Autobiography In Chitra Banerjees Works English Literature Essay
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is one of the worlds well known authors, a representative of the current Indo-Anglian fiction. Her new style of writing is different from the many other Indian writers, as it is much less conservative than Indian literature has been in the past. Born and brought up in Kolkata in a close-knit and upper middle class family, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni immigrated to the U.S.A. in 1976. The early years in the U.S. were possibly the most difficult years of her life since she witnessed herself as a sufferer of racial and cultural discrimination. Her various experiences in life find a sufficient place in her writings both fictions as well as non-fictions. She can expediently be described as a writer who has lived through several phases of life, first as an Indian, then as an immigrant and later as a citizen in the United States. Chitra Banerjee has successfully compounded together her several experiences, background, and life. The main shove area in her novels being a description of the condition of the Asian refugees in North America with the particular position of the change taking place in South Asian women in a new world. Even if her characters are conscious of the social cruelty and the violence imposed on the women characters yet they come out as survivors. They present themselves as they have successfully borne the brunt, both physical and emotional.
Divakaruni recounts her stories from a wide variety of viewpoints. She concentrates upon the notion of self-identity within a larger society. She has a special eye on the characters that are explorers and adventurers, rather than refugees and outcasts. They are part and parcel of a new changing America – the land of migrants having a migrant culture. Thus, it is clear that Divakaruni’s themes center on the phenomenon of relocation, their sentiments of unfriendliness and alienation as immigrants. She also exposes the Indian woman sojourning abroad and her struggle for identity.
Divakaruni’s fictional world flourishes with the tangling complexities of life, especially the life within the social structure of a family. She writes with such an ease that English becomes another of the various regional languages of India. She uses such language with a characteristic grace to write about Indian lifestyle, tradition and the inner workings of the human psyche. She has not had any formal training in creative writing, apart from the fact that she constantly practiced in writing and read a lot.
From the very beginning Chitra used the delicate and complex web of family variance as her greatest theme. Her favorite theme is alienation, both psychological and physical. Her earlier novels are notable for their evocative understatement, well thought out melodrama, and the luminous combination of elegant prose. Her protagonists usually struggle to achieve their goals in an unsympathetic and complicated world. The fight of women to affirm their independence in the narrow limits of the Indian society is one of the chronic themes in her works.
Most of Divakaruni’s novels give us a sight of the tensions, which is experienced by the middle-class women due to their sense of alienation, their dissatisfaction, and their incapability to share feelings with the family. Her female protagonists generally pose themselves as “outsiders” and revolutionary against patriarchy oppression. As they effort to discover their own powers so as to live on their own terms, usually they are forced to face harsh results. Thus, the author writes out of pressure. She does not have any utopian vision that her novels can destroy evil and change the world. She is alerted of the black image that life offers, of what human nature is capable for. She knows that human beings can be cruel, impatient, and pugnacious. So, it means that she can produces a general consciousness among human beings and thus change them.
Divakaruni’s novels have remained as a riddle for a long time. Though there are no such written documents that can throw light on the underlying theories and personal feelings of her. Researchers, critics, students, and scholars have never stopped sensation at the supremacy of thoughts in her works. The enormous learning and massive talent with which Divakaruni deals with the ruminative mood and the existence of implicit realities in her novels have determinedly intrigued the minds of the discriminating readers. But in recent years the author has scaled down the gap between her readers and herself by taking part in discussions and interviews. Now she is putting across her thoughts in the articles and reviews, which appeared in scholarly journals, magazine and in the newspapers.
Scholars have quite deeply and widely explored Divakaruni’s fiction, with a frequent push on the cultural, social, physical, and psychological area. There are many scholarly easy and full-length works written about Divakaruni’s novels and her characters. The strength of characters, the small but significant turn of events, the fine details, the complicated web of relationships, the role of place in the creation of mental scene have all been examined by many researchers; it proves that the author has become a part of Indian writing in English in a new literary tradition.
This study is an attempt to probe the traits of autobiography in Chitra Divakaruni’s works. There is a quality of autobiography in the works of Chitra Banerjee. Not only most of her stories are set in the Bay area of California, but she also deals with the immigrant experience, which is an important theme in today’s world, where the immigrant’s voice is rarely heard. It’s very much true that her works are not completely autobiographical but she skillfully expresses the knowledge of South Asians in America. She got an inspiration for writing through her own experiences. She says that her books are partly based on experience, partly on “social observation”. But Divakaruni strives to weave such observations with “the element of myth, magic and ancient culture alongside contemporary culture. I try to bring those things together – a sense of ancient culture and the daily realities of immigrant life” 1.
Autobiographical elements have always been seen in fictional works by writers from all cultures, but it is primarily in discussions of non-whites that critics say that fiction can be part of an autobiography. Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior and Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street for example. Storytelling is a part of many immigrant cultures in ways that it is not in Euro-American. Antje Lindenmeyer in her “The Rewriting of Home: Autobiography by Daughters of Immigrants” argues that immigrant women’s autobiographies are a distinct genre.
When we talked about the origin of autobiography, we will find that this word was first used wryly by William Taylor in 1797. He suggested it in the English periodical the monthly review as a hybrid but destined it as pedantic. The word autobiography is derived from the Greek word meaning “self”, “life”, and “write”, thus it is a style of writing that has been around almost as long as history has been recorded. Yet autobiography was not categorized as a term till the late eighteenth century. It is next logged use was in its current sense by Robert Southey in 1809. He coined the term for describing the work of a Provencal poet.
The main features of autobiography are the identity of the self, the grammatical perspective of the work, and self-reflection or introspection. If we talked about the grammatical perspective, autobiography is mostly written in the first person singular. It is believed that it is generally a story one tells about oneself, that’s why it is not certainly followed that the writer would recount or narrate her or his past from a third and second person perspective. Jean Quigley confirms this point in her book The Grammar of Autobiography (2000) by saying that, “As soon as we are asked about ourselves, to tell our autobiography, we start to tell stories. We tell what happened, what we said, what we did” 2.
