aim is to engage and empower communities to address the issues of domestic violence. Daya serves for legal advocacy, children affected by sexual assault, and family violence.
Her literary awards include:
Cultural Jewel Award, Indian Culture Center, Houston, 2009
University of California at Berkeley, International House Alumna of the Year Award, 2008
South Asian Literary Association Distinguished Author Award, 2007
The Conch Bearer nominated for the Bluebonnet Award, 2004
Included in Best Books of 2003, Publishers Weekly, The Conch Bearer
“The Lives of Strangers” included in O’Henry Prize Stories, 2003
Included in Best Books of 2002, Los Angeles Times, The Vine of Desire
Included in Best Books of 2002, San Francisco Chronicle, The Vine of Desire
“Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter” included in Best American Short Stories, 1999
Included in Best Paperbacks of 1998, Seattle Times, The Mistress of Spices
California Arts Council Award, 1998
Included in Best Books of 1997, Los Angeles Times, The Mistress of Spices
American Book Award, 1996, for Arranged Marriage
PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award, 1996, for Arranged Marriage
Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, Best Fiction, 1996, for Arranged Marriage
C.Y. Lee Creative Writing Award, 1995
Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize, 1994
Pushcart Prize, 1994
2 Pen Syndicated Fiction Awards, 1993 and 1994
Gerbode Foundation Award, California, 1992
Honorable mention, Paterson Poetry Prize, 1992, for Black Candle
Santa Clara Arts Council Award, California 1990, 1994
Editor’s Choice Award, Cream City Review, 1990
Barbara Deming Memorial Award, New York, 1989
The Hackney Literary award, Birmingham-Southern College, Alabama, 1988
1.4 Image as an Indian Diaspora Writer:
Divakaruni occupies an important place in the recent Indian Literature. Her novel, The Mistress of Spices (1997) was released as a film of the same name in 2005. The film starred by Aishwariya Rai and Dylan Me Dermott. The film was directed by Paul Mayeda Berges, with a script by Gurinder Chadha and her husband Beges. In addition, her novel Sister of my Heart (1999) was made into a television series in Tamil.
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The Contribution of the Indian writers, especially women writers, to the development of the literature is an important issue and deserves a detailed enquiry. It seems quite amazing that her poetry, short stories, as well as fictional writings have received much popular attention. Divakaruni’s works are largely set in India and the United States. Her work deals with the immigrant experiences and important matter in the medley of American society. The author has published novels in multiple genres, including historical fiction, fantasy, magical realism, realistic fiction, feminine sensibility, and myths or stereotypes.
Moving to the United States made her renegotiate her own boundaries and in some way made realize her as a woman. That’s the same story of many immigrant women. Her focus on the lives of Indian women struggling with cultural shackles, while seeing the everyday beauty of their lives, has made Divakaruni popular with women worldwide. Thus, all these features consider her the Indian Immigrant Woman Writer or one can also say an Indian Diaspora Writer.
The word “Diaspora” in Greek means, dispersal or scattering of the seeds. The term primarily used to submit to Jewish scattering, came to be used to pass on to contemporary conditions that involve the experiences of migration, expatriate workers, refugees, exiles, immigrants, and ethnic communities. Bhiku Parekh commented on the nature of Indian Diaspora in his paper “Some Reflections on the Indian Diaspora” that,
The diasporic Indian is like the banyan tree, the traditional symbol of the Indian way of life, he spreads out his roots in several soils, drawing nourishment from one when the rest dry up. Far from being homeless he has several homes, and that is the only way he has increasingly come to feel at home in the world. 3
The word “Diaspora” was used initially for the dispersal of Jews, when they were forced into exile to Babylonia. However, today it has come to mean any sizeable community of a particular nation or region living outside its own country and sharing some common bonds that give them an ethnic identity and consequent bonding. For the first generation it means, strong feelings about the country of their origin. From the second generation onward ties with the homeland get gradually replaced by those with the adopted country. However, a distinction can be made between immigrant culture and ethnic identity. A group of immigrants from a particular country are impacted both by the cultural variations among themselves and the culture of the adopted country. Certain elements constitute markers of identity – clothes, food, language, religion, music, dance, legends, myths, customs, individual community, and other.
“The Indian Diaspora” means, population outside India, mainly those who have traveled to foreign lands and in the course of time gave up their Indian citizenship. Since the latter half of the 20th century, the word Diaspora has been used as a substitute of “transnational”, which refers to the population that has instigated in a land rather than in which it present resides. The term stands for the parts of Indian population outside of India who have acquired the citizenship of the foreign countries and now belong to the nation of their migration but can mark out their origin from another land.
