Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, an Indian immigrant woman writer anticipates through her writing to dissolve boundaries among people of different backgrounds, communities, ages and even different world. She spent 19 years of her life in India and learned all the costumes and traditions of her own, thus, she knows her motherland very well. But her migration from one country to another made her comprehend about the feeling of dislocation and homelessness. She felt the adjustments to get shifted from one place, which is your own homeland or roots.
Before she became a writer, Chitra Divakaruni was only a simple young woman in a novel country, far away from her own country. She was excited at the prospect of studying in America, but forlorn - missing her family in Kolkata and the traditions of her culture. For her, it has been such a great attempt just to make it to the U.S. because her family, rooted in the tradition, didn't understand why she would prefer to leave her home. Ultimately, she was able to convince her family to let her go. In 1976 when she came to the U.S., she went through some incidents and realized the gap between the East and the West. Once while walking down on a Chicago street with some relatives she was horrified when a few white teenagers shouted "nigger" and hurled sludge at her. This incident deeply shamed that she didn't want to discuss even. But somehow it stayed in her mind and acted as the spur kick to her to start writing and then one evening, her five-year-old son Abhay came back from school and tried hard to wash off the 'dirt' color of his skin. Through these episodes she realized that still there is the sense of "other" and this made her interest to start writing about her own experience of immigration, which are the same for the many other immigrant women. She identified that people still behave them as "alien". Divakaruni said in one of her interviews that,
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It was a big adjustment, moving from a big city like Calcutta to Dayton, Ohio, which, at that time, didn't have many Indians and was not cosmopolitan; I felt a real sense of being "other". People were so startled to see an Indian person in Indian Clothesâ€¦. I think all people come to a new country with preconceived notions, so there was an adjustment on both sides. 2
It arouses several views to think about one's own identity and roots. The question "Where are you from?" put her in a shock that people even didn't know about them. It would be really a challenge to get settled in a country where their very appearance itself would proclaim them "Foreigners".
"Moving to the United States really made me renegotiate my boundaries and in some ways, even reinvent myself as a woman", says Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni 3. For her, writing is the only way to fight for her self-identity. Before her migration she never thought to be a writer, but later on she felt that whatever feeling she had that was also the same for many-many other immigrant women and she wanted to share it with her readers. That understanding taught Divakaruni that she had stories to tell- stories that could get people together and disclose the common humanity in everyone. The totally new experiences or environment turned her into a writer. She spotted a light on it by saying,
In some ways, I think that immigration made me into a writer, because it gave me a subject to write about. When I lived in India, I was so immersed in the culture that I didn't really think about it. But when I moved halfway across the world, I began to think a lot about what it meant for me to be Indian, and also how immigration changes us. 4
That's why all the way through her skills she wants to write about the life of immigrant women and their problems of dislocation or cultural clash. By showing her own culture the author would like to remove the gap between the two different communities. She believes that situations, conditions, circumstances or destiny are the same everywhere only the implication and reactions are different.
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The main theme of Divakaruni's work is immigrant conflict and acquired values vs. adopted one. There are so many challenges if someone is writing about two distinct worlds. She says,
It's okay to be an Indian person who loves Indian culture but now I'm an American citizen and committed to making life in this country better. We need to remain secure in our own identity but participate fully in the culture, politics and daily life of America. The important part of integration is that you don't give up, you share. For me as a writer, a major challenge is to keep my finger on the pulse of both worlds. That means talking to people on both continents, observing them, learning what is changing with them and what remains the same. This also means that I'm writing for audiences that are very different. This is difficult, especially as I refuse to explicate culture. 5
Divakaruni has studied both Eastern and Western literature. She likes to bring the two together in her writing. She feels this is the only way to enrich both traditions. She recognized that different readers will take different things from her works. She really likes that her books have different kinds of readers or observers. She would want South Asian or South Asian American audience, who will read the books and think about the issues in their communities and lives. She hopes that her readers will see that though we come from different places, what we have in common is humanity. She conveys her great desire that people may eventually come together and make a better world.
This chapter will provide an introduction to Divakaruni's essential theme. She writes to unite people by dissolving boundaries among them. She is a bridge-builder between these two different cultures, one is her own motherland India and another is where she is living-United States. May be both these communities are different in their traditions, customs and lifestyle but feeling, emotions and sensibility are the same. Yet, over the course of 15 books, her motivation remained clear - her books are a bridge of words, an attempt to take a reader to understand both themselves and those they might have labeled 'other' 6.
So, being an award-winning poet and author, Divakaruni senses a lot about her early days in America. As a creative writing professor at the University of Houston, she makes an effort to use her knowledge to help out worldwide students to feel comfortable in their new environment. Thus, such understanding of her life directed her to write, first poetry, and then fiction.
