By Neha Kirpal
If you love fiction, you probably own at least one book by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. For those who have experienced blissful getaways into the pages of this Indian-American author’s phenomenally successful works such as The Palace of Illusions (2008), the award-winning author, poet, activist and professor at the University of Houston has now come up with a new novel The Last Queen (HarperCollins, 2021).
The story of Rani Jindan Kaur, this work of historical fiction once again brings together Chitra’s signature – and addictive – storytelling with a tale from India’s ancient past. We caught up with the bestselling novelist about her writing and activism.
Why did you decide to make Rani Jindan Kaur the subject of your latest book? How were you personally moved by her life?
The first story I heard about Rani Jindan was of how the British forcibly separated her from her son, Maharaja Dalip Singh, when he was only nine years old. The British imprisoned Jindan, but she escaped and walked across northern India to Nepal where she received asylum. By the time she saw her son again, many years had passed and she was almost blind.
When she met him again, he had been converted to Christianity and had cut off his traditionally long hair. When she touched his head and realised this, it broke her heart and she wept loudly. This emotional moment went deep into my heart.
I was moved by her love for her son and her helplessness in protecting him from the British. But she didn’t give up! She spent the rest of her life with Dalip in England and rekindled his pride in his heritage.
Because of her influence, Dalip would fight the British for his rights and, after her death, would return to his Sikh religion. Jindan’s story first resonated with me because I am a mother too. But as I researched her life, I was struck by her other qualities: her courage, her intelligence and her love for Punjab.
Of all the books you have written, which one impacted you the most personally?
The Forest of Enchantments, in which I retell Sita’s story in her own voice, was the most impactful for me. It made me think deeply about many things, including how women – even wonderful and innocent women such as Sita – can be harshly judged by society and have to pay the price for crimes they never committed.
Sita’s character taught me a great deal about dignified resistance, inner strength and the true nature of love. As one of literature’s first single mothers who brings up her sons perfectly and without any bitterness towards their father, she was a great role model for women of our time.
Tell us more about your role as the co-founder and former president of Maitri, a helpline for South Asian women dealing with domestic abuse.
Helping women in situations of domestic abuse has been important to me ever since I was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley and volunteered in their Women’s Center. I strongly feel that a woman deserves to feel safe in her own home. I also feel that all women should have the ability and training to stand on their own feet and be economically independent.
After graduation, I volunteered with mainstream US organisations such as Support Network in California. But women from our cultural background did not feel comfortable using such services. So, a group of women friends and I founded Maitri.
The organisation provides women in distress with a safe place to stay, financial and legal help and job training. I still remain connected to them.
Here in Houston, I am on the advisory board of Daya, a similar service helping South Asian women. Things have been difficult for our clients during the pandemic as many are stuck at home all day with their abusers.
How did the pandemic affect your writing process?
At first, I was in shock. The University of Houston, where I teach, had to go online all of a sudden, and I had to learn how to teach online. That took a lot of effort and cut into my writing time. Plus, it was very distressing, seeing how people were suffering all over the world and feeling helpless to assist anyone. I could not even help my closest friends.
But at a certain point, I pulled myself together and said, “Let me focus on something I can actually do.” So, I focused on completing The Last Queen. Ironically, I think the pandemic helped me to stay focused on my writing and to complete the book by my deadline.
You began your writing career as a poet. Do you still write poetry? Which is the most challenging of all the genres you write, and why?
I do still write poetry once in a while, but I must say I am most interested right now in the novel. It is the most challenging genre for me because there are so many threads to weave together, so many events, characters, timelines and themes. A well-constructed novel becomes a complete world into which a reader is invited. That’s what I want to do – and I feel I’m still learning!
Who or what has been your biggest inspiration in your writing journey?
My mother, who has now passed away, was a big inspiration. She always wanted to write. She had several notebooks in which she jotted down her thoughts about life and her memories of childhood. Her circumstances did not allow her to become a writer, but she always encouraged me to follow my dreams. I think of her and thank her all the time.
Many Indian writers from the West have brought up cross-cultural themes in their books. How do you see the question of identity in a globalised world, especially from the female perspective?
Cross-cultural themes are very important for me. I am fascinated by the immigrant story, particularly the story of the Indian or South Asian immigrant, who is living in America and balancing (or caught between) two cultures. I am also interested in the idea or repatriation – what happens to characters, particularly women, when they try to return to the land of their origin.
My novels such as The Mistress of Spices, Queen of Dreams, and the three-generational immigrant tale Before We Visit the Goddess explore themes of transformation of identity (and trauma) that occur in a cross-cultural world. I’m also interested in examining to what extent identity is a fluid concept in a globalised world, and to what extent it has become more rigid, because of a belief in nationalism.
Over the years, what has been your biggest learning as a writer?
I have learned that no matter how experienced one might be as a writer, it is hard to see one’s own writing objectively. That is why I am very grateful for my writing group, with whom I share my work, and whose work I look at too. We give each other feedback on how to make our work better, and then we revise very carefully.
For the same reason, I am also very appreciative of my editor Diya Kar at HarperCollins, when she makes suggestions for improvement. So, my big lesson is to listen to feedback and then revise. That is how I continue to grow as a writer.
In your books, you have retold epics through the perspective of women. Do you feel it is important to contemporise mythology?
Yes, I feel it is very important to contemporise mythology. The tales of our epics and the wonderful characters in them, have timeless lessons to teach us. Sita and Draupadi give us excellent models of how to resist injustice and evil.
But ultimately, what I’m most drawn to are the wonderful stories – they are exciting, complex and full of surprises, and can be interpreted in so many ways, on so many levels, both practical and spiritual. I learned so many things about how to live my life as I was writing The Palace of Illusions and The Forest of Enchantments.
For most of your women protagonists, there is a moral battle between tradition and freedom being fought through the book. How do you see your role as a novelist in terms of integrity to the original tale and your own personal ideology?
In writing the stories of Sita and Draupadi, and now Rani Jindan, I feel I must stay true to the events of the original material, whether epic or historical. What I have freedom in is interpreting character and imagining motives for my heroines.
That’s where my own belief in women’s strength, intelligence and endurance comes into play. Of course, in all these cases I chose to write about these heroines because I believed their lives already displayed these qualities. I just shone the spotlight on them.
Who are some of your favourite contemporary authors of historical fiction?
I admire the work of Hillary Mantel, particularly Wolf Hall, about the life of Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. I learned a lot about how to research and what to look for by studying that novel carefully.
Among contemporary Indian writers, my favourite is definitely Amitav Ghosh. He creates entire worlds masterfully, bringing characters to life while showing us the forces of history that affect their lives. My favourite books of his are the three novels that make up The Ibis Trilogy, which, among other things, is about the effect of the Opium Wars and the devastating forces of colonialism.
Other than writing, which are some hobbies that you enjoy?
I love watching movies with my family. Since the pandemic, I have been watching them on the internet. I have been using programmes such as Netflix Party and Amazon Prime party, so that my son who works in a different city can join us online, and we can discuss the movies together.
First published in eShe’s February 2021 issue
Chitra never speaks about her short story books ‘Arranged Marriage’ and ‘Unknown Errors of Our Lives’ as if these are her children that she is ashamed of. The fact remains that many people in the world took notice of her writing prowess through these two books. She occasionally does talk about her poetry but never about her short stories. Wonder why?