Biographers generally relate to a wide variety of documents or viewpoints and on the other side autobiography may be based completely on the writer’s memory. One of the first great autobiographies of the Renaissance is that of the sculptor and goldsmith Benevento Cellini (1500-1571). He declares at the start,
No matter what sort he is, everyone who has to his credit what are or really seem great achievements, if he cares for truth and goodness, ought to write the story of his own life in his own hand; but no one should venture on such a splendid undertaking before he is over forty. 3
Thus, the protagonist, the author, and the narrator must share a common identity for the work to be acknowledged as an autobiography. This common identity could be equivalent, but is not equal. The personality that the author creates becomes a character within the story that may not be an entirely factual image of the author’s actual past. Notable 18th century in English includes those of Benjamin Franklin and Edward Gibbon, following the tendency of Romanticism, which greatly highlighted the role and the nature of the individual, and in the paths of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1782-1789). It is a more affectionate form of autobiography exploring the subject’s emotions. An English example is William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris (1823), a painful analysis of the writer’s love life. With the rising of education, modern concepts of celebrity and name began to develop, economy newspapers and cheap printing, and the recipients of this were not slow to cash in on this by producing autobiographies. Thus, autobiographical works are by nature subjective. Some sociologists and psychologist have noted that autobiography offers the author’s ability to recreate history.
Further, the term “fictional autobiography” has been invented to define novels about a fictional character written as though the character were writing their own biography. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1721) and Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850) are early examples of fictional autobiography. The term may also apply to the works of fiction claiming to be autobiographies of actual characters, e.g. Robert Nye’s Memoirs of Lord Byron (1994). In the autobiography, time and history at first glance, seem supreme. On balance, autobiography is the account of the things that have happened in a person’s life. The experiences of his life were selected and made ready for public utilization and usually written in the first person. It habitually seems that while truth may be divined from one’s own story, sometimes it is not one’s own truth but the truth of a nation, a culture, and a generation.
An autobiographical novel is a method which is using auto fiction techniques or the assimilation of fiction and autobiographical elements. Therefore, the literary technique is differentiated from memoir and an autobiography by the condition of being fiction. Because an autobiographical novel is partially fiction, the author does not ask the reader to expect the text to fulfill the “autobiographical pact”.
In an autobiographical novel name and locations are often changed and events are reconstructed to make them more dramatic but the story still stands a close similarity to that of the author’s life. At the same time as incidents of the author’s life are recounted, there is no pretense of precise truth. Events may be altered or overstated for artistic or thematic reason. As a result the term autobiography novel is difficult to define. Novels which have the portray settings or situations with which the author is familiar are not necessarily autobiographical. Neither are novels that comprise aspects drawn from the author’s life as slight plot details. To be measured an autobiographical by most standards, there should be a protagonist modeled after the author and a central plotline that reflects events in his or her life. Many novels about private experiences, intense are also written as autobiographical novel.
Thus, usually the novelist douses in thoughtful introspection first to find out herself and then to aesthetically broadcast reality to the readers thereby succeeding in creating and defining expressively captivating personages. Even more appealing is the sequence of her women from one stage of development to the other depicting them as cheerful and brave characters. By the way, different autobiographical semblances between the novelists and her creations can always be observed.
It is not easy to turn away from the autobiographical elements so impressively and graphically present in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s writing. She could not enclose within her the strong advise to write about her own struggle with identity first as an emigrant from India, and finally as a citizen in the United States. She writes her works with the various stages of her life as her characters are close projections of herself. In brief her writings symbolize her intelligence of what it means to be a woman writer of Bengali-Indian origin who has lived in America. Divakaruni found it complicated to bind herself as a pioneer of new territories, practices, and literature.
Chitra Banerjee believed that high-quality fiction focuses on the intellectual emotional and physical responses of a group of characters when they are placed in a circumstance not habit to them. She sensed that spiritual violent behaviour left a stronger impact on the mind rather than physical violence on the body. For that reason, her women protagonists are interested in their psychological studies. There is an incessant support in her woman to build up their disjointed life and to express their confirmation to life. True enough, while they try to do so, they come out abnormal in their behaviour but this is only in a proposal to live life on their own conditions. Thus, Divakaruni has skillfully made use of her experiences both in the East as well as the West, united with personal encounters to examine and to portray the life of the women characters objectively.
The hunt for the position in which the self is at home has been one of the most important projects of the modern literature all over the world. A number of books make an effort to map the narratives of ‘home’ in South Asian literature from the move ahead of modernity on the subcontinent of the present day. Their plan is to understand more than the domestic into representations of the home, to look at not only the geographical, but also the psychological and material shades of home. The foremost objective is to disband the perception of home in all its embodiments – as stability, myth, confinement, security, and as desire. Chitra Banerjee’s literary works both challenges or focuses home and her experiences in different situations. It examines that how the awareness of home changes its significations when uttered from different locations, by different subjects and in different languages, paying exacting concentration to ideological determinates such as class and gender.
So, the loss of or the separation to one’s native culture can cause sorrow in a migrant’s life. The psychological alteration is essential to integrate and adopt into a new culture, call into question the idea of a ‘pure identity’. Furthermore the mixture position of a migrant may pretense a risk to one’s identity by questioning the relationship between the ‘place’ and the ‘self’. Run with the challenges of living in two or more cultures encourage the migrant writers to imitate their homeland with their new surroundings and an effort to adapt a new soil. Thus, Divakaruni’s work is a mixture of autobiography and fiction; her stories represent the diverse and mixed perspectives of a migrant’s feelings and thoughts.
Divakaruni develops her own interpretation of Indian customs and history. She portrays a picture of an ambiguous legendary homeland. In her attempt to relate her story, she reveals to the reader the insight of her detachment. The hyphenated status of her identity, Asian-Indian or American prompts her to look into her last part of the hyphen.
