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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a versatile Indian-American author of fiction, poetry, children’s stories, and nonfiction essays—whose work brings to life the realities of living as an immigrant in America.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up Middle-Class in India
Chitra Banerjee was born in Calcutta on July 29, 1956, and spent the first nineteen years of her life in India. Her father, Rajendra Kumar Banerjee, an accountant by profession, and her mother, Tatini Banerjee, a schoolteacher, brought up their four children in modest middle-class ambience. As the second-born child and only girl among three brothers, Partha, Dhruva, and Surya, Chitra spent her child hood days in sibling rivalry and camaraderie. She studied at Loreto House, a convent school run by Irish nuns, and graduated in 1971. In 1976, she earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Presidency College, University of Calcutta.
Move to the United States
At the age of nineteen Divakaruni moved to the United States to continue her studies as an English major and got her master’s degree from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, in 1978. Working under Stephen Greenblatt on the topic ”For Danger Is in Words: A Study of Language in Marlowe’s Plays,” she received her Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Berkeley in 1984. She held different kinds of jobs to pay for her education, including babysitting, selling merchandise in an Indian boutique, slicing bread at a bakery, and washing instruments at a science lab. She did not begin to write fiction until after she graduated from Berkeley, when she came to realize that she loved teaching but did not want to do academic writing: ”It didn’t have enough heart in it. I wanted to write something more immediate.” In 1979, she married Murthy Divakaruni, an engineer by profession. Her two sons, Anand and Abhay, were born in 1991 and 1994.
Reaching Out to Women in Need
Divakaruni and her husband moved to Sunnyvale, California in 1989. For several years she was interested in issues involving women and worked with Afghani women refugees and women from dysfunctional families, as well as in shelters for battered women. In 1991, she became founder-member and president of Maitri, an organization in the San Francisco area that works for South Asian women in abusive situations. She also associated herself with Asians against Domestic Abuse, an organization in Houston. Her interest in these women grew when she realized that there was no mainstream shelter for immigrant women in distress—a place where people would understand their cultural needs and problems—in the United States. Because of the experience she gathered from counseling sessions, the lives of Asian women opened up to her, revealing unimaginable crises.
Exploring Cultural Differences through Poetry
For all of the years that Divakaruni lived in the Bay Area, she taught at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills. She turned to writing as a means of exploring the cultural differences she encountered as a newcomer to the United States. Initially, she started writing for herself, and during the mid 1980s she joined a writer’s group at Berkeley University. She wrote poems during that time, and, as she told Roxane Farmanfarmaian in Publishers Weekly, her venture into serious poetry writing began after she received the news of her grandfather’s death in her ancestral village in India: ”Poetry focuses on the moment, on the image, and relies on image to express meaning. That was very important to me, that kind of crystallization, that kind of intensity in a small space.”
As he has been with the publications of many Indian writers in English, Professor P. Lal of the Writers Work shop in Calcutta was instrumental in publishing Divakaruni’s first book of poetry, Dark Like the River (1987). She had already established herself as a poet by the time she published The Reason for Nasturtiums (1990), her first verse collection published in the United States. The subtitle of the volume explains her primary interest and indicates that her main focus is the immigrant experience and South Asian women. She shows the experiences and struggles involved in Asian women’s attempts to find their own identities.
As the title suggests, Divakaruni’s volume of poems Leaving Yuba City: New and Selected Poems (1997) includes new poems as well as ones from Dark Like the River, The Reason for Nasturtiums, and Black Candle: Poems about Women from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (1991). These poems draw on similar subject matter to her fiction: womanhood, family life, exile, alienation, exoticism, ethnicity, domesticity, love, and romance. Leaving Yuba City won a Pushcart Prize, an Allen Gins berg Prize, and a Gerbode Foundation Award.
Career as a Fiction Writer Begins
After three books of poetry, Divakaruni realized that there were things she wanted to say that would be better expressed in prose. In 1992, she enrolled in an evening fiction-writing class at Foothill College, where she had started teaching twentieth-century multicultural literature the year before. Divakaruni’s first volume of short stories, Arranged Marriage (1995), explores the cross-cultural experiences of womanhood through a feminist perspective, a theme that continues to inform her work.