The author also writes about family, domestic violence, emotional abuse, cultural alienation, and human trafficking. Thus, we can analyze how Chitra Benerjee Divakaruni promotes healthy family relationships. She recognizes the positive aspects of traditional culture or values and its places in family and community. Like her fiction, her life walks in a careful line between the two worlds. Six months ago, she shifted to Houston with her husband and two sons from the Bay Area to Texas, where she teaches at the University of Houston. Like the characters in her books, she sometimes finds herself struggling to keep in equilibrium the demands of family and career, tradition and modernity. According to her the solution is to combine the best parts of both but she also knows that it is not always easy. "It's really a juggling act. Some days, it's clear what the best aspects are, some days it's not", Divakaruni said with a warm chuckle 7.
The author talked about the boundaries between the two East and West plus the two different cultures and the differences among the psychology of the human being. She wants to get rid of the gap between her adopted land and motherland. She has experienced both of these worlds very well and realized that each has its own positive and negative aspects. India has valuable traditions, enriched culture or ethics and, on the other side, the U.S.A. has modernity, freedom plus lots of exposure in every field. Her writing relates to her homeland and culture of origin; it shows the powerful relations to the culture of the native soil. She tried to give knowledge to her readers about her origin or identity as well as the experience of her new home, thus, she wants to be an Indian-American. Divakaruni shared her views in one of her articles "Indian Born in the U.S.A." that,
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In my dark kitchen I bow my head to pray for strength - for India, facing, on her 50th anniversary of freedom, the severe challenges of poverty and illiteracy and communal violence. And for us all, children of the Indian Diaspora, here on the other side of the world, who have our own challenges. I pray that we may be able to preserve the values we've gained from our past: love of family, of traditions, of spirituality and the simple life. That we may combine them with what we've learned in our new home: energy and enterprise and how to fight for our rights. This, perhaps, is the best legacy we can leave our children: The art of being Indian - American. 8
Aug 21, 1997.
Hence, the act of migration implies a 'bodily' shifting out of the familiar place and relocation in the new and unfamiliar land. It was due to the colonial impact and its after effect which created uprooted and dislocation of identity. Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) enlarged the range of the post colonial approach by revealing the Eurocentric Universalism which establishes Western superiority over the East, recognized as the 'other'. In other World (1987) by Gayatri Spivak, Nation and Narration (1990) by Homi Bhaba, The Empire Writes Back (1989) by Bill Ashcroft, Culture and Imperialism (1993) by Edward W. Said and such other works accelerated the study of colonialism and its effect on other cultures. They all are stuffs of Western education and living outside from their native environment. They can imagine a pre-colonial at best; mythological 'motherland' in Africa or Asia to articulate or end up expressing a cross identity. Therefore, the native speaker of English language shifted to the foreign land and tried to create their self-identity, culture, and individuality in an alien atmosphere. All those hardships and obstacles which they have faced provide them a new mindset.
All these experiences are well dealt with in Diaspora literature. This concept of Diaspora often focused on a forced displacement along with centered on negative experiences in terms of unfriendliness, disaffection, loss, and persecution. Even as their ancestral deficiency is an overpoweringly negative concept, the idea of the Jewish Diaspora describes a community whose socioeconomic, cultural, ancestral and political networks cross boundaries of states, and protect a common shared identity. Although transformed by the influence of nearby cultures; for many the dream of return to the "homeland" provided a fundamental principle of identity. Thus,
Central to the concept of Diaspora is the image of a journey; however, not all journeys can be understood as the Diaspora. Diasporic journeys are not the same as casual travel; they are about "setting down and putting roots elsewhere" (Brah, 1996) - crossing geographical and mental borders. These discussions of the Diaspora are inevitably bound up with the notion of "borders and territories"- the arbitrary lines of social, cultural and psychic demarcation. 9
The migration experience does not finish with the point of settlement or agreement; it is handed down through the age groups, consciously or unconsciously making its role to the way in which those Diasporas bargain their existence through societies in which they and their culture is in the minority. Being in Diaspora means living in a cross-cultural circumstance, one in which fusion, change, and expansion are predictable. Those alerts of the complexities of this recognize the notice to redefine their identity and the requirement to discover a medium through which to articulate their progress. In their process of defining and redefining their individuality and the struggle this involves, South Asian women in Britain have had to tackle the combined issues of gender and society.
Most of all, Diaspora is understood as transcontinental, the socio-cultural collection reminiscence of diasporic people in a community having its ties to a homeland, which establishes the false appearance of an ideal past. Emigrants inhabit their communal imagined homeland, which has its location in another place and time. A longing and affection for the discarded homeland is the driving force, which hypotheses an image of the lost country. Divakaruni's depiction of her inherited home is also a sort of her commitment to region in part, her otherwise lost Indian personality. Her accounts are derived from a memory blurred by the distance of time and space.