Today there are over 20 million people of Indian origin spread over hundred and thirty eight countries. They speak different languages and have different vocations and professions but what gives them a commonality of identity is the consciousness of their Indian origin, cultural heritage, and deep attachment to India. They are known for their resilience and hard work.
The diasporic experiences have two aspects – one is positive in the sense that it reflects the Indian’s identity and history, and the second is negative because it acts like a buffer. Its greater visibility renders us invisible. The diasporic Indian writing covers every continent and part of the world. The diasporic writing or writers are the records of the experiences of the diasporic communities living in varied socio-cultural area. Diasporic writings take up a significant place around cultures and countries. Thus,
The diasporic Indian writing covers every continent and part of the world. It is an interesting paradox that a great deal of Indian writing in English is produced not in India but in widely distributed geographical areas. Indian Diaspora today resides from the Caribbean islands, South Africa, Mauritius (Old Diaspora) to the USA, Canada, and Australia (New Diaspora) in 44 countries all over the world. The Indian diasporic community has made a substantial contribution to the literary output of their host countries. 4
A large number of diasporic writers have been giving expression to their creative encourage and have brought credit to the Indian fiction as a distinctive force. Diasporic writings are concerned with the writer’s or community’s attachment to the homeland, but this attachment is countered by a yearning for a sense of belonging to their current places of abode. They occupy an eloquent position around cultures and countries. Though the immigrant writers share common features, so far the differences based on the condition or circumstances of their migration and settlement cannot be overlooked. Settlement in alien lands make them experience unsettlement and dislocation. The feeling of “other” is there in the adopted land as they suffer non acceptance by the host society.
Dislocation can be regarded as a break with the old identity. The attempt of adaptation and adjustment are not without the concern to preserve the original culture and identity. Even the immigrants always try to assimilate, adapt and integrate with the society of their host country. Mostly the migrants suffer from the trauma of being far off their homes. Thus, the diasporic Indians always have an effort to look for their root. Conscious efforts are made by the diasporic communities to pass their traditions of the future generation. Willam Safran has observed in his paper “Diasporas in Modern Societies”, it is a general characteristic of the diasporics that,
They continue to relate personally or vicariously, to the homeland in a way or another, and their ethno – communal consciousness and solidarity are importantly defined by the existence of such a relationship. Diaspora consciousness is an intellectualization of an existential condition a sad condition that is ameliorated by an imaginary homeland to which one hopes one will someday return. 5
Thus, search of identity is perhaps the one recurring theme in the works of Indian Diaspora writers. V.S. Naipaul features in his works as that of a minority culture adapting to a cosmopolitan society, and changing value systems. One of the major preoccupations of Salman Rushdie’s art is the issue of migrant identity. The main themes of his works are double identity, divided selves and shadow figures. Anita Desai also articulates important questions regarding the collapse of joint family system, social and economic disparities, tradition versus modernity, ambivalent cultural responses to the impact of the west, and marital discords. Her novels most intimately relate to her experience of living with Indian immigrants in London. The major themes of the novels of Vikram Seth are alienation in modern American society, the image of American women and disintegrating family life in America. Diasporal dream figures outstandingly in all the fiction of Bharati Mukherjee covering many moods of expatriation – nostalgia, isolation, disintegration of personality, frustration, uncertainty and despondency. Jhumpa Lahri has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies, a book of short stories that chronicle the lives of Indian immigrants in Boston Area. She writes about the people around her i.e. about Indians settled abroad long back, their sensibility, and consciousness which makes it difficult for them to cut off from their roots.
Hence, their works of literature illustrate their own awareness of their history and heritage, their society and its problems, its limitations and frustrations, its achievements. Diasporic writings reveal the experiences of unsettlement and dislocation. The shifting designation of “home”, the impossibility of going back and attendant anxieties about homelessness are perennial themes in their stories. In their attempt to merge with the host culture while preserving their heritage that develops a double identity and their culture becomes a sandwich culture. The feeling of alienation, nostalgia, confusion, dislocation, fight of identity, sufferings due to discrimination on the basis of race, religion, culture and language culminates into conflicts.
Noted author and poet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, herself is an immigrant, has become the balladeer of the Indian Diaspora, chronicling the struggles, the losses and the tales of reinvention and redemption. She has put into words that millions of immigrants would find hard to articulate. She belongs to that category of Indian Diaspora whose only link with India is their origin.
