Interview: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni on her latest book ‘Independence: A Novel’ and more
Writers are often loners, unlike, for example, popular musicians who are besieged by fans everywhere. Solitude is sometimes essential as they perfect their book. They need the space to think, rethink, write, and rewrite. They don’t favor viewers while struggling to string sentences together. Therefore, they are rarely surrounded by people. In the book trade, on the other hand, they are like elephants in a temple procession – the eye-catcher of all eyes. Even on a Monday afternoon, the front of The Bookworm bookstore on Church Street was packed with a small but enthusiastic crowd who had come to meet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. The Indian-American author was in town to promote her latest book, Independence: A Novel (HarperCollins India) Between book signings and selfies, she squeezed into an interview with The Hinduwhere she talked about her novel, her protagonists, her writing process, OTT and more.
Most of your works have dealt with female protagonists. How has your understanding of the female psyche changed over the years?
As I matured, I learned a lot more about women. I especially learned how women express strength in different ways. For example, Sita’s expression of strength is very different from Draupadi’s, who in turn is very different from the three sisters in independence. So depending on the character of the person and the situation they are in, women can be strong in so many ways. And that was really important to me because I want female readers to feel empowered. They should feel: “I can be strong in my own way. I don’t have to follow someone else’s path. I don’t have to follow what society tells me either.’
Some of your protagonists, like Draupadi in The Palace of Illusions or Sita in The magic forest, already exist in mythologies. How do you research such characters?
For both The Palace of Illusions And The magic forest and even a historical novel like The Last Queen, which is based on a real person (Rani Jindan), I have to try to imagine that person myself. Not the prejudices that people have of them. Not the few things history has given us. I need to understand what motivated these people. What makes them feel the feelings that pervade them? What gives them the strength to stand up to the world? And in each case it is different. So the character has to appear in my head before I can write it.
Would you call them recreations?
Rather, they are reinterpretations. Because I hope that when they appear in my books, they will be different from what they are portrayed as.
How has your writing process changed over the years?
First I started to write with pen and paper. But I soon realized that it was just too difficult. Mainly because I love editing. So now I write entirely on the computer. My research process has also changed over the years. It’s become very visual. For books like The Last Queen And independence, I relied a lot on photographs, pictures or paintings because they gave me a visual sense of the characters and the place. Historical photographs in particular were very important because they recreated the time for me. And for a book set in another time, it’s very important to recreate that time.
What made you write? independence?
The Last Queen [the author’s previous book] ends at a very sad point in Indian history. The British are extremely powerful, they have pretty much taken over the other kingdoms through treachery and other means. Although Maharani Jinda, the heroine of The Last QueenShe wins a moral victory at the end of her life, it’s not a physical victory. That’s why I didn’t want to leave the history of India at this point. It was sad for me. I wanted to write about the triumphant moment when India becomes free and the British are forced to leave. That was one of the main reasons for writing independence.
Would you call it the spiritual continuation of The Last Queen?
One can definitely say that it is a spiritual sequel. It is also a sequel to victory. It also contains some sad lessons that we must never forget. It is so important for Indians right now to remember that the independence movement was successful because Indians of all backgrounds came together. They marched together, fought together, were imprisoned together… We cannot forget that; this is our legacy.
Aside from what you mentioned, there are other reasons you chose to set your novel during the division that so many stories have talked about before…
Division has been treated very well, especially in English books. However, most are talking about what happened on the western border, the Punjab border. Very few people other than Bengali writers who write in Bengali have written about what happened at the Bengali border. It’s a very independent movement. It has its own character, its own tragedies and triumphs. My grandfather and my mother lived through this time. They told me many stories growing up. And like many young people, I did not pay attention to these stories. I was often impatient with the stories. Now that they’re dead, those stories resonate with me. These reasons prompted me to write this book and place it in this geography.
Because the novel is about three sisters, some reviews have compared your book to Louisa May Alcott’s little woman. Was it an inspiration?
It’s a coincidence. I have read little woman and I like it. But that wasn’t what I had in mind when I wrote it independence. I was intrigued when it reminded people of that little woman. What I had in mind were the Bengali folk tales I had read. Many of them have three sisters and each one is very different and wants something different.
Does the number three have a meaning?
I think three is a mystical number. It is also a number that creates an imbalance. Because it’s a different relationship when there’s just two people. But when there is a third sister, it becomes like a triangle. Sometimes you agree with one and disagree with the other. In this novel, all sisters will part. So when that happens, even though they all want different things, can they still support each other? The number three complicates things. That’s why there are always three in fairy tales.
We are now seeing how novels are adapted into OTT series. Does that appeal to you as an author?
It does. my novel, The Lady of Spices, was filmed. Movies are shorter (than a web series) and understandably many subplots had to be left out. Shortly thereafter, Suhasini Maniratnam produced a series in Tamil (called Anbulla Snegithiye) according to my book sister of my heart. Because the series was longer and Suhasini was a great director, the series kept the feel of the book. I think you can keep every little important part of the novel in a row.
Do you think independence can be adapted for a series?
Yes. because in independence, many things happen – there are events from before independence to after independence. It’s also the story of three sisters. So you can explore three different storylines. It has the potential to be a good series in the hands of a good director.