Settlers or immigrants are distanced by space and time, as they no longer reside in their country of ancestry and the inhabitance of language and culture of the birthplace is removed from their daily lives. To synthetically recreate the milieu of the lost motherland is flowed due to wistful and false memories, which are created in part to endure a sense of identity and maintain a link to the disconnected motherland.
Currently there are almost 20,000,000 people of South Asian origin living outside of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, with the majority in Africa, the U.S., the Caribbean, and Oceania.10 Although there are regional differences in their adaptations in many ways, still tried to display a common 'Indian' identity. They may want their children to flourish in their adopted countries, but at the same time they may wish them to accept Indian family values, share their common culture, and get married to other Indians. In other words, many Diasporas living over as tend to reproduce their Indian culture, language, values, and religion as much as possible.
People are getting migrated to other countries because of so many reasons; it could be education, business, residential, and so on. Many writers have also migrated to the West and have been producing a large mass of literature in English which is a powerful organ to voice their emigrant sensibility and migrant experience in the West. The inactive social or cultural hostilities, feeling of isolation from their roots and thereafter a steady search for attaching and assimilating these ancestries in the Western surroundings constitute the center themes in their works. Themes of homelessness, migration, loss of identity, exile, culture clash, cultural assimilation, and rootlessness are often discerned in their works with remarkable similarities. The dilemma of these immigrant writers in a multi-cultural circumstance often get combined with their personal suffering due to bias or a sense of rootlessnesss, if they are rejected by their host countries.
Indian-American writers have made their presence felt in American culture, society, business, and even politics. These writers are writing about common people, identity, a feeling of uprooted, immigrant experience, East-West relations, and life in the United States or the Indian Diaspora.
Indian American writing broke new earth from the 1970s and so on. With the relation of immigration laws, Indians migrated to the United States in large number. One consequence of this has been a propagation of women writers. They got the right exposure may be because of the modernity and free atmosphere of the foreign countries. In large American cities, one can easily find their books. Their readership has widened, especially with many women who read novels and short stories in order to learn about their own communities. Indian American women authors wrote about the experiences of immigrant life, which became the reading materials for thousands of immigrants. As it is evidence in the works of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. She has studied both Eastern and Western literature, thus, she likes to bring the two together in her writing; she feels it is a way to enrich both these traditions.
Divakaruni's books, which are set in both India and America project:
A feature Indian born woman torn between Old and New world values. She gives laser-like sight and skilled use of story, plot, and lyrical description to give readers a many layered look at her characters and their respective worlds, which are filled with fear, hope, and discovery. 11
Most of her work, based on the lives of Indian immigrants which she has dealt with, is partially autobiographical. She writes to help people and unite them by breaking down old stereotypes. Divakaruni skillfully expresses the experience or familiarity of South Asians in America. She says that her books are somewhat based on practice plus social observation. But Divakaruni endeavors to interlace such observation with the factor of magic, myth, and ancient culture alongside contemporary culture. She tries to bring a sense of the daily realities of immigrant life and ancient culture together. But she also insists that she doesn't write for a specific spectator in mind. She explains in a soft, gentle tone of voice that "I like to stay close to the story, think about the story, stay close to the characters. I find it distracts me if I begin to think of audience while I'm writing" 12.
Therefore, it shows that she is still attached to her own motherland while adopting another one very well. She only explains her adjustments and conflicts during her journey to the U.S. from India. Divakaruni accepts that both sides have the same problems and circumstances only the way of looking towards those situations are little different. Somehow she realized the frontiers between these two worlds and strived to remove them.
Chitra Banerjee has an empathetically personal and boldly imaginative style of storytelling that draws readers into the lives of people across cultures, particularly the lives of Indian and Indian-American women. Thus, she has an unusual ability to breakdown different kinds of boundaries, e.g. - those between the East/West, prose/poetry, magic/realism, past/present, and native/immigrant. She was able to do all this through the dramatic style and social content of her work.
If we look through the geographical point of view there are boundaries or gaps between the East and the West, but it's all more psychological than geographical. If we glance at it positively and treat all of them as human beings, there won't remain any boundary as such. No doubt, there is a difference between the culture, lifestyle, atmosphere, customs, and dressing sense; but it doesn't mean that their sensibility is also different. The author tried to show it in the course of her characters that they are able to adopt the new rules of a new country after a lot of adjustments. Divakaruni wants to explain that in spite of their migration to another country, they have never sensed any boundary between their motherland and foreign-land. They are still attached towards their own roots and homeland even after adopting the lifestyle and customs of their new home. But the fact cannot be denied that somehow or the other they still feel the attraction towards their own tradition. Thus, she makes it clear that shifting to another culture or land doesn't mean to leave something; it's all about adopting another home. By her writing Divakaruni illustrates how difficult it is to remove the border line between East/West and at the same time maintain the gap between these two different cultures.