Like Divakaruni, many Postcolonial writers are paying attention in challenging the fixed view of the world and its emblazoned meanings. Therefore, truth and authenticity are matched, as a result the migrant writers support multiplicity against the fixity of meaning. They value the freedom to form their own meanings through texts. Originality is viewed by many postmodern writers as an act of authorizing one’s identity. As a consequence, Chitra Banerjee appears closer to her own lost motherland in her short-stories and novels. In her stories she illustrates the separation of incorporated westerners; in her work it can be construed as the renderings of her own perception of India particularly in Calcutta.
Divakaruni’s works are not applicable in the approved definition of autobiography but there are characteristics of it. To understand the traits of autobiography we have to judge her works through the various points of view. We can easily find out the qualities that who she used her personal practices in her works. In order to find out the results we have started from the personal history and later it will carry on with the other points in the course of to prove autobiographical characters in her works like- sense of dislocation, image of immigrant, the issue of 9/11, her concept of India, the impact of her grandfather’s influence, attitude towards religion, the characters in Divakaruni’s works, etc.
The Concept of India-
Even after three decades of assimilation and adaptation, Divakaruni maintains liking for her cultural background. We can easily sense the image of India in her works. During her past 19 years in India she learned a lot about the culture, language, traditions, and rituals of this country. She is very much inspired by all her experiences of her motherland, which we can judge in her writing also. There are so many spots where it is proved that the author wishes to share her knowledge about India with her readers. Her works are not completely autobiographical but there is a depiction of her personal practices. In her works especially Arrange Marriage (1995), Sister of my Heart (1999), Vine of Desire (2002), Mistress of Spices (1997), The Conch Bearer (2003), and The Palace of Illusions (2008); the story line is based on the illustration of India.
Divakaruni was born in a traditional middle class family in Calcutta, India. Growing up in a number of places in India, the author feels a strong acquaintance to the landscape and persons of the subcontinent. Her mother also lived there till she was alive. Divakaruni sees the ethnicities and stories of Bengal as being center to her personality as a writer. Her writing is made more complimentary by the fact that she is exploring the experience of being Indian as well as the citizen of the U.S. In her novel The Sister of my Heart (1999), she presented the picture of a traditional Chatterjee’s family of Calcutta. The novel carries the theme of capturing the dilemmas and opportunities confronting women with one foot in the modern world and the other in traditional Indian society. This novel tells us the story of Anju and Sudha, two young girls raised as sisters in an old conventional family. The story continues between these two sisters in her another novel The Vine of Desire (2002).
Thus, in her few novels she represents the social and cultural changes that the India has undergone. She centers on the incredible power of society or family plus the relations between family members and paying close awareness to the examinations of women covered up by the Indian society.
Born on the same day into a traditional family circle, they have shared a powerful emotional bond since birth. At the center of the book lies the girl’s upper-class and wealthy Indian family, strong-minded to follow time privileged rules of modesty. But as they come of age, their relationship is tested by family secrets, romance, arranged marriage, and finally immigration to America. That’s a subject about which Divakaruni, who was born in Calcutta, writes from her personal experiences. The author says about her work,
The background out of Calcutta comes out of my experience – all of the concerns with the challenges that women face both in India and in America are of course, very close to me. Other than that, the rest of the story is imagined. 4
The book is separated into two divides named after stories the girls used to tell each other, one is “The Princess in the Palace of Snakes” and another is “The Queen of Swords”. Over and over again the events of the book parallel the deeds in these stories. As well mixed in with, these tales are Bengali stories and myths of the God in the Hindu custom. Many of the expectations the Sudha and Anju face in so far as marriage and education are traditional. There are set regulations they must either accept or to take risks for gaining a status. Religious belief, celebrations, and dress are very much a part of Indian tradition and this was explained in detail by the author. She tried to give her readers an actual image of India especially her home town Calcutta. She described about the custom of mansions over there-
It is every evening on our terrace, its bricks overgrown with moss. A time when the sun hangs low on the horizon, half hidden by the pipal trees which line our compound walls all the way down the long driveway to the bolted wrought-iron gates. Our great grandfather had them planted 100 years ago to keep the women safe from the gaze of strangers. 5
Divakaruni also talked about the duties of daughters, “Good daughters are bright lamps, lighting their mother’s name; wicked daughters are firebrands, scorching their family’s fame” 6. Calcutta is famous for few things like Howrah station, public’s enthusiasm towards movie theaters, and their devotion for Ma Kali (durga puja). Divakaruni touched all these things very well in her storyline. We can sense the excitement on the releasing of a new film,
The new film had taken Calcutta by storm. Everywhere there were billboards, larger and brighter than life, depicting the hero and heroine. She in her exquisite gold-worked dancing skirt and dupatta, the innocent virgin in the midst of a corrupt court.Or weeping in the clutches of the evil nabab as her prince rushes on horseback to her rescue. At school the girls couldn’t stop whispering about how romantic it was, the lovers singing of eternal passion as they sail on a moonlit river.7
The author also quoted a few lines from the popular songs which every paan shop in the city used to play, ‘Chalo dil daar chalo’ and ‘Saari raat chalet chalte’. There is a portrayal of the pleasure when both the girls went to the theater by bunking their classes. Somehow they were frightened but also enjoyed their new experience because that time parents did not allow girls to go the cinema hall. There is a description of an old Indian cinema hall in the story.