Divakaruni started writing about 13 years ago, that was many years after she came to this country. But at that time she won’t discover that’s this is her special quality. After she came to the U.S. from Kolkata in 1976, she went through an incident and that changed her whole point of view and inspired to write about her own experience or immigration. Once she was walking down the streets of Chicago with some relative, wearing a sari, when some white teenagers called them “nigger”. That was such a shock to her. She realized that the people didn’t know who they were. And though she kept quiet about the incident, it stayed, and played in her mind spurring her need to write. She said, “I never talked to anyone about it, I felt ashamed. Writing was a way to go beyond the silence” 6.
Divakaruni captured her cultural dilemma in a magazine piece with the title, “Indian born in the USA”; yet the question where do you come from? In this article she tried to ask about the question of self-identity and also described that one day her five year old son, Abhay, returned home from school and took a bath, frantically tried, as he put it, to wash “the dirt colour” out of his skin. Divakaruni writes,
I began to realizeâ€¦â€¦what a challenge it would be to bring up my children in a country where all their lives their appearance would proclaim them ‘foreigners.’ Where, though they were born in America no less than Bruce Springsteen, they would have to continually answer the question ‘Where are you from?’. 7
She realized it was a big adjustment moving from a big city like Kolkata to Dayton, Ohio, or Hudson. Where at that time, didn’t have many Indians and was not cosmopolitan. She felt a real sense of being “other”. People were so startled to see an Indian person in Indian clothes in foreign countries. They actually stopped their car to look when the Indians walked down the street. Once, when her child called an American flag “our flag”, that time she understood a need to say, something about the complexities of culture, allegiance, patriotism, and ancestry. All the people who come to a new country with preconceived notions; there was an adjustment on both sides.
Divakaruni generally focuses on the struggle to become accustomed to new ways of life when one’s cultural traditions are in conflict with new cultural expectation. She also points out the role of women in India or America and the complexities of love between family, lovers, and spouse. Her work is often considered to be quasi- autobiographical as most of her novels are set in California, and here where she lives. She confronts the immigrant experiences also specifically about the Indian who settles in the US and evaluates treatment of Indian American women both in India and America. Divakaruni is not advocating rebellion and defiance of one culture and acceptance of another; she writes to unite people and she does it by destroying myths and stereotypes. Thus, she tries to bridge between the east-west gap and cultural clash as to establish a sort of harmony between two worlds.
Her roots are in India, basically from the very cultured city Kolkata, even a traditional middle class family. She learned all the customs and duties which belong to a woman. That’s why she knows this country very well. She accepted in one of her articles that:
When I was twelve, I spent a summer with an aunt in Rourkela, a small town very different in flavour from Kolkata, where I lived. My aunt taught me to pickle mangoes and to make quilts out of old cotton saris – skills that my mother, a busy school teacher, either didn’t possess or didn’t care to teach me. For this reason, I was fascinated by them. My aunt also taught me a prayer ritual, or vrata, popular among unmarried girls. 8
When she was a child in India, her grandfather would tell her stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the ancient Indian epics. Being a child she loved to hear about the amazing and incredible exploits of heavenly warrior heroes such as Ram and Krishna. All the stories about the magical weapons, with which, they destroyed evil kings and demons. More than these princes, she always got attract towards the women of the epics. There were so many examples of women power and sacrifices, like Sita, Draupadi, and Kunti. She knows India very well through her heart as well as per her mind. Her writing is more complicated by the fact that she is exploring the experience of being Indian. Even after three decades of adaptation and assimilation, Divakaruni maintains affection for her cultural background and visits India fairly regularly. Her husband is of South Indian descent and both of them used to speak Hindi and English both at home, just to make their children realize about their culture or about their roots. Even the boys are interested because that’s their parent’s mother-tongue. She mentioned,
It’s important to maintain a sense of cultural identity. Everyone makes choices of what in their culture is important to them. I do wear Indian clothes, especially when I do formal events, and even when I teach. We go to Chimayo Mission, a big Hindu organization for spiritual values, and our boys go to Sunday school there. 9
The Main point is that, she did like to preserve the importance of family, in which she promotes Indian culture. Divakauni agrees that American society has come a long way in the past three decades. Thus, she further pointed out,
“The ways I grew up, there was a lot of respect for people in the family – parents, grandparents. We did a lot of things for them, and they did a lot for us. I want my boys to grow up with that, not thinking you just take care of yourself and that’s it. It’s a question of balancing what the individual wants and what’s a good for the family. 10
1.5 About Her Writing:
According to Divakaruni, she is very much influenced by Mahasweta Devi – an Indian feminist writer. Mahasweta wrote about women’s issues long before, which became really dangerous to be written. But more than this a lot of women from different traditions have influenced her as well. At the starting point of Chitra’s writing career, she didn’t have the confidence that her subject would be of interest to anyone. So, after reading Maxine Hong Kigston’s The Women Warrior, She found a new stream. The poet Adrienne Rich, V.S. Naipaul, Anita Desai, and Erdrich are also a part of her inspiration. She started her writing with the different issues of women. She has studied both eastern and western literatures; she also likes to bring the two together in her writing. She feels it is a way to enrich both traditions. She has also been persuaded by many of the feminist ideas of Virginia Wolf. She very much likes women of all backgrounds to pick up in her books. May be because women’s experiences are much more similar than ordinary thing for her.
