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Interview: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni on writing a novel about ordinary women who live through an extraordinary time

BY VEENA RAO*

Celebrated Indian-American author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is back, this time with an immersive story of three sisters set against the horrors and heartache of partition.

Independence shines a light on an under-chronicled part of the decolonization of India—the partition of Bengal along the Radcliff Line and the creation of what was then East Pakistan, and the tumultuous years that preceded this historical event.

“I wanted to center the novel around the lives of ordinary women who live through an extraordinary time and learn heroism and courage through being forced to face tragedy,” says Banerjee Divakaruni in this Q&A.

And sure enough, one cannot help but be transported to the 1940s with the three sisters, each with a complex interiority of her own. The beautiful Deepa, the devout Jamini, and the intelligent Priya are the three daughters of an idealistic doctor in a nondescript village in Bengal, who are caught in the struggle for India’s Independence. When the Partition is declared, tragedy strikes, and each sister, who is separated from the others, must chart a path of her own.

There is a price to pay for Independence, both from the larger historical perspective and the personal viewpoint of the three protagonists. They face personal dilemmas, and there is a consequence for every misstep, not just because of the tragedies of the time, but because of the rigid social conventions that accorded women very little personal freedom.

Independence is fast-paced and has a tightly woven plot that holds your attention from cover to cover. Divakaruni infuses Bengali culture into the narrative through the patriotic songs of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam, the rich aromas of the cuisine of the region, the festivals, and crafts.

While the prose is simple as compared to Divakaruni’s other literary works like Before We Visit the Goddess or her debut Mistress of Spices, what she accomplishes with Independence is a powerful, visceral story of sisterhood, ambition, resilience, love, and loss.

And while loss is a major theme of the book, there is also hope, which makes it my kind of book!

How was Independence conceived? What motivated you to write about this difficult time in India’s history, which, you describe as the best of times, the worst of times. 
I started thinking about Independence after completing my previous novel, The Last Queen, which focuses on the life of an amazing freedom-fighter, Rani Jindan of Punjab. She broke many barriers against women in her society, ran the kingdom after her husband’s death, and fought valiantly against the British until her last breath. But she could not win over them. I did not want to end my tale of Resistance at that sad moment of Indian history. I was determined to write a book in which India becomes triumphantly independent and the British are forced to leave. That became Independence

So much has been written about the decolonization of India, but most of it is from the perspective of the partition of Punjab. There is not enough written (at least in English) about the partition of Bengal. What were the challenges of finding research material for your book? 
It was important for me to tell this under-explored aspect of Independence as I come from Bengal and had heard many stories about the Freedom Movement from my grandfather and mother, who had been involved in it as followers of Gandhi. There were a lot of challenges since most of the research material also focuses on the Punjab Partition. I researched old newspapers, photos, and political speeches of the time, especially those of Sarojini Naidu, a Bengali freedom fighter. I read Bengali, so that was an added help. I could read news articles from the 1940s in Bengali. I relied heavily on spoken accounts by people like my mother, who had lived through the horror of Direct Action Day in Calcutta.  

The three protagonists of Independence are complex, flawed, vulnerable, yet resilient. Can you talk a little bit about Deepa, Jamini, and Priya?  
I wanted to center the novel around the lives of ordinary women who live through an extraordinary time and learn heroism and courage through being forced to face tragedy. Deepa, Jamini, and Priya are three young village women, each with a very different personality. Each has a unique dream: Deepa wants to marry into a rich household and thus help her family; Jamini, the middle child, wants to be loved and appreciated by her near and dear ones for her goodness; Priya is set on becoming a doctor, a career that is not open to women at that time. But they will change greatly as the tidal wave of Partition sweeps them away from each other. By the end, each will learn, through different kinds of sacrifices, what independence really means.

Independence ends with a powerful postscript: …The year is now. What will you do with it? What will you do? Is this a message for our present troubled times? 
Yes, it is. India was only able to become a free country because people of many backgrounds—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsi, Christian, Dalit, and more—all came together for a common cause. On the other hand, the tragic deaths of almost a million people during Partition occurred because people split apart and attacked each other based on religious differences. Today, when there are so many factions and so much divisiveness in India as well as the USA, these are important and powerful lessons to keep in our minds.

Do you worry about offending sensibilities during the writing process? 
No. Then I could not write at all! I try to be a responsible researcher and write the truth as I see it without a personal agenda. I hope that my books (which are written from a place of love, not hatred) will make people think for themselves and thus do some good in the world. But I know I can’t control how people will react. So, I don’t place my mental energies there.  

Your earlier books were set at least partly in the United States with Indian-American characters. But your last three books have been historical or mythological fiction deeply rooted in India. Why this shift? 
I don’t think there is a logical reason for it. I just felt a deep pull to tell these stories, which I believe are not just stories of India but stories for the world. Who knows where my next book idea will lead me! 

You are a relentless writer! How do you bring out a beautifully written, deeply researched book with complex characters year after year?  
I have centered my life around writing. I don’t focus on too many other things.  I teach Creative Writing at the University of Houston, do some activist work, and spend time with family and close friends. But mostly, I write. Sometimes the idea is very clear, and the research and writing go smoothly. Covid also helped to keep me focused on writing in the past few years, as outside activities were much less. But some books have taken a lot longer. Both Palace of Illusions (retelling the Mahabharat from Draupadi’s point of view) and Forest of Enchantments (retelling the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view) took years and years of research and rewriting. I let the book dictate the time it needs.  

We immigrant writers sometimes feel like our writing lives somewhere in between our two cultures. It might seem, at least to the gatekeepers of publishing, that we are not American enough or Indian enough. How do we deal with this conundrum?  
It surely is a conundrum. I haven’t cracked that code yet. If any of our readers here know the answer, I ask them to share it with us! At the end of the day, I just have to write the book I feel passionate about and hope for the best.  

The US publishing industry is finally changing. More diverse books are getting published. What tips do you have for Indian American writers who dream of making it big like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni? 
Focus on the writing. Write what resonates with you. Write the best book you can possibly write. Check to make sure it is original. Don’t be in a hurry to publish. Revise meticulously. Work with a writer’s group who can give you honest editing suggestions. On the practical side: publish in good magazines and journals to get your name out there. Also, increase your social media reach—with the same goal. I am active on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, but with the sole purpose of connecting with readers. I hope everyone who is reading this will join me there!


Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s upcoming Atlanta engagements:

  1. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni will speak at the Carlos Museum on the Emory Campus, SUNDAY, APRIL 16, 2023, 4 PM (Sheth Lecture in Indian Studies), discussing and reading from her new book, Independence.
  2. Chitra Divakaruni will speak about her bestselling novel One Amazing Thing (a Forsyth Reads Together book) and sign books at the Forsyth Conference Center (at LanierTech College, 3410 Ronald Reagan Blvd, Cumming, Georgia 30041) at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. 

*Veena Rao is the founding editor of NRI Pulse and the author of the award-winning novel, Purple Lotus.

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