The cold-drink vendors with their carts filled with bright-orange Fantas and pale-yellow Juslas, the slabs of ice sweating under jute sacking, have gone home, having sold out everything. But the cold darkness of the cinema is a magic country, no less wonderful than the images glimmering bright as jewels on the screen. Air-conditioned breezes wash over us like a blessing, and the slow whoosh of the ceiling fans is as comforting as a whispered lullaby. 8
If we talk through the autobiographical point of view we can find out that the few characteristics of Anju are very much similar to the writer herself. Anju is fond of books especially in English literature and she wants to study further. She was excited to go to America because she already knew that there she can get a right guidance for her higher studies in English Literature. In the novel Anju says, “It finally seems real that in less than three months – as soon as the summer holidays is over – I’ll start in the English honours program at Lady Brabourne College” 9. She was attracted towards the writing of Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Somehow that’s the same story of Divakaruni’s life also. That’s true that Anju’s life is not as same as Divakaruni’s but through this character we can get a glance or image of Divakaruni’s past life. There is a point of an autobiographical element in the character of Anju because of her habits, desires, and her way of looking towards the things. In her teenage years Anju read books like Anna Karenina, Sons and Lovers, A Room of One’s Own, and Beowulf. She was glad that she did and wants to be a writer. Books are very much close to her. She expresses her views,
Books! I’ll send away for books that are hard to find in this country. Books by writers the nuns mention disapprovingly. Kate Chopin. Sylvia Plath. Books where women do all kinds of crazy, brave, marvelous things. I want the latest novels, to give me a taste of London and New York and Amsterdam. I want books that will spirit me into the cafes and nightclubs of Paris, the plantations of Louisiana, the rain forests of the Amazon and the Australian outback. 10
Except all this, the author mentioned her own awareness of color and taste of India. India is well known for its colorful cloths and variety of food. “Salwaar-Kameezes soft as a bady’s skin, coloured like dawn. Saris made of the finest translucent silk, the kind that can be pulled through a ring. Scarves shimmering like a peacock’s throat” 11. Divakaruni presented a real taste of India in the novel The Mistress of Spices (1997), in which she highlights the heterogeneity of Indian cooking by naming each chapter of the novel after a different spice, e.g. turmeric, cinnamon, fenugreek, fennel, ginger, peppercorn, kalojire, neem, etc.
Divakaruni novel mingles religious superstitions, ancient Hindu mythology, and traditional Ayurvedic medical knowledge with American socio-cultural anxieties of the 1990s. As she explained in an interview, the novel “deal with a past that is set in a mythical India, but the present is very much set in Oakland, California” (Rasiah, 148) 12. The symbolic fantasy and fable represents the magical powers of a spiritualist woman of Indian heritage. Tilottama (Tilo), named after sesame seeds, the spice of nourishment, who runs an Indian grocery store, “Spice Bazaar”, in Oakland. Divakaruni has written about the features of sesame seeds in her novel,
Til is the sesame seed, under the sway of planet Venus, gold-brown as through just touched by flame. The flower of which is so small and straight and pointed that mothers pray for their girl children to have noses shaped like it. Til which ground into paste with sandal wood cures diseases of heart and liver, til which fried in its own oil restores luster when one has lost interest in life. 13
Divakaruni has spiritual skills which help to treat her multi-generational and multiracial shoppers’ emotional, physical, and spiritual illnesses. Her strong point lies in her rhythms and reminiscent descriptions of the magical power of spices and the island culture. She believes that every spice has particular powers and they may help us to come out of different troubles. The author wonderfully described the uses of every spice and its spirituality. Such as,
Turmeric which is also named hauld, meaning yellow, colour of daybreak and conch-shell sound. Turmeric the preserver, keeping foods safe in a land of heat and hunger. Turmeric the auspicious spice, placed on the heads of newborns for luck, sprinkled over coconuts at pujas, rubbed into the borders of wedding saris.
Kalojire, spice of the dark planet Ketu, protector against the evil eye. Spice that is blue, black and glistering like the forest Sundarban where it was first found. Kalojire shaped like a teardrop, smelling raw and wild like tigers, to cover over what fate has written.
Coriander seed, sphere-shaped like the earth, for clearing your sight. When you soak it and drink, the water purges you of old guilts. 14
She was able to deal wonderfully with this kind of description only because of her past skills. She got the sense from her ancestors, her grandmother, and her knowledge towards the Hindu legends where allopathic treatment was not at all approachable only Ayurvedic medical was in practice. They used to believe that every spice has a special power and something magical is there behind all this. Thus, somehow all these are her personal familiarities which she wants to share with her readers. She also gave us the sense of Hindu festivals and nakshatra, when one of a customer of Tilo explains her significance of ekadasi, “Aunty today is ekadasi you know, eleventh day of the moon, and my mother-in-law being a widow must not eat rice”15.
Divakaruni also used a lot of Hindi words in her novel The Mistress of Spices, especially the name of spices and food like – adhrak, dhania, raita, pakoras, gulab-jamuns, akhrot, chandan, ajwain, atta, rawa, papad, chapattis, sabji, kheer, amchur, pulao, rasmalai, tulsi, etc. Except this we can also examine few words which we normally use in our native language (Hindi) such as sindur, bajara, janwaar, keramat, chhodomainu, shikara, sarpakanya, paanparaag, shehnai, khuda-hafiz, and the rest. It shows that how the author is connected towards her own root and she wants to keep these memories safe in her personal as well as professional life. It marks her writing close to autobiography.
Divakaruni upholds the warmth for her cultural milieu, visiting India fairly regularly. Her husband is of South Indian descent and they have two young sons Anand and Adhay.
She says in one of her interviews, “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 Chinmaya mission, a big Hindu organization for spiritual values, and our boys go to Sunday school there”. She further says, “The way I grew up, there was a lot of things for them were a lot of respect for people in the family – parents, grandparents. We did a lot 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 good for the family”. 16
Divakaruni’s few novels are for children as Neela: Victory Song (2006), The Conch Bearer (2005), and The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming (2005). She is turning her awareness to help South Asian American children like her own young boys, to understand about their background or roots. She thinks that South Asian children have very few books that are based on their culture. Thus, it’s so essential for children to see themselves reflected in their literature in a significant way. She wants to give them characters like Neela and Anand, who are brave and strong. One of her characters Anand is on the name of her own child. Through her stories she gave them the sense of freedom fighters’ life during the fight for the freedom of India, the scene of Howrah station, and Himalaya region. She successfully depicted the picture of India in her stories after all she is also a part of it. She says in one of her interviews,
I think I am going back to a very old tradition of literature or art that is supposed to bring out our better selves. Literature therefore becomes an instrument of opening up our spirituality. That is why the ancient epics in India continue to be read, studied, recited, and venerated, in the hope that they will make us into better people. This is generally not the goal of what is being written in contemporary literature. In a strange way, by going back to this very ancient ideal of literature and using it in our writing, we may become very radical. 17
Image of Immigrant-
As a long term denizen of America and also an heir of a Bengali emigrant family, Divakaruni has a dual personality. On one hand it would come out useful as it permits an inimitable insight and the possibility to weight and compare cultural variations and enrich her life. Though, it has the feature of a double exile. She finds herself not fully received by either society and is separated from the local experience and an unfamiliar person to her place of origin.