Divakaruni received wide critical applaud with the publication of her first collection of short stories Arranged Marriage (1995), which depicts the problems of women who came from India and caught between two worlds. That book also went on to American Book Award in 1996. Many characters in Arranged Marriage deal with this rapid transformation in worldview, at once exciting and also horrifying. They have to build a sense of the new condition, which begins to convert them as women. Even it begins to transform their relations with the people in their family like their parents, who are usually back in India and their husbands, who are with them in the novel country. There are kids also who are now born in the new milieu, still wedged between two cultures, so far with an entirely different worldview. Well this is also an awfully main theme in her another story collection The Lives of Strangers (2001), with movements back and forth between the two worlds.
Divakaruni's more than 15 books address the stories about the understanding of women or immigrants in a new nation. Though she said her books are not autobiographical, but many of her characters contribute to similar apprehensions. She is concerned with how we make a new home for ourselves in a place that is so far away and so unlike from our home culture. The author also said that, she is concerned about how we as immigrants change the places in which we find ourselves. She is very much interested in the ways women's roles have changed as we move into different cultures. Eventually, Divakaruni expects that her words will challenge readers to think about what it means to be an immigrant and about larger issues such as family and home. She further says that,
What I hope people get out of my books is that it will encourage them to think about important issues. I also hope that they see that although we come from many different places, what we have in common is the humanity - we want the same things, we desire the same things. ... I hope my books will dissolve boundaries and bring people together. 13
Therefore, in her writing Divakaruni keeps on to be stimulated by her students at the University of Houston, many of them are immigrants themselves. In her time at UH, Divakaruni has been pleased to see the increasing variety among faculties, particularly at the highest level with President Renu Khator, who is also from India. Divakaruni talks about the strength of Renu that,
Her having come from a different background and really having overcome many difficulties in her own personal background makes her an inspiring role model. She can also understand the struggles of some of our students who come from different backgrounds where they haven't been given the kind of support they need for college success. 14
Through her writing Chitra Banerjee wants to share all her experiences and also wishes to unite the East/West by telling the stories of different characters. In her novel Sister of my heart (1999), Divakaruni presented two different characters Anju and Sudha, who were born at the same time. They both grew up together in the guardianship of their mothers in India. After marriage Anju went to America with her husband and on the other side Sudha lived in India with her in-laws. Author figured out Anju as a young woman in a new country, far away from home as well as from the sister of her heart Sudha. Anju tried to adjust in a new atmosphere with the past memories of her family and culture. There was no family support for her and she had to do everything by her own. She says while living alone in her new apartment,
I don't like walking into the empty apartment. There's something about the air - unpeopled and stagnant, as though it's from the bottom of a well that dried up a long time ago - that makes me uncomfortable. That's when the longing for the house of my childhood shakes me the most. How irritated I used to be at the constant commotion - milkmen, vegetable sellers, Ramur Ma shouting at the neighbors' cat who'd snuck into the kitchen, Pishi calling me to go for my bath. Now I'd be glad to see even the teatime aunties!15
Thus, through both of these protagonists the author wants to show two different lives in different cultures. Anju's life is entirely different from Sudha's. There is a gap between both of them, but this is only physical and not mental. Distance didn't change anything much between the relationships of these two sisters, after all they are sisters of the heart. They used to keep their connection through phone calls or letters as well as share each and every experience or growth of their life in different surroundings. By showing the life of these two sisters the writer's aim is to remove the gap between the East and the West. She also gave us an idea about the contrast between the two different cultures-Western culture as well as Indian. Anju presents her positive attitude and advantage of American customs. She says,
Unlike some of the other Indian husbands I know, Sunil has always encouraged me to feel comfortable in America. He taught me to drive and introduced me to his colleagues at work. He bought me jeans and hiking boots, and when I said, Go for it! He's taken me to malls and plays and dance clubs and the ocean. And finally though money is short, he has been enthusiastic about my going to college to get a degree in literature. 16
By showing the contrast, Divakaruni gave a picture of her motherland plus her current home (America). Thus in her book Sister of my Heart, she discussed the relationship between the older generation of India, who lives in a world full of mystical tales and magical occurrences plus Anju and Sudha's generation which is more drawn to western ideals. She believes that her readers must know about each other's culture.
