As a child, Dr. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni spent her summer holidays with her maternal grandfather in Bengal, where he regaled her with stories from the epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, along with tales from Bengal.
“My grandfather had a huge influence on my writing,” she says. “The land, the customs, the folktales and fairytales, many of which make their way into my writing, all came from him.”
As did the epics. Though in the narratives of Divakaruni, they came with a twist. The Palace of Illusions (2008) and The Forest of Enchantments (2019), two of the most ambitious novels she embarked on, were retellings of the epics where Divakaruni gave voice to the innermost thoughts of Draupadi and Sita.
Growing up in Kolkata, the sense of Sita she got was of a “very meek and mild, obedient wife and daughter-in-law, who did not create any trouble. Elders would bless me and say, may you be like Sita, the epitome of all those qualities. That used to really annoy me! I thought there has to be more to Sita than that.”
That’s the kind of fallacious thinking that Divakaruni hopes to address through her portrayals of strong heroines. In her books, she paints them not as the meek and mild queens of traditional mythology, but intelligent, firebrand women, who protested the wrongs heaped upon them, and took up cudgels on behalf of women around them.
In her latest book, The Last Queen, which was just released in the United States, Divakaruni continues to delve into the minds of powerful queens, this time with the story of Maharani Jind Kaur, the youngest and most beloved wife of the Lion of Punjab, Ranjit Singh, Maharaja of the Sikh empire.
Why Rani Jindan?
“She is an amazingly strong woman who was just pushed aside in the annals of our history,” says Divakaruni.
History books teach about the Sher-e-Punjab, and his son, Dalip Singh, who was deposed by the British, exiled to England in his childhood, and ultimately made a puppet of the British crown. But in between the father and son ruled Maharani Jind Kaur, as the Queen Regent, an astute young widow fighting to protect Punjab, the legacy of her beloved husband, and the birthright of her son Dalip, from mercenary courtiers and the avaricious British.
“I thought Rani Jindan had a fascinating life and deserved to be in the limelight. She was very inspiring to me because of the difficulties she went through in a world that was pretty hostile to women who stepped out of their roles; I really wanted to tell her story,” says Divakaruni.
Readers and critics have called her books, especially the epic retellings, “unputdownable.”
“I love that word!” Divakaruni exclaims in delight. “I want it to be unputdownable.”
In this regard, The Last Queen doesn’t disappoint. The story has everything a fast-paced novel can be expected to have: royalty, romance, conspiracy, murder and mayhem. Divakaruni’s narrative style is fluid and accessible, with a sprinkling of wit and humor.
Divakaruni herself is a disarmingly charming conversationalist; her humor belies her towering persona as a multiple award-winning author. Her work has been included in the Best American Short Stories, The O’Henry Prize Stories, and two Pushcart Prize Anthologies, among others. She is also Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Houston, a program that is rated among the top creative writing programs in the US.
A strong advocate for women’s rights, she co-founded the San Francisco Bay Area-based Maitri, a nonprofit that provides support services to South Asian survivors of domestic violence. She is also an Emeritus board member of Pratham, a nonprofit dedicated to eradicating illiteracy in India.
Both Draupadi and Sita were relegated to a corner in the traditional epic narrative, not given much of a say in terms of what they were thinking, feeling or their motives
As in the Palace of Illusions and The Forest of Enchantments, Divakaruni continues to write The Last Queen in the first-person narrative. Why?
“The first person allowed me direct interiority into the minds of these women, and in these three books, that was important. These are all strong women; their world is important, and therefore their voice.”
Both Draupadi and Sita, she felt, were relegated to a corner in the traditional epic narrative, not given much of a say in terms of what they were thinking, feeling or their motives, and so Divakaruni addressed them with first-person female perspectives.
At the same time, she also made both gods and kings disarmingly human with a generous dose of humor. In the Forest of Enchantments, readers are treated to a delightful scene where Lord Ram is teased about his dark skin color by Sita’s friends, and he gives back naughtily in jest by saying that when they unite in love, some of Sita’s fairness might rub off onto him.
“Normally, our popular concept of Ram is not of someone who jokes,” says Divakaruni, “but I found this in the Krittibasi Ramayan [a popular Bengali retelling] and had to put it in.”
In the Last Queen too, readers also get a sense of Maharaja Ranjit Singh as a person, in all his glory and his failings (with a fondness for both women and drink), who finally found true love in the twilight of his years with an extraordinary woman of very ordinary birth.
Divakaruni’s feminist message, while strong, is also delicately nuanced, and therein lies her appeal to readers across genders. This has earned her a fan following among male readers.
Retelling of epics and historicals can be literary landmines for any author. So, how does Divakaruni tread through those?
“I feel huge amounts of trepidation, and oh, there are a lot of landmines, but what helps is my mission, which is to tell the truth as best as I can see it. I really don’t have any agenda except to bring women to the center of the story.”
Divakaruni’s feminist message, while strong, is also delicately nuanced, and therein lies her appeal to readers across genders. This has earned her a fan following among male readers, many of whom write to her and engage with her on social media, all of which she finds very gratifying. “Reading across the genders is a very healthy thing, mentally and psychologically, healthy for our communities and ultimately for our societies,” she says.
Divakaruni also feels keenly about the current world situation, where ideas and opinions are polarized to the extreme, and different interpretations are unwelcome. “I think we are going through a period, all over the world, and also in India, where it seems like there is only one possible interpretation of things, and if you veer from that, then hey, you are a problem. I really feel that that was not in our Indian spirit. Our Indian spirit is very embracive of many different ways of interpreting, of living, of worshiping.”
Currently, she is working on her next book, about a family in Bengal caught in the calamity of the Partition, which echoes those very sentiments. “It is at once hugely inspirational and a warning story as well of what happens when people don’t come together. Bengal too felt the violence of partition very keenly, but those events are less documented than the western borders,” she says.
Divakaruni’s other enduring love is teaching creative writing. “Every time I critique a student’s work, I learn something new. My students read a lot of contemporary books and they are always recommending things to me to read.”
Her message for aspiring writers out there: I want you to know that when I started writing, I was a very bad writer. I had to learn how to become a good writer. Sometimes, writers have to be prepared to do that.
Book Reading: Dr. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni will read from The Last Queen.
When: Thursday June 2, 7 p.m.
Where: Books Inc, 317 Castro St, Mountain View.