Tag Archives: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

It’s All About Sita — a Conversation About Agency

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of Forest of Enchantment, was in conversation with Vandana Kumar, publisher of India Currents at Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park, California on November 5, 2019. The Forest of Enchantment is Divakaruni’s 19th book.

I last attended a reading by Divakaruni at Mills College, in the late 1990s. To my great surprise, she lit some incense and started playing Indian classical music to accompany her reading, saying this is how she writes. Which may well be the case, but it smacked a little of gimmickry. The South Asians who witnessed this responded with head-shaking and laughter in later discussions. The word “pandering” was used, if memory serves. So I wasn’t sure what to expect at Kepler’s. Would there be incense burning and classical music again, I wondered. To my relief, there wasn’t. (Saved by fire codes? Consideration for people’s allergies?)

Kumar spoke of Divakaruni’s book Arranged Marriage, which was published in 1995. When she read it, she felt the book was about her, and that people like her could be protagonists. “Our stories too are important, I thought,” Kumar said.

Divakaruni, in turn, commented on India Currents, which started in 1987 before today’s Internet searches were possible. It provided information on all the South Asian events in the area, which would otherwise have been difficult to find. She was honored when India Currents reviewed her book. In 1991, Divakaruni founded Maitri, an organization for South Asian women survivors of domestic violence. At the time, there was great resistance within the South Asian community in the Bay Area to acknowledge that such violence could occur within the so-called “model minority.” While several news outlets appeared supportive, nobody was willing to run the Maitri ads with the telephone number of the confidential phone helpline. There was quite a backlash, despite which India Currents carried the Maitri ad. Divakaruni thanked India Currents cofounder Arvind Kumar, who ran the ad for free.

Kumar introduced the Ramayana, referencing Rama’s standing as “Maryada Purushottam,” the ideal man. Divakaruni provided the basic overview of the story, much as the sage Narada does to Valmiki in the beginning of the Ramayana, urging him to tell the story of Rama. Sita, she said, is regarded as the ideal woman. Her research into this book let her to see Sita very differently. She feels the earlier tellings are patriarchal. During Diwali celebrations in Bengal where she grew up, a common blessing was “May you be like Sita.” This blessing did not make her happy.

Sita Has Agency: Vandana Kumar and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in conversation.

Expressing some understanding for Rama, she added that Rama has many modern counterparts, men whose public responsibilities overrides their private responsibilities to their wives. For example, Mahatma Gandhi privileged the nation over his family.

Divakaruni read two passages. The first was from the Prologue, on how Sita comes to write her story. Having written his Ramayana, Valmiki invites Sita to read it, and asks her what she thinks. (As writers tend to do, Divakaruni quipped.) On reading it, Sita says, this is not my story. You must write your own story, say Valmiki.

In a warm, friendly, informal manner, Divakaruni talked of the other women in the story and described Rama and Lakshmana’s act of cruelty towards Surpanakha, whose ears and nose they cut off. That seems to be “a bit of an overreaction,” she said to laughter from the audience. While men’s stories typically have one hero, women’s stories are interwoven; there’s more community.

The second passage she read was from the end of the Ramayana, where Sita is going to an ashram in the forest, for some “R and R” before her babies are born. She sees Lakshmana weeping as he escorts her there, and asks him why. As he responds, she learns of Rama’s betrayal.

This was a beautiful, moving passage, and it conveys Sita’s shock and sadness at Rama’s incomprehensible betrayal of her. The passage was very hard for Divakaruni to write, she said: she was weeping as she wrote it.

Divakaruni read many Ramayanas while researching her book. The Krittibasi Ramayana was her main source, because it was in Bengali, her mother tongue. Sita went from simple Mythila where there was one king and one queen with two daughters, to much more complicated Ayodhya, where the king had three main wives and hundreds of additional wives. Sita worked quietly, improving her mother-in-law’s standing without offending others. Her strength, according to Divakaruni, is that she had a lot of emotional intelligence. During her trial by fire, she tells Rama that he is victim-shaming her. It is in fact Sita’s agency that summons the fire.