If we throw a glance at her other works like Mistress of Spices (1997), Queen of Dreams (2004), and Vine of Desire (2002); we will feel the same sensibility among the protagonists. They all are trying to get adjusted and make their life better in the new and free atmosphere of the United States, keeping their past in their heart or memories. In her novel The Vine of Desire, the same story runs between the two sisters. Anju was living in America with her husband and now Sudha also joined them with her little daughter Dayita. Now Sudha is also trying to enjoy the new place and learn new things.
Sudha turns on the T.V. Anju has told her she must, it will help her to understand Americans. So she watches a weather report that states there's a 70 percent chance of rain; a commercial for paper towels that features a giant male, a dirty floor, and a tiny, agitated woman; and then return of a game show. 17
They all are living far away from India and somehow they have adopted the new culture but still India is alive in their memories as their motherland. Thus, by heart they never go far away from it. Sudha is pretending to be happy, so once Anju asked her disappointedly, "Do you miss India?" 18.
The whole setting of this novel is in America, but we also get a glimpse of India through the inner feelings of the characters. We can know about the different lifestyle of America, their way of thinking, rules, choices, and culture. Sudha also understands that, "All the rules are different in America, and she knows none of them yet" 19. The author made an effort to explain us about the reason that why people are getting attracted towards the foreign culture; it's all because of their free rules and open mentality. That's the technique of the writer to break down the barrier among different continents. She has not only presented the combination of east/west but also blended past and present together in her novels very well.
It is to be sure that the element of secrecy or mystery is an integral part of Divakaruni's work. She skillfully conveys her experiences of South Asian in America. She said that her books are partially based on the experience of social observation. But the author strives to weave such observations with the element of magic, myth, and ancient culture beside contemporary culture. She tries to bring those belongings together- the daily realities of immigrant life and a sense of ancient culture. She does so in her novel Queen of the Dreams that combines the story of a dream-teller mother and her young Indian-American daughter with the event of September 11, 2001. In her novel Queen of Dreams, Rakhi's mother is a dream teller, born with the ability to interpret and share the dreams of others. Her work is to foresee and direct them through their fates.
This gift of vision fascinates Rakhi but she is totally separated from her mother's past in India and the dream world which she inhabits. She puts an effort for something to bring them closer. Rakhi was totally caught beneath the burden of her own painful secret; her comfort comes in the discovery after her mother's death through her dream journals, which began to open the long closed door to her past. Thus, the whole story wonderfully deals with the concept of past and present. It gives us the sense of a new America as well as the sense of traditional India. Via this novel we also get a glance of dream world and real world, there is a fine combination of both of them. Thus,
This story of an emotionally distant mother and a daughter trying to find herself transcends cultural boundaries. Queen of Dreams combines the elements that Divakaruni is known for, the Indian American experience and magical realism, in a fresh mix. The tale succeeds on two levels. She effectively takes the reader into an immigrant culture but she also shows the common ground that lies in a world that some would find foreign. The search for identity and a sense of emotional completion is not confined to small corners of the world. It is a dilemma that all readers can understand. (Denver Post) 20
Divakaruni's another novel The Mistress of Spices is unique in its style. It is written with a combination of prose and poetry, thus this book has a very mystical quality to it. She wrote this novel in a spirit of play to collapse the divisions between the timeless one of myth or magic and the realistic world of twentieth century America. It's her attempt to create a modern fable. The novel follows Tilo, a magical figure who owns a grocery store and uses spices to help the customers overcome their difficulties. She also develops dilemmas of her own when she falls in love with a non-Indian. This creates great conflicts, as she has to choose whether to serve her people or to follow the path leading to her own happiness. Tilo has to decide which part of her heritage she will keep and which parts she will choose to abandon. The writer is quite successful in her effort to bridge gap between east/west, magic/realism and past/present in this novel also.
In her article "Dissolving Boundaries", she shared her experience which made her take a new turn towards the theme of dissolving boundaries. She shared her feelings in it,
It was Memorial Day. I waved good-bye to my two year old son and his grandma as my husband pulled our car out of the driveway, tires squealing. "I'll be back in a few days," I called out to my son, "with a brand new baby brother for you." As our car sped onto the freeway, I tried to reassure my nervous husband, telling him the pains weren't too bad, and that everyone said the second time around was much easier. I had no premonitions at all.