In the field of criticism, Divakaruni’s work has drawn noteworthy remarks in anthologies where it has been featured. She is connected to other contemporary writers of Asian legacy, particularly women, and next to those who left India and wished to write in English. In this regard, an escalating number of scholar and critics point out her writing within the framework of intercontinental.
Rajini Srikanth, for instance, is interested in defining the novelty and specificity of contemporary women writers of Indian descent. Nalini Iyer insists on “new narrative modes for diasporic subjects”. Ketu H. Katrak contends that “categories of race, ethnicity and nation, along with gender, class, religion and language” are at stake when “diasporic identities and communities” are being created. In consideration of Divakaruni’s short stories, Sau-ling C. Wong’s study examines the impossibility of total “Americanization,” in opposition to the strong desire of protagonists to free themselves from the patriarchal and stifling Asian background.18
Salmaan Rushdie also admits that the works of any immigrant writer is an effort to come to conditions with and to recreate her or his own sense of the mislaid homeland. Chita Banerjee is an example of an immigrant whose artistic quality is not strictly real but self-confirmative. She is presently one of the well-known authors of self-reflexive writing, who chose to generate an image of India, not wholly based on accurate exactness, but portray a personal vision of a fantasy country. The method of writing a style of fiction where the author is prejudiced by her or his own personal turmoil produces works with strong autobiographical traces, which prompt and lead the migrant writer. Thus, the immigrant’s twofold view of her country of adaptation and her motherland is a result of the empowering power of living in two minds space unable to get a foot hold in moreover culture.
Whether set in America or India, Divakaruni’s plots feature an Indian born woman torn between new and old world values. She gives uses her laser like insight and skilled use of lyrical portrayal, plot, and story to give her readers a many dimensional look at the characters. The author depicted their own world, which is filled with discovery, hope, and fear. Whether it is Calcutta, Chicago, or California; women learn to become accustomed in their new and altering culture. As a result they find out their own sense of self amidst joy and heartbreak.
Opening with her first book of short-stories, Arranged Marriage (1995), Chitra has remained realistic to her feminist urge. Bound on in custom as though it was an ill-fitting sari, her female protagonists have often resisted with displacement, despair, and domestic abuse. The author of National Book Award winning novel Waiting (1999) Ha Jin has given his review for it,
This is an extraordinary collection, intelligently conceived and passionately written. Most of the stories illuminate the pain, loss, and alienation of the immigrant experience and transform them into the drama of our common human existence. Besides elegance and delight, we can also find wisdom here. 19
The leading characters in her novels – Sister of my Heart (1999) and its sequel The Vine of Desire (2002) plus the outstanding novel The Mistress of Spices (1997); all make tracks to the United States from South Asia. These Indian women become accustomed to their new land and growing opportunities even as their oldest knots to tradition and family are pulled tight and start to fray. Thus, In Divakaruni’s works the setting of the stories is to some extent autobiographical and based on the lives of immigrants. Her novel Sister of my Heart took place in Calcutta, whereas in the Mistress of Spices and in her short story collection Arranged Marriage she traveled around the immigrant familiarity in the course of Indian woman in American country. She says,
Well, immigration has been central to my own life experience. Immigration is what made me see my culture with new eyes, once I moved halfway across the world from it. It made me want to write so I could start understanding my experiences in America. I continue to write in order to understand. 20
The Trauma of 9/11-
After 9/11, Divakaruni was anxious with prejudice against Indian-Americans. Soon after September 11 when terrorists attacked on the World Trade Center, the author wanted to write about it. She wrote a lot of articles in newspapers and magazines but somehow it was a personal response. She wrote impressively for good housekeeping titled “Being Dark-Skinned in a Dark Time”. Also wrote a section for the Los Angeles Times about her own experience of putting up a flag became a double-edged sword for people who might look Middle Eastern. The violence against many minority groups after this incident predominantly affected her. It was a big eye opener for everyone. It was such a painful and powerful lesson in how different people saw America. She expressed her personal opinion about it in her chat with Susan Comninos,
As an American, I wanted to show my support and my patriotism. I wanted to put up a flag. On the other hand, letters were being circulated in my community that said "Put up a flag for your own safety." Then I felt, why should I have to put up a flag for my own safety? Why should I have to prove I'm not a bad person, just because I look a certain way? And so it became a very ambivalent gesture. I did put up a flag, but every time I looked at it, I was visited by these very different feelings. I know a lot of people in my community felt the same way.
So I did those immediate pieces of writing, which were much more autobiographical. But the question of what happened—and how, in difficult times, a visible minority becomes a target—continued to concern me. I felt very strongly about it. I had to find a more permanent literary space to put it in. So, when I started writing Queen of Dreams, I knew I wanted to bring 9/11 into it. The book may be coming out three years later, but the concern was there right from the beginning. It takes time to digest the experience and transform it into a literary, non-autobiographical form. And this is how long it took me.21
Thus, her book Queen of Dreams (2004) depicts 9/11 and its cultural aftershocks, including a scene in which bigoted whites attack South Asians in America. Divakaruni really tried to feel what was happening in our community was so sad. That was a national tragedy should have brought us as one, yet so many communities were in fear of what would occur to them. She had started putting all these ideas together in her book. She started writing this when they used to live in the Bay area. Right before 9/11, she was just putting together the thoughts for a new novel. When the 9 /11 happened it distressed her strongly on many levels. Firstly it was the national catastrophe itself and there were consequences on her community also; secondly the South Asian American community experienced rather a bit of violent hate crimes, which other groups of people felt as well like Arad Americans.
