Her new book deals with the experience of three generations, including parents who didn’t really want to come to America but came because they loved their children and they were lonely in India. There are two kinds of movements in the book … one westward to California, and the other eastward, especially to Bengal, which is the part of India Divakaruni comes from. I spoke with her at a recent book reading.
There’s a proposal to open an old folks home about 40 minutes outside of Mumbai. I was recently there, and talked to my family about how it seems such an odd concept, foreign to Indians, to send that generation away. If you could talk a little bit more about how the joint family idea is transformed when we’re here … because that’s such a strong part of our culture in India.
I was looking through a copy of an Indian magazine and they had a whole issue on how more old people’s homes are opening up in India, particularly for people who are not very well off, and whose families cannot afford to have them stay with them, or maybe aren’t that interested, in a small house, to have another person there. In the first story in my collection, “Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter,” that is very much Mrs. Dutta’s dilemma. Her only son, his wife, and children are here in America and she is very lonely in India, and she comes here. She finds that she just does not fit in. She’s no longer independent and gets a sense that this is not her home—this is their home that she is living in. I think this is a very modern dilemma because even one generation ago, older parents didn’t feel that. The son and the daughter-in-law came and lived with them … physically it was still their home.
Now it isn’t, and especially with immigration, that’s even more intense because it is the son and daughter-in-law’s home that they must adjust to. Right here in the Bay Area, people are trying to start senior housing for Indians, and in fact I think they’ve started one already in the South Bay.
In that story, another issue is that of Mrs. Dutta’s grandchildren being embarrassed by her. For me, I know that’s really a source of shame now … remembering how I felt about the strangest things … not wanting to hug my grandparents because they had a particular smell, etc.
In this story her grandchildren are around that age, eight and nine, and are a little embarrassed. Even though they try to be nice, they don’t really know her. They’ve grown up in America, she’s been in India and they’ve only met her on special occasions. There’s a sense of them being strangers to each other. That is one of the prices we pay for immigration. And I certainly don’t blame people for wanting their children to feel comfortable in the U.S.
I have two boys and I want them to be very comfortable in America. At the same time, hopefully, appreciate their culture. But like you were saying, I think all kids, white and black as well as South Asian and Asian teens, go through a stage where they are ashamed of their culture. They are uncomfortable with anything that makes them different from their friends. But that’s just a part of growing up. We just have to go through it and hopefully be able to talk to each other through the process into adulthood.
What can parents of second generation South Asians do to keep them in touch with the culture without turning them away from it?
It is so different from family to family it is hard to find one solution that fits all. One of the things to do is always make a child feel loved and comfortable in their own home. If they love their home, they will love the culture that’s associated with it. If you put pressure on them so that coming home is painful, and all they do is go to their room and shut the door or leave as soon as they can, then of course they’re not going to enjoy their culture. You just let the culture and the child co-exist, and through osmosis, it’s in them.
When children go to college, they begin to appreciate their culture more. They are discovering it without any family pressures. They are meeting others of the same generation and creating a culture for themselves in college. I give a lot of talks in colleges to South Asian organizations, and I see how warmly they embrace their culture. They’ll come up to me and say, “You know, I hated Indian food when I was living at home and I never wanted to hear Indian music,” and now they’re into all the desi hip-hop and bhangra and garba; it’s wonderful to see. I have a lot of faith in our younger generation. I think they’re going to go through a rebellious phase and when they come back to the culture, they will make it different.
The last story in Unknown Errors is the story of a mother who’s taking her two boys back to India for a visit, to her ancestral village. She’s very anxious that they should have a good experience in the village. But ultimately she realizes that when they think of childhood, and home, and what’s special to them, is going to be different. They cannot have the same memories as her, and that’s just a part of life. Immigration speeds up and intensifies this process, but in general it is true for all generations. Also, they’re creating a new Indian experience of their own. They are Indian in a whole different, but just as true, way.
What you’re saying reminds me actually of a recent movie, The Debut, made by a young Filipino man. It was basically about a college student that goes away, comes back to his family totally into his culture, doing cultural dances, trying to get his siblings to speak Tagalog. Could you talk more about how you see young desi culture?
Because my children are growing up here in the U.S., I’m exploring how it is for them and their generation and I think it is a complex experience, being Indian in America. On one hand it’s wonderful, but there are a lot of challenges, pressures, and inner questioning. When I came to this country I was still a teenager. Living in a culture that is very different from your own root culture makes you question that culture. So I began to question Indian culture in a way that I had never questioned it when I was immersed in it in Calcutta. I also started appreciating it much more, because I had taken all of it for granted. There was a point where I said to myself—there are some parts of my culture that I don’t agree with. A lot of them have to do with traditional valuation of women as really being less important than men. It became really important for me that I would not accept that. For a while, I felt that if I didn’t accept that, I wasn’t a good Indian. But now I’ve come to the conclusion that as human beings, we can choose which parts of our culture to accept and which not.