I didn't know that a normal delivery would not be possible for me. That the ensuing Caesarean surgery would go wrong in every way. That I would end up having to remain in the hospital for over a month, unable to take care of my newborn. I didn't know that I would balance precariously for weeks on the frail and perilous boundary between living and dying.21
That was really a tough time for her. She went through no dark tunnel, saw no bright lights. She did not rise out her body even. That encounter with death affected her deeply, though not in ways one might expect. She got the sense of life and death. But that time she felt a strange, dizzy sense of emptiness, of peace, in the way Buddhists use the term. She felt as though she drifted between states of death and life, and that it didn't matter which side she landed on. Because the boundary which we humans had drawn between these two states was not as irrevocable, nor as important, as we believed. She committed,
I mused a lot about boundaries as I lay in bed recovering over the next few months, learning to live again. And it seemed to me, in same wordless way, that the art of dissolving boundaries is what is living all about. I ached to give this discovery a voice and a form. 22
As Divakaruni made it clear in an interview that the novel deals with a present which is very much set in Oakland, California, but the past that is set in a mythical India. The symbolic fable and fantasy portrays the magical power of a spiritualist woman of Indian origin. Tilottama (Tilo), named after sesame seeds the spice of nourishment, who runs an Indian grocery store "Spice Bazaar". Through a number of interlaced stories of the numerous characters who visit Tilo's spice shop, the writer depicts cross-cultural understanding and boundaries, including inner-city communal problems in the 1990s, migrants of struggling for acceptance in American civilization, intergenerational conflicts and interracial tensions.
Divakaruni ventured into the path in which she had never voyaged before. She was showing people of different races in war and love and breaking ethnic barriers. She dipped into the imagery of her childhood and language, the tales she grew up on, and alternated them with slang from Oakland's inner-city streets. In her book the Mistress of Spices, she wrote it in a spirit of play, breaking up the division between the realistic worlds of twentieth century America and the timeless one of myth and magic. Divakaruni for instance, explains how near-death hospital experience, in which she was "hovering between life and death", triggered her focus on boundaries and how that experience "gave birth to the main character of the book, Tilo, The Mistress of the Spices, who moves back and forth between one existence and mother" 23. She says about the protagonist of the novel that,
For me, Tilo became the quintessential dissolver ages and worlds and the communities that people them, passing through a trial by water, then a trial by fire, and finally the trial of earth-burial to emerge transformed, each time with a new name and a new identity. Reading passages aloud, as I often do when I am revising, I was surprising to find - how much I identified with her. But looking back I see that it is not so surprising after all. I too have lived in the diametrically opposed worlds of India and America. 24
As a result, she has also taken a new individuality in a novel land. She too has visited that emptiness, at once vast and minute, that shimmers between life and death. In spite of her different ethno-cultural backgrounds and life experiences, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni shares more than her belonging to the group of so-called 'minority' writers in the United States. In her acclaimed novels, The Mistress of Spice, she ventures into the deep world of magic, fantasy, and myth amidst the realism of her daily survival in America.
Author's conscious attempt to dissolve established boundaries as well as their ethno-cultural inheritances lead this author to a magical realistic approach, an apt means to imitate their own conception of the world and of the act of narration. Divakaruni's fiction is the interaction between the mythical/supernatural and the everyday reality along with the interplay between past and present point to the support of a hybridity that negotiates and transcends boundaries. Thus, by reading this novel we can conclude that although coming from different ethno-cultural contexts within the common setting of the United States, Divakaruni adheres to magical realism as an apt means to synthesize different conceptions of the world and to advocate diverse positions.
A similar fusion of ecological and ethical concerns entrenched in magic and myth is present in Divakaruni's trilogy: The Brotherhood of the Conch (2003-09). The all three novels were written for children of Indian origin, who live far away from their tradition. That same case is with Divakaruni's two sons also. They mingle "supernatural" and "really" adventures in the manner of antique Hindu legends and myths. The motive behind this is to teach priceless ethical notions to the readers. The Palace of Illusions (2008) is yet a further combination of inheritance of the home country with the contemporary concerns. This courageous re-write of the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata, from a woman's perspective is a wonderful example that how author's legacy has had a chief impact on her worldview and her aesthetics. Her latest novel One Amazing Thing (2009) features a sense of community. So once again in this novel also Divakaruni's characters go up in the divisions between beliefs and religions so as to overcome differences and separation among cultures and human being.
The author has acknowledged her intention to transcend consciously the established boundaries of the real and to devote her literature to magic and spirituality. This objective is based on the autobiographical experiences that impregnated her childhood through the tales she heard from her grandparents. In one of her interviews, Divakaruni answered a question about her use of fantasy in her novel as follows,
A writer should push boundaries, and I wanted to try something new, take risksâ€¦..all this risk takingâ€¦.involves bridging barriers, doing away with boundaries: not only boundaries between life and death, the everyday world and the mythic one, but with the thought that perhaps the boundaries we created in our lives are not real. I'm taking about the boundaries that separate communities and people. 25
Having as a starting point the loaded picture of the island and the magic powers that stem from it, the novel The Mistress of Spices combines fantasy and reality into a cross world where neither of them is excluded. Spirituality and folk beliefs of the ancestors blend together with the social circumstances of Indian American women, whose experience of involuntary and voluntary migration into the United States marks her identity. This writer's Indian American ethnicity draws back to her roots, which are continuously revisited in her fiction through memory and imagination. In Divakaruni's words, "My imaginative roots are in India, and always will be" 26.