She had to write about all these episodes. The author also wanted to explore the sense of mystery about the universe. Different people come out of the same event by feeling and seeing different things. 9/11 is such an example for some who reacted with great fear and others with violence. The reality operates very differently with Rakhi (the protagonist of the novel) and her mother in the Queen of Dreams. The novel questions how we arrive at our nation of reality and whether there is just one reality.
According to the author we need to work on it, all of us together specially to celebrate each other’s differences and to understand each other. For her Literature is a great venue and she thinks that books invite us into other civilizations and the lives of people from those societies. She believes that from the deep inside, we all are struggling with similar issues. Getting familiar with traditions that might firstly be unfamiliar to readers is one method to open up their minds and see those resemblances. She explained,
I really felt a need to write books about my culture, to show children what it was like from the inside. I am sure you know how important it is to see oneself reflected in literature and art in positive and complex ways. I also wanted children of other cultures to be invited into my culture and to relate to characters who are Indian. 22
This episode hearted her badly; therefore we can see its effects on her works. Whatever she personally feels, she discussed it in her writing to share all this with her readers. May be the name of the characters, their life and storyline are not very much personal but their inner feeling, struggle, conflict or their point of views is the same.
Impact of her grandfather’s influence-
We can easily observe the early impact of family background in Chitra Banerjee’s works. She grew up in a very traditional family, where so much respect has been given to their elders. Divakaruni was very much influenced from the stories of her grandfather. This has been an essential theme in her writing right from the start. She has always believed that telling a story is very powerful in itself. It transforms the teller as well as the listener. This possibility comes out of her own surroundings, where her grandfather was a great storyteller in oral. In her childhood, she went to spend summer holidays with him in her paternal village. At that time there was no running water and no electricity but still it was quite a magical place for her. Every evening her grandfather would light a kerosene lamp and called all of her cousins together. Usually he told them the stories out of our epics like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and from the folktales or fairy tales such as the Panchtantra. Thus, she has developed a great love for the folktale tradition and epic stories. She has tried to interlace much of it into her works.
This point is mainly for Sister of my Heart (1999), this is a novel in which storytelling takes on a great significance. The setting of the stories shows us the real picture of Calcutta; their traditions, customs, food, cloths, rituals, and so on. Through this novel, we can depict the living style of girls in early Calcutta. The two women are brought up on traditional tales and myths dictated by their aunts. This affects their visions towards the world and their place in it. Later, when they gone through the times of trouble then they re-tell these stories to each other and gain strength from them. The author has also divided the book into two parts with the name of stories one “The Princess in the Palace of Snakes” and other “The Queen of Swords”. She says for it, “I was very fortunate to have a grandfather who told me a lot of the traditional folk tales and some of those tales are the same ones I have put into Sister of my Heart” 23.
We can observe another example of her grandfather’s big influence in her novel The Palace of Illusions (2008). This is a rewriting of the Mahabharata which takes us back from today’s life to a time that seems inaccessible. But actually it speaks to us about our modern search of truth and understanding of life. The vital figure in this novel is Panchaali, while in the traditional epic she is called Draupadi. Divakaruni has heard the story of the Mahabharata and Ramayana all the time from her grandfather when she was growing up. She loved to hear about the incredible uses of divine warrior heroes such as Krishna and Ram plus their magical weapons. The reason behind the inspiration for this novel is also very much personal because from her childhood she loved the great women of the epics even more than men. While listening to the stories of the Mahabharta, she realized that Draupadi was never at the center of the story. As in many epics, the central place was reserved for men, with weapons, wars, court maneuvers, and strategy. It appears that writing with the aim to place women at the center of her work has been another one of her endeavors. Divakaruni explained about her work in an interview,
If we look at the world as it is, placing a woman in the center of your work is radical enough, giving her the humanity, allowing her to tell her story. It makes her into a hero because she is interpreting the world for us through her eyes. The story of Panchaali in The Palace of Illusions begins with her birth and ends with her death. She is the teller of everything, and everything in the book is what she has seen, heard, and interpreted, sometimes on a literal level, but sometimes through dream visions, which is also a part of the mythic tradition. 24
Divakaruni’s latest novel One Amazing Thing is also a wonderful example of her skills for telling stories. Her grandfather’s storytelling connected to the values he gave her in the name of spiritual or cultural upbringing and its effects on her writing very well. In this novel also she tried to bring mutually things out of her inheritance and in fact going back into the early heritage of Indian literature, as well as the very multicultural and global society in which she lives there in America. The world has always been universal but more so at the present it has also turn into multicultural. In One Amazing Thing, all the nine characters are protagonists. In the starting of the story they all are catched by a major earthquake in an Indian visa office in the basement of a high-rise building in the United States. There is no way to get away and so the only thing they can do is to make the best of their circumstances. After that one of the characters Uma requests that each of them will tell a story out of their past, somewhat that they have never been able to tell anybody. As they are looking forward to get release, they tell these stories. In terms of the configuration of this book, where everyone gets equally important, the author goes back to antique storytelling forms, like the Panchatantra. It is a collection of the wise animal tales, where all of the animals tell stories from which everyone in the group can gain knowledge from it. Thus, there is a sense of the autobiographical aspects because of the technique of storytelling which she has learned from her grandfather. Except the section of storytelling this book also gave us the sense that due to our positive efforts and hope we can come out of our bad circumstances. She shared her views that,
Some issues in this book are related to my own experience in 2005, when Hurricane Rita was coming through. Since Houston had to be evacuated, we were stuck on the freeway. What happens when you evacuate such a large city all at once is that nobody gets to go anywhere. We were on Interstate 10 for many hours, and there was a lot of panic. Out of that panic, bad behavior arose, together with amazing, compassionate attitudes. In the book One Amazing Thing, I wanted to explore the spiritual question of what we do in such circumstances, a question for each of the characters and hopefully for the readers. 25
