PROFILE: Chitra Divakaruni – a Fiery Voice from the Indian Diaspora

Guest post by Haimanti Dutta Ray

 

Image courtesy: www.thehindu.com

Image courtesy: www.thehindu.com

Name: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Born: 1956, Calcutta, India

Novels: Neela: Victory Song; The Conch Bearer; The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming; Shadowland; One Amazing Thing; The Palace of Illusions; Mistress of Spices; Sister of my Heart; The Oleander Girl; The Vine of Desire.

Short story collections: Arranged Marriage; The Unknown Error of Our Lives.

Poetry Collections: The Reason for Nasturtiums; Black Candle; Leaving Yuba City.

Awards: Allen Ginsberg Award, Gerbode Foundation Award and the Pushcart Prize for Leaving Yuba City: New & Selected Poems; Barbara Deming Memorial Award for poetry; Distinguished Writer Award from the South Asian Literary Association; Pushcart Prize for The Lives of Strangers; University of California at International House Berkeley Alumna of the Year Award; Light of India Jury’s Award for Journalism & Literature.

***

I had my first encounter with Chitra Divakaruni’s writing when my cousin gifted me a copy of The Palace of Illusions. The book told the story of The Mahabharata from the perspective of Panchaali, wife of the five Pandav brothers. It was a feminist narrative, strong and uncompromising, and this (along with our shared Bengali heritage) laid the foundation for my interest in her other work.

Chitra was born in Calcutta in 1956, where she studied at the Calcutta University before moving to the United States in 1976. She started her career as a poet, her initial writing inspired by the death of her grandfather. She completed a Masters in English at Wright State University, Ohio, and almost a decade later, a Ph.D from the University of California, Berkeley. Her first collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage, won her the American Book Award in 1995. After that there was no looking back for this author, who has come up with new work every two to three years. Two of her novels, The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart, have been adapted for the silver screen and her fiction has been translated into over 20 languages, including Dutch, Hebrew, Indonesian and Japanese.

Divakaruni, who successfully blends eastern mysticism with contemporary American culture, often reflects on the immigrant experience through her characters. Almost all of her protagonists face personal conflicts that push them to migrate, mostly to the United States. Tilo, the ‘mistress of spices’ in the novel of the same name, is a shopkeeper and an immigrant from India who helps her customers fulfill their needs and desires with spices. Sister of My Heart follows the story of two sisters, one of whom stays in India while the other moves to the US. Her latest book, The Oleander Girl tells the story of Karabi Roy, who annuls her wedding and embarks on a journey to America. This is probably the author’s way of bridging the cultural divide that she herself straddles.

The thing that stands out most sharply about Divakaruni’s work is her strong female protagonists, who often give us a window into her own feminism. Her voice is fiery and passionate, which is mirrored in almost all the female characters around whom her stories are woven. This, coupled with the immigrant focus, makes her work largely about coming-of-age stories, one of the primary reasons for her commercial success.

Chitra Divakaruni lives in Texas, where she holds the chair of the Betty and Gene McDavid Professorship of Writing at the University of Houston.

 


 

Haimanti Dutta RayHaimanti Dutta Ray has written for The Statesman, The Times of India, and The Telegraph, among other publications. Creative writing is both her passion and her vocation. Her poetry has appeared at www.oxfordbookstore.com, and art criticisms have been published in Art India and Art & Deal journals.  At present, she writes book reviews for the blog site www.thetalespensieve.com.

 

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