The opening page of this novel The Mistress of Spices brings the reader to an island which, turns out to be ruled by an old woman with special powers. This woman is described through symbolic images, fire, and the power of the hands. "Nights when the Old One climbs the highest point, she is a pillar of burning point. Her hands send the thunder-writing across the skyâ€¦on the island out of the spicesâ€¦therefore the first thing the Old One examines when the girls come to the island are the hands" 27. Thus, the author makes a decision to set the whole or part of her stories on an island, in as much as it constitutes a metaphor of nurturing ancestral connections and a protected cultural redoubt.
Divakaruni advocates the idea of breaking boundaries, bridging the gap between extremes and apparent opposites, thus complying with one of the traits of magical realism. The author draws on a shared folk belief in their ethnic cultures, according to which a born with a caul over her face (Tilo) will have special powers, being able to communicate with the dead and see into the future. After being captured by the pirates who killed her parents, the young Tilo found well her powers and got a chance to become the queen of the pirates. But she decides to go in search of spices and the island where the Old One lives. There she is trained to become a true mistress of spices and given the choice of any city in the world where she will have to live devoted to the welfare of her fellow Indians with the help of her beloved spices. Plunging into Shampati's fire, she travels across the ocean onto Oakland (California) where she is re-born Phoenix-like to a completely new life in an old woman's body. Thus, in these two characters coalesces a series of opposites in a symbolic undoing of boundaries: young/old, human/otherworldly, life/death.
Divakaruni said in one of her articles "Indian Born in the USA" that,
I sat at our dining table and thought about what it had meant for me to be Indian, and what it meant for my children to be American. I thought of the great gap - mental as much as geographic - that my moving to this country had created between the generations of my family: my mother, who lives in a little Indian village, myself, balanced precariously between two continents, and my children, whose primary ties will always be to the Bay Area.28
Therefore, basically Divakaruni deals with so many themes which break up space among people. As she breaks down these barriers, she dissolves boundaries between people of different backgrounds, ages, communities, and even different worlds. She discussed a worldwide issue of World Trade Centre and Pentagon attack on 11th Sept 2002; which created great differences between communities or countries. After this attack every non-American was treated as a suspected of being terrorist. Thus, the author has been aware of the backlash in this country against people who are or look as Islamic or Middle Eastern. Her own South Asian community has gone through the hate crimes and ethnic profiling. Women in veils have been called terrorist bitches; Sikhs in turbans and beards have been beaten and even shot to death; businessmen in suits and ties have been asked to get off airplanes because their skin color made the group nervous.
In the result of the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, Divakaruni found herself putting up an American flag on her house just like her neighbours, only to show that they are also a part of this country. It was the first time for her when she was surprised how the new circumstances had transformed her. Holding that rectangle of red, white and blue in her hand made her realize how much America, the country she had come to as an unthinking, 19-year-old migrate from India, meant to her. Though these years the values it stood for- equality, tolerance, liberty, justice, the pursuit of happiness for all, had leaked into her and shaped her. Thus, the point is how she was prepared to scuffle in her own quiet way, to uphold these values. She thought of so many of them, all across America, putting up flags to show their love for their country and their sorrow for its dead - who were their dead, too and was struck by a rare and powerful sense of community.
Three years after the tragic events of 9/11, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni remains disturbed not only by the vibrant images of what happened, but also by the effects felt throughout the country, especially in the South American community. In her novel Queen of Dreams, she imprisoned some of her sadness, fear, and confusion surrounding the incidents. It is a kind of social observation by the author, through this part of the novel she wants to show the mentality that still a few communities are treated as the 'other'. She wants to remove the gap between the human beings by showing her readers the tragic condition of the suspected person. Divakaruni acknowledges it be her favorite of her own novels thus far. She says,
I want to touch people, to have them think about issues they haven't considered before, making them more compassionate towards other people. That was my major intention with writing this book after 9/11: if I could make the pain and the hope powerful enough in the book, then maybe I might stop some of the prejudice out there, and have some sort of counter effect of what followed 9/11. 29
She started writing the novel Queen of Dreams when they were living in the Bay Area. Right before 9/11, she was just putting together ideas for a new novel. Then this event happened, and that affected her strongly on many levels. It was the national tragedy itself and then there were the effects on her community also. The South Asian Community experienced quite a bit of violent hate crimes, which other communities felt as well, like Arab Americans. Those who are from a Sikh background really suffered a lot. Different people came out of the same incident by seeing and feeling different things. Through her characters the writer wants to show the same fear and tension from which she has gone through. She also wants to present the inner feeling of the people of different communities who are treated as so-called terrorists. The central character of this novel Rakhi gives us an idea about the situation. She has so many questions in her mind as to
How do you explain to a child that someone deliberately slammed a plane full of people into a building full of people, three times in three different places? That this might be the beginning of a planned terrorist attack across America? What do you say when she demands to know why people would kill themselves just so they can hurt people they don't even know? 30
The condition was worst for non-Americans, though they have been living there for years or may be since their birth. Rakhi was very much surprised when somebody said to her, "You ain't no American!" 31. They have got e-mails that are being circulated by Indian organizations. "The notes caution them not to go anywhere alone. Don't wear your native clothes. Put up American flags in prominent locations in homes and businesses. Pray" 32.