 Kumar alluded to some “mind-blowing revelations” about Ravana and Sita, asking where that come from. Divakaruni replied that she didn’t want to give away that plot twist, but that it in fact came from the Adbhuta Ramayana, in which there was a story of how Sita came to Mythila.

Kumar commented on two of the other women, Urmila and Surpanakha… Kumar mentioned that the greatest retelling of the Ramayana which perhaps reached everyone on the subcontinent and beyond, was Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana which aired on television in 1987. So much so, that in Afghanistan, a wedding was paused when it was time for the show, a television was wheeled in, and after the show, the wedding continued!

On the relevance of this book in today’s world, Divakaruni said all epics are resonant throughout the world. Epics continue to be important and they have to be reinvented so people can identify with them. Sita is not a goddess, she is an avatar, which means she lives just like any other human being. During the second agni pariksha, or trial by fire, she refuses on the grounds that future generations of women will have to prove themselves if she does this.

During the audience Q and A, an audience member, Jaya, asked about the Lakshmana Rekha, where a man draws a line to contain woman. Divakaruni replied that the boundary is not in Valmiki’s Ramayana, it is in the Krittibasi Ramayana. Sita tries to balance one good versus another. She could stay within the circle and remain safe herself, but invoke curses on her family. Alternatively, she could step out of the circle to feed the mendicant, and potentially invite danger. There was no perfect choice, and she decided to step out of the circle.

Sonali, an undergraduate, said it’s worth examining the biases of people who interpret stories over time. How do you balance retelling versus sticking to the canon?

Divakaruni replied that it was not difficult. During her research, she saw that it had been retold in many ways.

Another audience member Anahita, a journalist, commented that she loves how subtly subversive Divakaruni’s women are.

Divakaruni commented that ten years ago, she wrote The Palace of Illusions about Draupadi, who would go headlong into problems. But that is not the only way to be strong. Divakaruni herself had to grow into how to attack a problem effectively. Sita does not go headlong into problems, but she does not give up; she figures out a way.

Modern politics came into the conversation as well: a woman compared Elizabeth Warren to a modern Sita. Divakaruni said there are many examples of women who approach problems with emotional intelligence.

The final question was from Vijay Rajvaidya, managing director of India Currents. He had studied Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas in school as a piece of literature. That didn’t prevent it from becoming the holiest of holy books, hundreds of years after it was written. He asked if Divakaruni was prepared for her book to gain that stature 300 years from now.

Divakaruni responded that she would leave that for the audience to decide. Tulsidas was a staunch devotee of Rama, and did not go into the controversy of the final chapter, the Uttara Kanda, and his book ended with Rama’s coronation.

Divakaruni signed copies of her book after the event, and graciously engaged in conversation with each of her readers. As I signed up for her newsletter, she glanced at my name and said “You’re Raji. If you like the book, write a review!” I was in a bit of a rush to get home to my daughter and father. But on the way home, I wished I had stopped for a few more seconds to converse with her in Bengali.

So here you go, Chitra, this one’s for you! Thank you for this moving Sita.

A more detailed version of this article was originally published at www.rajiwrites.com and is excerpted here with permission.

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.