All her achievements, experiences, her influence, her way of thinking, her purpose of writing, even her own identity gets reflected very well in her works. Her writing gives a new light to theme of feminine sensibility, immigrant experiences, fight of identity, homelessness, and the gap between the east and west. When her grandfather would tell her stories from the ancient Indian epics; she got to know about all the prince and princess. Interestingly, unlike the male heroes, her main focus was on these women like, Sita, Draupadi, Kunti, Shabri. These women had been with the opposite sex – with their husbands, sons, lover, or opponents. But somehow, she realized they never had any foremost women friends. The isolation of the epic heroines seemed strange to her. In the sex-isolated traditional society of her grandfather’s village, women used up most of their day with each other, going in a group to fetch water, working in the fields together, cooking together, and they used to bathe in the women’s lake. All these past memories made her realize that the friendship among women is very ancient.
But when she read the classic texts and other epics of Indian culture, she was astonished to find few portrayals of companionship among women. In the rare cases such relationship appeared, for example, the stories of Shakuntala or Radha. Thus, maybe the tellers felt that women’s relationships are significant until their marriage. Perhaps, in rebellion against such thinking Divakaruni focused her writing on the friendship with women; she tried that, they come to us as daughters and mothers, lovers and wives.
Her well known novel Sister of my Heart (1999), explores the particular nature of women’s friendships, which make them special and different. The story deals with an emotional journey of love between Anju and Sudha, two girls who are born only a minute apart. The strong emotional bond between both the girls is evident from childhood. The plot focuses on the relationship between the two. The book transports us to India, wearing a sari, hearing the tinkling of ankle bracelets, feeling the heat, smelling the spices, pickles, cinema; taking part in the day-today life of the five women who live in the Chatterjee household. It is also very intricate and full of surprises. Amitav Ghosh explained in his our words that, “Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s account of family life in Bengal is warm and richly detailed. Hers is one of the most strikingly lyrical voices writing about the lives of Indian women today” 11.
This story begins with the two women as girls, far-away cousins who are born in the same household at the same time. When Anju was born, she was placed on the stomach of her aunt who was in labor; it was Anju’s wailing that inspired Sudha to finally come out. From the day of their birth, they are sisters of the heart. At that moment Anju spoke:
I could never hate Sudha because she is my other half. The sister of my heart.
I can tell Sudha everything I feel and not have to explain any of it. She’ll look at me with those big unblinking eyes and smile a tiny smile, and I’ll know she understands me perfectly.
Like no one else in the entire world does. Like no one else in the entire world will. (Sister of my Heart: 24)
The author tried to show a proximity that is unique, a sympathy that comes from somewhere unfathomable and primal in their bodies and does not need explanation. They share the life changing experiences – menstruation, childbirth, and menopause. Even the same tragedies, physical or emotional, threaten them.
This novel is a wonderfully written story for anyone to read because it provides a life lesson tied together with rarely found culture. It is also a small view into the large demanding world of Indian society and its indirect impositions or demands. It also shows an unfathomable link between two women who cannot even be considered sisters, but end up being two halves of one bond that is tested repeatedly with secrets, lies, passion, and love. Tradition, women’s friendship, and feminine sensibility are the main focus of this story. Author proceeds to the lives of Sudha and Anju in her next novel The Vine of Desire (2002). In this sequel, Sudha comes to live with Anju after leaving her abusive husband.
Basically Sister of my Heart is an expanded
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