By Shikha Sreenivas
“I turned to writing as a way of making sense of my experience, into stories that perhaps other people would relate to. Where pain could be something beautiful,” said Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the author of Palace of Illusions and Before We Visit the Goddess. Sitting with her were Vinita Nangia and Ambika Behal, in conversation about the journeys and discoveries one makes while writing. This was at Times Litfest Bengaluru 2017, presented by ACT Fibrenet.
Nangia is a senior editor, author and columnist with Times of India. She is also the director of Times of India Write India Campaign, a platform for crowdsourcing writing. Ambika Behal is a journalist and the founder of an app Mytha, a digital publishing platform.
Divakaruni smiled widely as she explained the kind of journey her own plots make. “I don’t think I ever planned the way things went,” she said. “Sometimes even when you are writing, characters begin to do things you don’t expect. So you start writing thinking you’ll have some control over fictional life, but even in fiction, characters and the stories take control!”
Nangia spoke on the endlessly pondered question, why do we write? “Everybody needs to understand that writing is different from being a ‘celebrity author’. You have to write because you need to write.”
Write India, the campaign she is a part of, invites people all over the country to write. It begins with the selected authors putting out a passage, which the contestants have to weave a story around.
Divakaruni explained that through stories you can communicate what you can’t fully explain in other ways — otherwise it may just go over someone’s head. But stories have a power, all three women of the panel agreed, to touch people. Before We Visit the Goddess is about three generations of women — a grandmother, mother, and a girl. The grandmother writes her own life story for her granddaughter, hoping the story could make her granddaughter learn from the mistakes she had made. “I think writing is a great journey, because as I write a book, I go to places where I may never go, and times beyond my own life span!” Divakaruni said.
She said that her whole writing project is putting strong women at the centre of her fiction. When I spoke to her later, after the session, and asked her what made women ‘strong’, she said, “I think strength is the ability to pick one’s self up when one falls down, and realising that we need other people’s help, and admitting you’ve made a mistake.” She said that she thought a special part of women’s strength is especially how they can support each other, and the relationships they’ve had with each other.
This is true of all the women in her books, who have complex relationships with each other — of family, friendship and romance. She continued to tell me that the strength of women in literature is also talking about their vision. “Panchali has a vision, she wanted her own palace; a place where she could be herself.” Her book Palace of Illusions, is Mahabharata written from Draupadi’s perspective.
At the session she also spoke on writing about relationships, and how writing is an exercise to give you a deeper understanding of humans. “The joy of fiction is seeing the irony of relationships, and how differently people interpret matters of the relationship,” she said. “Which is why many of my stories have more than one narrators.”
Divakaruni’s novels have a strong feminist message, so I asked her how these narratives emerge naturally, and if she is every wary of writing with a prior agenda, which ends up directing the story. She responded that she is always careful of this. “If I want my stories to have a powerful message, they must first of all be stories. They must pull readers into the characters, whatever I have to say has to flow naturally from how that character would behave.”
She went on to say that her women have flaws, they have their faults, and they are not perfect. “As much as I want to show the strength of strong women, I also want to show the strength of ordinary women.”
At the session, Chitra had spoken about the exercise of writing from somebody else’s perspective, and seeing an event from someone else’s shoes. She smiled as she said it had made her a less judgemental person. “It increases your compassion,” she said, “and this seeps into your real life. When you read fiction, your brains change, and your learn to empathise.”
The book she is currently working on is Ramayana from Sita’s eyes, just as Palace of Illusions was Panchali’s story from the Mahabharata. She explained to me the power of retelling a myth. “The epics have a lot of power, there is something primordial, and deeply human about those stories, which is why they have lasted so many centuries.”
Writers, filmmakers and artists have all reinterpreted the Ramayana in their works. “So over the years, there’s been a kind of patriarchal interpretation as Sita. She is seen as someone docile.” It is the narrative of the victim, that we are all too familiar with. Divakaruni explained that to her, this doesn’t seem to be the truth about Sita. “She is actually a very strong and resilient person,” she said.
Speaking about the moment Sita asked Rama to chase the deer, she said, “Sita is the one who wants the deer, she is the one who forces Laxman to go after Ram. When Ravana comes to her disguised as a sanyasi, she is the one who chooses to step over the lakshmana rekha. Because she feels it is a duty to her guest. So she is making choices. She is not a victim.”
“We need to think beyond women being victims,” she said. “Because women are the agents of their own destiny.” This next novel on Sita is yet to be released, and is her latest project, and the most recent characters who have been running around her mind. First she fell in love with Panchali, and then several other characters of her other books, which has now led her to falling in love with Sita. Chitra Divakaruni is what Nangia playfully called a “serial lover”.