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Soul Curry

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February 2003
Soul Curry

By NEHA SHAH

A good writer is like a luxury automobile, a powerful vehicle that surges ahead with force, grace and style making the ride a sheer pleasure trip for its passengers; a well-written book that uses both form and content skillfully gives the reader a similar kind of delight. It also leaves the booklover thirsting for more. Buoyed on the success of her books, author and poet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has effortlessly slipped into this genre of acclaimed Diaspora writers. Her novels, critics say, gracefully expose the Indian-American immigrant experience and are written with a lyrical, luminous quality. Divakaruni?s magic with words has won her prestigious awards and pegged her as a best-selling author. But more importantly, her work has brought upfront the dichotomy of immigrants, specially the women, struggling to find a balance between the old and new.

Recently in Atlanta at the invitation of SAJA (South Asian Journalist Association) Atlanta and Emory Asian Studies program, Divakaruni took time out to chat up for this article. Lounging on a sofa with feet tucked beneath her, in the office of an Emory University professor, she talked in a tone that is a little singsong ? one that only adds to her charm. There is no celebrity pomp, but rather a down-to-earth frankness about her as she concedes, ?Being able to write is a precious gift. I am so thankful every day of my life for being able to write.? A little prayer that keeps her writing on track, book after book.

And what books they are! She has penned bestsellers such as Arranged Marriage, The Mistress of Spices, Sisters of my Heart and now Vine of Desire. She has also written her first book in a children?s series, titled, Neela, Victory Song. An acclaimed poet, this was her first love and she dabbled in this art long before she made her move towards fiction. But poetry has always remained a close friend. Her latest work, a collection of poems titled, Leaving Yuba City, has won her a Pushcart Prize, an Allen Ginsberg Prize and a Gerbode Foundation award.

The focus of her work has always been women, immigrant women in particular. Having switched countries at the age of 19, Divakaruni has experienced upclose and personal the loneliness that swamps a new immigrant. If the support structure at home is good, she is able to walk through this agilely. Otherwise, the trauma is only intensified.���

Much of what she writes is part of the personal angst that she has gone through as an immigrant. Divakaruni immigrated to the US in 1976 to earn a Master?s at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. From Ohio, she moved with her husband to Berkeley, California to earn a Ph.D. in English from UC-Berkeley. She recalls, ?When I walked down the street in a sari or salwar kameez, people would whisper and point fingers. The lack of Indians then made me an object of curiosity. It made my sense of loneliness worse. All of a sudden, you find you?ve lost an entire extended family in a way that I didn?t think about earlier.?

Divakaruni?s first fictional work, Arranged Marriage, a collection of short stories, went on to win several coveted awards including the 1996 American Book Award, the Bay Area Book Reviewers and PEN Oakland awards. Once, at a book reading of Arranged Marriage, she was asked whether she had opted for the traditional Indian way of marital alliance and she had smiled and said that much to her mother?s deep chagrin she hadn?t. She had already decided upon the man she wanted to marry so she offered her mother an alternative: either give her blessings to this marriage with an Indian guy or take her chances and see who she brought home next. Her mother quickly consented. Divakaruni was married to the man of her choice and the couple now has two sons.

Fairy tales may hold little meaning to others besides children but it provided the gist for Divakaruni?s novel, The Mistress of Spices. Tilo, the magical, mythical protagonist in the book is a shopkeeper in Oakland, CA who helps in healing people?s woes through mysterious spice remedies. In an essay written for Bold Type, Divakaruni had confessed that The Mistress of Spices was written, ?urgently?almost breathlessly? after her perilous brush with death delivering her second son. Whatever her reasons, it worked. The book was an instant bestseller and the style of writing was captured for posterity. With eyes that look straight at you, she reiterates her point in that softy lilting voice of hers, ?I wanted to write it in an unusual way, I didn?t want it to be just a regular, realistic novel.?

In The Mistress of Spices, Tilo gives up her glorious position as the mistress of spices to be with the man she loves. Through lyrical prose, beautiful imagery, Tilo dissolves boundaries between the past and present. Ethnic lines are erased as Tilo forsakes her life?s highest calling for the simple promise of love. Divakaruni explores this theme ? of having to give up one cherished love to gain another?repeatedly in her novels and short stories. Where did Tilo come from? ?Often a novel comes to me in images. I?ll imagine a certain person in a certain place and then build a novel around it.? Divakaruni?s richness of language and complete ease with which she grasps the emotive spectrum make her stories come alive.

Her novel, Sister of my Heart, was set in Calcutta, India, where Divakaruni was born. It is about two distant cousins born on the same day sharing an inexplicable bond that transcends boundaries as one cousin gets into an arranged marriage and migrates to America with her husband, while the other, also married by then, stays back home. Asked if there were autobiographical elements here, she shakes her head in denial. ?My books are not autobiographical, but certainly what concerns those characters are things I?ve thought about many times.?

With Vine of Desire, the sequel to Sister of my Heart, the story moves from India to the heartland of US where the two cousins meet, build bridges in a relationship that has become a trifle weather-beaten over the years and rekindle a friendship, only to find that there are other demons waiting to change their lives completely.

Besides penning best selling novels, Divakaruni is also quite an activist. In 1991, she helped form MAITRI (friendship), a helpline and counseling center based in the Bay Area for South Asian women who are domestic abuse victims. ?MAITRI is an essential need in the South Asian community. I came across a number of South Asian women who were in abusive situations and felt there was nowhere for these women to go for help or even to talk. There was an absolute need to create an alternative support system for these women who have lost their sense of worth and sometimes their regular support system. You should not get married just to appease loneliness. It?s not always the family that pressurizes the woman into marriage. Very often the pressure is felt from within. If women are able to come to terms with the fact that we can be complete within ourselves, then that pressure will, most assuredly, lift.?

Currently, Divakaruni volunteers with two South Asian domestic abuse prevention organizations in Houston where she, her husband and two sons now live. But her eyes mist when she remembers the time spent in California. ?Although both Bay Area and Houston share the beauty of tall palm trees, I left my heart in California and would like to one day to go back.?

Between writing fiction as well as poetry, working at the counseling centers and bringing up two young sons, and playing wife, Chitra Divakaruni?s life is full and certainly not easy. Especially the part of bringing p her kids straddled correctly between two cultures. ?It?s a daily challenge. Bringing them up with Indian values, so that they respect their Indian heritage yet with the belief that they are Indian Americans so that they become involved members of this country. The biggest challenge is giving them a secure identity within their dual roles.?

Finally, a query that is on top of the mind. Is there a best-selling formula that she has learnt by heart? She smiles, ?The best-selling part will happen or it won?t. This is not in your control. What is in your hands is writing a really good book without compromises. Write something that will make a difference to the world.? The way Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni does. o


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