The characters in the novel all mean a journey to India, for so many different motives. That is why they are in the consular office getting their visas. Only two of them are Indian and the others are from various ages, races, and of the truly different socioeconomic surroundings. With the use of a very old storytelling method, the stories lead to more stories. One story set the listeners to meditate about how it applies to their lives, and to finally come up with their own story, the choice of which is influenced by the earlier story. Thus, while the stories are in discourse with one another, the characters are also in conversation with each other. We witness this approach in the Panchatantra, to some extent in The Arabian Nights, and also in the epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Divakaruni wanted to mingle it with what she considered a very modern cast of characters, to see what would turn out. She further said that,
It is my belief that we all have these stories, but we have never been taught to value them or to even look for them and recognize them. Actually, I could only become a writer when I began to believe that I had a story that was worth telling – when I trusted that people would be interested in listening to it. As the characters start telling their stories, it begins to change something in them and definitely in the others. The final amazing thing of the book is that it brings together strangers, who in the beginning are very upset and panicked, especially at being shut in with people so different from them.26
So, Chitra Banerjee is a writer whose works are not completely autobiographical, but somehow her experiences and practices inspired her to the every story of her books via different ways. We can easily point out the glimpse of her grandfather’s influence and the early impact of her family background in her writing. This is a strong point to depict the traits of autobiography in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s works. Through her writing she wants to reform the society and bring everyone closer by using her own lessons of life and incidents. Thus,
Mrs. Divakaruni’s stories are as irresistible as the impulse that leads her characters to surface into maturity, raising their heads above floods of silver ignorance. (New York Times Book Review) 27
Sense of Dislocation-
Mainly Divakaruni’s novels strengthen the basic existential approach of inner dislocation. The characters turn around their overstated self-consciousness and self-doubt. They are essentially lonely beings and they experience a severance from society. In such a lonely survival they feel insignificant and threatened. They are anxious by the noticeable insignificance of existence. Hence, they explore for significance by imagining being unique. But even in the midst of this make-believe individuality, they feel frightened and immaterial.
Divakaruni’s writing is packed by her own practices as a first-generation migrant and a woman between variable traditions and cultures. Her apprehension for women of her own heritage is broadcasted not only through her award-winning novels and short stories but also by her contribution with organizations; that’s aim is to help South Asian American and South Asian women in situations of domestic violence and anguish, in the Houston and San Francisco Bay area.
In 1991, with a group of friends, she established a help-line to make available different kinds of services to Indian American women. The most essential things the help-line volunteers do is to listen and be a compassionate. She explained,
At Berkeley, I volunteered at the women’s center. As I got more involved, I become interested in helping battered women – violence against women crosses cultural borders and educational levels. Then, slowly, I focused on women in my community.28
Thus, the theme of maltreated women, as we know, is important and comes again and again in a number of books; somewhat because of the work she has done in the community with domestic violence or ferocity. She expressed her personal experiences and understandings in front of her readers via these stories. That’s really important for the autobiographical point of view also. We can easily find the characters of autobiography in it. In her writing, domestic brutality is explored from many diverse angles. Inspired by the life stories of these women, Divakaruni published a short story collection Arranged Marriage (1995), which told us about their courage and their abuse. Set completely in India, a battered woman makes a choice to go back to her abuser. That’s same somehow in her further short-story collection The Lives of Strangers (2001). This collected work features tales set in America and India. Divakaruni clarifies the alterations of personal settings brought about by the choices women and men make at every phase of their lives. Therefore,
Beautifully told stories of transformed lives….Both liberated and trapped by cultural changes on both sides of the ocean, these women struggle fiercely to carve out an identity of their own. (San Francisco Chronicle) 29
In The Mistress of Spices, a woman in similar circumstances, brought about partly by her colonization, is cut off at once from her entire support system of family and other women who might help her, and she has to make a decision. At the end of much painful thinking and trying out different things, she decides to leave the relationship.
The few protagonists in her novels are mostly unsettled facing a hostile world around them. The abandoning of the traditional linear structure of the novel provides them with the scope for padding her novels with a liberal use of archetypes, motifs, and symbols. There are also a few dream visions and sequences, which the writer uses to plan the inner suffering of her sensitive characters. Recollection of past memories causes terrific mental disturbances in most of the characters. It is because many of the variances and agony suffered by her are rooted in some past happening, usually in the social surroundings. Her novels trace the changing patterns of civilization, especially because of migration. Chitra Banerjee is a keen observer of society and whatever she observed, we can easily figure out in her works.
Attitude towards religion-
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was born in 1957 in Calcutta, India. One of her prime reminiscences is that of her grandfather told her the tales from ancient Indian epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. She rapidly noticed that fascinatingly, unlike the male heroes, the key relations the women had were with their lovers, sons, husbands, or adversaries. They did not have any important female companions. This subject would ultimately become very essential to Divakaruni’s writing. The author was raised as and still she is a pious Hindu. She has grown up with the elements of the mythical tales, folktales, and the tales of magic. Though Divakaruni is familiar with the Hindu philosophy; she has quote generously from Mahabharata in her novel Palace of Illusions (2008). She is not on the whole a very religious person but rather she uses her familiarity as an added adornment in her fiction. Divakaruni once explained her reason for writing,
There is certain spirituality, not necessarily religious – the essence of spirituality – that is at the heart of the Indian psyche that finds the divine in everything. It was important for me to start writing about my own reality and that of my community. 30
The Palace of Illusion is yet a blend of modern concerns with the inheritance of the motherland. The Bhagavad Gita is at the center of the Mahabharata and it considered to be the epic which is most closely connected to Hinduism. The author could not deal with it in the novel but she placed Krishna as Panchaali’s guide, companion, and supporter from the very beginning of her life. In fact, Krishna gives Panchaali messages from the Bhagavad Gita all the way through the text, but he works it into daily talk. In Divakaruni’s approach, we can see the move from a customary religious view to a much enormous spiritual perception.