There’s a story in Unknown Errors where this young woman, Leela, goes back to India for the first time after having a traumatic personal experience in the U.S. At first she is just delighted and overwhelmed by the love and warmth with which everyone embraces her. Then she finds that along with that comes a lot of gossip, a lot of superstition, and she is really torn. It doesn’t go along with some of her values of what is right.
I saw you on a panel discussing a film,
I have received so much inspiration from Indian artists working in different media and in different fields. I feel a real sense of a community … for example, the photographer Raghubir Singh. I was so moved by his work, I wrote a few poems based on his portrayal of women. So I know that we artists inspire each other in different genres. There are a number of dancers living in this country who have interpreted my poems in their dance. It’s wonderful that we can mingle the media like this.
Any young Indian who is starting out in an art often gets a response from their family that they’re not doing something that’s very traditional. Your family supports you because they love you, but they’re not behind you the way they would be if you wanted to become a doctor or an engineer. Do you think it’s easier for Indian families to support their children being in the arts when it’s successful and they start to see you entering the mainstream?
It’s a very complex situation, because you’re absolutely right; your family loves you and in theory, they want to support you in whatever makes you happy. But they’re really worried that if you go into the arts, that you’re not going to be able to make a living. And there’s some truth to it, because it’s harder to break into the arts. If you were an engineer, you’d get a job right away. It’s not the same when you’re an artist, when you make very little money for many years—if at all.
That’s very difficult for the immigrant generation because when they came here, most of them gave up so much and worked so hard to save and get where they are … and they’re afraid that you will lose it all. I can understand their fear, but whenever I get a chance, I tell them, “Let the children do what they want, because they have to be happy.” Also it’s a different situation here because there are ways for us to work at something related while we support ourselves in our art.
For many years I was teaching, and I was writing on the side. Now, fortunately, I can write full time and I feel very blessed by that. My family was okay with that because I had another career. If I had come out of college and said right away, “I’m going to write poetry,” I’m sure they would have been a lot more stressed. Now, many Indian artists are making it—in dance, music, writing, and films. So the parental generation is changing its view and realizing, okay, our kids can be successful in these fields too.
With Maitri, the domestic violence organization for South Asian women that you co-founded, you’ve taken your art and your fame as a literary personality, and brought a lot of attention to a pressing issue in our community. What’s the space where writers should overlap their success with activism in the community?
The work that I’ve done with Maitri has certainly changed me as a person. I feel very strongly about the issue of domestic violence … in every community. But we can’t do everything in the world and I’ve focused on our South Asian community. It’s tricky because when you’re an activist you approach the world in a whole different way. There are rights, and wrongs, things are much more black and white. But when you’re a writer, everything is blended and more in shades of gray, because people are complex. As a writer, it’s your job to show the complexities of human nature. The two enterprises are different, and I have to be always very careful when I’m involved in one or the other.
A lot of people were really upset when
Arranged Marriage came out because they felt I was dealing with issues that they really didn’t want to deal with, and that I shouldn’t be writing such things, and that I was creating a negative image of the Indian community in the U.S. But I always felt that if we see a problem in our community and don’t address it, if we are in denial, how will we become a stronger, better community?
By the time I wrote The Mistress of Spices, which has a major character who is in an abusive relationship, people were beginning to think much more about it. A lot of people would come up to me after a public event, and discuss it, even if they said, “Do you really think there are women who are like this over here? Does this really happen? Our community seems so successful, so together.” And I would say, “Yes, we see a lot of women whose stories are hidden, and who are very powerless within their own home and within this other culture that they find very overwhelming.” That has been our experience at Maitri and Maitri is only one such service for South Asians out of many across the country who see the same thing.
What things in your writing address the diaspora?
I’m writing about Indian characters just because that’s what I know best. But within the South Asian group, I think we share so much of our cultural vision, especially of the family and immigration. One of the interesting side effects of immigration is that is has brought South Asians together. We’re much more together in this country than we ever were back in our home countries. I think we need to remember that, because now with our communities getting so large, there is a danger of us splitting apart again.
That in itself is an experience you wish you could transmit to people back home. It seems to me a lot of times when I’m with Pakistanis that there’s no difference between us. It sometimes seems difficult for people in India to understand that.
I have some very good Pakistani friends here. I have a feeling that if I were living in India, that just wouldn’t have been possible. We are always talking about what we lose by immigration. We should also look at what we gain.
In what ways can we deal with the stereotype of the model minority, and also help ourselves within the community to build bridges between us and other communities of color in this country?
That’s one of the big themes in Mistress of Spices, where Tilo has this little Indian grocery in inner city Oakland, and all kinds of people come into her culture. I think we need to realize as people of color that unless we help each other, we’re all going to be worse off. Especially in the South Asian community, we’re coming a little ways, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to getting rid of our prejudices about other communities of color.
Divakaruni says in her future works, she hopes to focus on other South Asian communities living in the U.S., as well as to further explore the generation of desis born here.
help readers to understand that phenomenon more, or was it something that people read, put aside, and didn’t think that there might really be a woman in San Jose who doesn’t know her own home phone number?
Woman by Woman
, about Indian village women involved in their own family planning. Tell us about Indian artists in other genres supporting each other.