Writing is a constant process of discovery, believes author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
One of the things that most interests me as a writer is how heritage is passed on to a child from its mother, and what its trajectory is like through the generations that follow. This is, in fact, a major theme in my books, the most recent example being the narrative of Sabitri, Bela and Tara in Before We Meet the Goddess. I wanted to explore how heritage changes between generations and how geography affects people – how we are a product of place.
Our engagement with heritage is always changing and our connections to our culture always endure. They might lie dormant for periods, but they always resurface – especially during situations of crisis. I have seen several people around me completely cut off from their heritage for some reason, and that invariably leaves a hole in their existence that they must eventually fill. And they must do it on their own terms. My own children were a bit awkward about their culture when they were in high school, but after they went away to college, they became much more aware and appreciative of their Indian-ness and of their Bengali roots.
A Bengali Canvas
I write about Bengali culture as an insider. It must be understood that culture is vast, and any stereotype can only touch upon one little part and never the whole. My characters, despite being products of Bengali culture, live different lives and have different sensibilities.
When I create characters for my stories, I don’t draw much upon myself. Especially as I’ve written more and more, I’ve just run out of things to draw upon, in any case. As my children often say to me, my life is very boring! But I observe and I imagine – those are the two most important things. The women in my novels are complex, because human beings are complex. They’re layered and not always perfect. Relationships aren’t always perfect either. When we start portraying ideal images in literature/movies, they create expectations in people that are not possible to fulfill. And that can cause problems and relationship breakdowns, because people begin to seek a kind of perfection that doesn’t exist.
As I write, I discover things about myself all the time. When my characters realise something, in a secondary way, I realise it too. For example, when in one of my novels an outsider comes into my protagonists’ life at a time of crisis and helps them in a way that even their family can’t, I realise the importance of strangers. It’s a real learning for me from the world of fiction. Writing is a constant process of discovery, really. This is probably also at least partially the reason why the form of the bildungsroman interests me so much.
Life and Education
I think life’s journey is an education, and you see that most clearly in the bildungsroman, because it’s about the education of the young person as he/she comes of age. I am very interested in the idea of life being a spiritual quest whether we know it or not. If you think about it, all our Indian myths and epics talk about the human journey too.
I’ve always been interested in folk tales and myths. My grandfather was a wonderful storyteller, and he would narrate many of them to me and my cousins. I retold one of the Bengali folk tales he used to tell me, in English recently, and now an app has come out called Grandma’s Great Gourd. I’m quite excited and hope it does well! It’s a nice way to connect the younger generation to folk tales through learning activities.
On Painting and Poetry
Painting was a great love of mine some time ago, alongside writing, but I realised that if I did both, I wouldn’t have the time to do either of them properly. So I moved to writing completely, though I still do have a great love for the visual arts. I have seen, however, that my training as a painter has made me a very visual writer. Images, colours, shapes and forms are very important in my writing. Within writing, another love of mine besides prose has been poetry, and that has also influenced my work stylistically. In poetry, language, imagery and sound are very important, and all of them are important in my books too.
– As told to Nandini D Tripathy