She used to spend her summer vacation with her aunt in Rourkela, a small town very different in flavor from Calcutta, where she lived. She got the sense of religious customs in the company of her aunt. She shared her memories, “My aunt also taught me a prayer ritual, or vrata, popular among unmarried girls. This ritual involved a weekly fast, the gathering of certain leaves and flowers, the pouring of water over a statue of Shiva and a chant” 31.
Those experiences are a very essential part of her life and we can easily depict it in her novels such as Sister of my Heart (1999) and Mistress of Spices (1997). In her book The Mistress of Spices, she gave some enlightenment on the magical power behind the different spices and its connection with spirituality. She also made an effort to relate them with the holy spirits like Shri Ram, Shabari, Sita ma, and so on. As,
For all of them in the evening I burn tulsi, basil which is the plant of humility, curber of ego. The sweet smoke of basil whose taste know on my own tongue, for many times the Old One has burned it for me too. Basil scared to Shri Ram, which slakes the craving for power, which turns the thoughts inward, away from worldliness. Further,
Fenugreek methi, speckled seed first sown by Shabari, oldest woman in the world.32
She discussed about the power of those spices and her attitude towards the religious point of view is very much lucid. She was able to do justice with these examples only because of her childhood practices and her concern towards religion. She compared chilly with Lanka somewhere in the book and also gave a very keen and apparent description about Lanka’s significance.
The dry chilli, lanka, is the most potent of spices. In its blister-red skin, the most beautiful. Its other name is danger. The chilli sings in the voice of a hawk circling sun-bleached hills where nothing grows. I lankawas born of Agni, god of fire. I dripped from his fingertips to bring taste to this bland earth. 33
In her another novel Sister of my Heart, we can notice the examples of her religious concern. She tried to give us an idea about the importance Kalighat Temple as well as Durga-Puja. The religious culture which she predicted in her novel is very much close to Calcutta. Even the marriage ceremony was in Calcutta style. This city is worldwide famous for Durga-Puja and their faith towards Ma Kali. They keep a good faith in God and a little superstitious also about it. There is description of Bidhata Purush also in the book and he was considered as future maker of a newborn baby. One of the characters in the story explained that,
The Bidhata Purush is tall and has a long, spun-silk beard like the astrologer my mother visits each month to find out what the planets have in store for her. He is dressed in a robe made of the finest white cotton, his fingers drip light, and his feet do not touch the ground as he glides towards us.34
Thus, all these instances somehow make her works close to autobiography.
Divakaruni is persuaded that the written word is very important to preserve and remembering the history, that’s why she started writing in the first place. She spent a lot of years of her life in India, after that she moved to the United States to study at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Writing was definitely not an anticipated part of her but it may have potted her identity. Later on she moved to California to pursue her doctorate in English literature at UC-Berkeley. Chitra Banerjee was trying to get settled into her life in America when her grandfather died. After this episode she recalls, “I realized [then] how much I had forgotten already about India and life there. I started writing as an action to prevent myself from forgetting. It was a very personal thing” 35. And so she began her writing profession.
But her books are often set in her dearly loved new home, the San Francisco Bay area. She doesn’t only look to the past; in fact, she endeavored to combine her knowledge of the migrant experience with her familiarity of a diverse and wealthy setting. Though she is presently teaching literature at the University of Houston, but still she and her family like to spend their summers back in California. Thus, she is writing about the locations where she spent her life. She says,
For major characters, I do stay within the community, because that’s what knows best. There are the people I know more so than people I might see or meet from the outsides. And there’s always something calling me, too, to the Bay Area. That’s the place I know best; that’s home. I know its hills, the streets, the markets, the smells, and the sounds. So I can write with more authority. The other place is Calcutta, because that’s where I have spent most of my time when I’m in India. Both of those places have an emotional resonance for me. 36
Divakaruni’s writing is stimulated by her own practices as a first-generation migrant and a woman, who always lived between traditions and cultures. Her concern for women of her own inheritance is broadcasted not only through her award-winning novels and short stories but also her association with organizations that’s aim is to help out South Asian American or South Asian women in the situations of domestic abuse and distress, in the San Francisco Bay area and Houston. Children’s schooling in India is another important interest of hers. She has also given a good range of child literature. The series of The Brotherhood of Couch and Neela: the Victory Song are an excellent example of it.
In her essays, she has given details about the incentive behind her novels, some of which are connected to her own life-changing practices in North America, while others are more personally linked to her reminiscences of India plus the custom of folk tales and myths passed on from generation to generation. As an engaging lecturer, she has frequently examined her own writing in the milieu of contemporary literature. Students at a number of universities both in the United States and abroad continue to examine her works within the framework of American Literature, women’s studies, South Asian studies, postcolonial theories, and other interdisciplinary approaches. She said in one of her interviews,
My first model and influence, from when I was in graduate school, was Maxine Hong Kingston. I was much taken by her text The Woman Warrior. The themes of recreating identity, immigration, family stories, changing roles of women, racial conflict, and myth all resonated with me. I wanted to apply them to my background and the stories I had grown up with, as well as the stories I came across, living in America. I was also influenced by Bharati Mukherjee, especially her exploration of race and multicultural relationships in books such as The Middleman and Other Stories. Novels such as Jasmine and Desirable Daughters, which explore the changing identities of immigrant women, though in the context of a more violent world, intrigued me. All of these would become important themes in my own work. 37
We have discussed several points in this chapter to figure out autobiographical element in the works of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. She observes around her surroundings and whatever she learned, she expressed it into her writing by her magical, spiritual and unique style. Either it is direct or indirect the writer is linked with her own stories.
For more than 20 years now, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has been telling stories of Indian women from her home in California. Her women are desperate, wonderful, complicated, lyrical, memorable, even magical….Chitra’s women experience love. Loss and longing through tangled marriages, bitter divorces, childbirth, abortion, abuse, violence, racism, poverty and riches. Now, Banerjee Divakaruni returns to a fantastic world, inhabited by kings, queens, villains and sorcerers”. 38
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