Divakaruni drew on her own experiences of being 'other', even as she has been in America for almost three decades. She finds that when she really cares about a character from a particular background, when she looks at those people in her own real life, then she felt differently about them. She feels more compassionate and that's her hope for Queen and for her community. She sensed a real sense of being 'other' and endeavored to get rid of this gap. She also wanted to discover the sense of obscurity about the universe.
Thus, "After 9/11", says Divakaruni, "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 and to relate to characters who are Indian".33
The novel questions how we reach to the destination at our nation of reality and whether there is just on reality. It underscores human flexibility through the power of anticipating and forgiveness. There were a number of hate crimes against people of Indian origin. Therefore, after this incident the author felt a great need to expose children of America to a book with Indian characters. She wanted children and adults to be taught about Indian culture. She hopes this will lead a greater understanding, less prejudice and suspicion between cultures.
Chitra Banerjee always promotes healthy family relationship in her work. Almost all her books give us the picture of lovely connection among the characters. For example in her novel Sister of my Heart, we can see that both the girls Anju and Suhda do not have blood relation, yet they are bound with each other as sister of the heart. As similar in her another novel Queen of Dreams, we get a sense of mother and daughter's beautiful correlation. Somehow the depiction is same in her latest novel One Amazing Thing (2009). She explored a new type of writing by bringing together nine characters with nine different backgrounds and perspectives. She tried to bring together things out of her heritage and going back profound into the antique heritage of Indian literature, plus the multicultural and very global in which she lives in America and all over the world. Jhumpa Lahiri, author of Interpreter of Maladies, winner of the Pulitzer Prize commented: "One Amazing Thing collapses the walls dividing characters and cultures; what endures is a chorus of voices in one single room" 34.
There are nine characters in the novel and they all are protagonists. At the starting of the novel they all are trapped in a major earthquake in an Indian visa office in one of the city of America. The remaining nine people have different identity and characteristics. One is a teenager with an unpredicted gift, another is a young Muslim-American man who is struggling with the row of 9/11, an upper class Caucasian couple having bad relationship, a student troubled by a query of love, a Chinese grandmother with a covert past, an African-American ex-soldier looking for salvation, and at the last two visa office employees on the edge of a disloyal affair.
There is no way to get away; the only thing left is how to make the best of their circumstances. One of the characters Uma suggests that each of them will tell a story out of their past. They have to tell about something that they have never been able to tell anyone else. In terms of the formation of the book, she went back to ancient forms of storytelling, like the Panchatantra, where all the animals tell the stories from which everyone can learn something. The author said in one of her interviews:
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. 35
In the beginning of the story there was much campaigning in the minds of the characters, because they all were wondering who is in charge or who is better. But as the stories go on, they begin to understand that perhaps there can be another model, where no one needs to take control of the group. Divakaruni wants to convey a message to her readers that we all are good at something, and we can use it to help the community. This is very much a community-based group novel. It is similar to tales within many other ancient cultures and also in ancient Indian culture.
One Amazing Thing, Divakaruni's eleventh novel and sixteenth book, is a suspenseful disaster tale and a brilliant showcase of storytelling power. . . Each story is a revelation ("one amazing thing") and a salvation. The survivors are able to . . . bridge cultural boundaries with compassion. . . . In addition to being mesmerizing, One Amazing Thing is provocative. I can hardly think of a better book discussion choice. 36
Rob Neufeld, Asheville Citizen Times.
Thus, it is important for Divakaruni to uphold a sense of cultural identity. What she likes to conserve is the importance of family which the Indian culture supports. Her aim is to break the wall among the family relationships and different origins. May be this is the best way by telling the stories of various characters, just to make us feel that they are also like us. That's her fair attempt to dissolve boundaries among the human beings.