Beggars Can’t be Choosers: 1973

Before We Visit The Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

When Bela arrived in the United States at the age of nineteen, carrying papers that falsely claimed she was a tourist, Sanjay was the only person she knew in the whole country. He wasn’t her husband yet; the plan was for them to marry as soon as she got here. She was crazy about him—how else to account for this desperate thing she had done? But perhaps she didn’t trust him all the way, because when the airplane landed in San Francisco, her palms were slick with sweat. Where would she turn if he wasn’t out in the lobby waiting for her? But there he stood, on the other side of the frosted double doors, thinner than she remembered, his scruffy student beard replaced by a trim, responsible-looking mustache—grown, he later told her, so that Americans would take him seriously. He looked as worried as she felt. It struck her that he, too, had had his doubts. Would she really give up, for his sake, everything she was familiar with? Drop out of college? Cut herself off from her mother—a wound never to be totally healed, because that’s the kind of woman her mother was?

before-we-visit-the-goddess-1Bela had thought she knew what love felt like, but when she saw Sanjay at the airport after six long months, her heart gave a great, hurtful lurch, as though it was trying to leap out of her body to meet him. This, she thought. This is it. But it was only part of the truth. She would learn over the next years that love can feel a lot of different ways, and sometimes it can hurt a lot more. But on that day the lurching made her forget the cart with her suitcase on it and run through the crowd to Sanjay. She threw her arms around him the way she never could have done in Kolkata and kissed him on the mouth. No one cat-called. No one harassed them or took umbrage or even noticed, except for an old man who offered them a pensive smile.

When she had enough breath to speak again, Bela said to Sanjay, “I think I’m going to be happy in America.”

And he, smiling, said, “I know you will.”

But Bela had been wrong. Someone else had noticed them kissing, and once she surfaced, she noticed him, too. He was taller than Sanjay and more muscular; his mustache, though similar to Sanjay’s (so similar that later she would wonder if Sanjay had copied him), was aggressively luxurious. Next to him, Sanjay appeared young and inexperienced, not much more than a boy. Bela had never thought of Sanjay in that way. In Kolkata, he’d been the student leader of an important political party, someone people respected and even feared. His new American avatar made her uncomfortable.

The man had been watching their reunion with a mildly sardonic expression. Now he said, “Shonu, go get the cart before someone steals that suitcase.”

Sanjay’s smile grew embarrassed and he nodded sheepishly.“Yes, Bishu-da.”

And suddenly Bela knew who he was: Bishwanath Bhaduri, Sanjay’s childhood friend in Kolkata, his next door neighbor and mentor; his—and thus, her—savior. Her face burned because the first thing he had seen her do was behave in such a wild way.

Bishu loaded the bag into the trunk of his car.

“This is really light,” he said. Bela flushed, not sure if the comment was compliment or reproof. She’d had to pack in a rush; it had been hard to find a time when both her mother and Rekha the maid were out of the house. She had thrown in a few salwar kameezes and saris, a couple of sweaters, and her dance costume, though she would probably never get a chance to wear it. At the last moment, with the taxi already honking for her downstairs, she’d snatched up—guiltily, because it wasn’t really hers—the family photo album from the almirah in the living room. Now she wished she had thought to pick up gifts—a couple of packets, at the very least, of the hot dalmoot mix that Sanjay loved.

Bela climbed into the back. The men had offered her the front passenger seat, but she was still mortified. She wrapped the end of her sari around her shoulders. She hadn’t thought it would be this cold in California. At the airport, she had been too flustered to take note of her surroundings; now she longed to see what America looked like. But they were speeding along a dark freeway and there wasn’t much to observe except arced light-posts that loomed up suddenly, looking like they belonged on the set of a science fiction movie, and disappeared just as fast. The men spoke about work, Bishu telling Sanjay that he tended to trust people too easily. Bela tried hard to stay awake, but jetlag had her in its leaden grasp.

The conversation up front had turned to Bengal politics, something about police encounters. The men’s tones grew truculent. She tried to shut them out and thought she heard, faraway, her mother calling.

By now Sabitri would have received the goodbye note Bela had entrusted to Bishu’s friend in Kolkata, the one who helped her get her passport and ticket. Sabitri would be very angry.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning and bestselling author, poet, activist and teacher of writing. Her work has been published in over 50 magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, and her writing has been included in over 50 anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, the O.Henry Prize Stories and the Pushcart Prize Anthology.