Divakaruni’s first novel, The Mistress of Spices (1997), is distinct in that it blends prose and poetry, successfully employing magic realist techniques. The novel was named one of the best books of 1997 by the Los Angeles Times and one of the best books of the twentieth century by the San Francisco Chronicle, and was nominated for the Orange Prize in England in 1998.
Non-fiction Work Confronts Old Traditions
Apart from her poems and fictional writing, Divakaruni has also established a reputation for herself with her non-fiction pieces. In ”Foreign Affairs: Uncertain Objects of Desire,” which appeared in the March 2000 issue of Atlantic Monthly, she sifts through several hundred carefully categorized matrimonial advertisements in The Times of India, surmising that in India, a country that straddles the old and the new, they are a good place to look for signs of shifting values.
The female protagonists of eight of the nine stories in Divakaruni’s sensuously evocative collection The Unknown Errors of Our Lives (2001) are caught between the beliefs and traditions of their Indian heritage and those of their, or their children’s, new homeland, the United States.
Divakaruni’s versatility as a writer was confirmed by her first children’s book, Neela: Victory Song (2002). Part of the ”Girls of Many Lands” series, featuring books and dolls based on young girls from various historical periods and cultural traditions, it is the story of a twelve-year-old girl caught up in the Indian Independence movement. Published in September 2003 and chosen as one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly, Divakaruni’s second book for children, The Conch Bearer, blends action, adventure, and magic in a kind of quest fantasy.
Divakaruni’s sixth novel, Queen of Dreams (2004), again utilizes the magic realist mode and details one woman’s experience living in the United States as an Indian. Since the release of Queen of Dreams, Divakaruni has published two more works of fiction: The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming (2005)—a sequel to The Conch Bearer and The Palace of Illusions: A Novel (2008).
Works in Literary Context
Belonging to the group of young Indian writers that emerged on the literary scene after Salman Rushdie, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s position as a South Asian writer in English is distinct and well established. As someone who has spent more time outside India than in it, she has been accepted as an Asian American writer, living with a hybrid identity and writing partially autobiographical work. Most of her stories, set in the Bay Area of California, deal with the experience of immigrants to the United States, whose voice is rarely heard in other writings of Indian writers in English. They are informed by her personal experience with immigration and working with other Indian women who are struggling to adjust to life in America.
Old Beliefs and New Desires
One common theme that runs through all the stories is that Indian-born women living new lives in the United States find independence a mixed blessing that involves walking a tight rope between old beliefs and newfound desires. Though the characters vary, the themes of the short stories are essentially the same—exploration of the nature of arranged marriages as well as the experience of affirmation and rebellion against social traditions.
Cross-cultural Experiences of Prejudice
Many of Divakaruni’s writings deal with the difficulties that come with cross-cultural experiences. For example, in her novel Queen of Dreams, Rakhi, who as a young artist and divorced mother living in Berkeley, California, is struggling to keep her footing with her family and with a world in alarming transition. As Rakhi attempts to divine her identity, knowing little of India but drawn inexorably into a sometimes painful history she is only just discovering, her life is shaken by new horrors. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, she and her friends must deal with dark new complexities about their acculturation. The ugly violence visited upon them forces the reader to view those terrible days from the point of view of immigrants and Indian Americans whose only crime was the color of their skin or the fact that they wore a turban.
Works in Critical Context
The critical acclaim and increasing recognition that Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has received has established her as a promising writer interested in the immigrant experience as a whole, not simply that of those who move from East to West. It is a cross-cultural scenario where, through her writings, the diversity of Indian writing in English is revealed.
Leaving Yuba City
The power of Divakaruni’s poetry is evidenced by its emotional impact on readers. Author Meena Alexander writes, ”Chitra Divakaruni’s Leaving Yuba City draws us into a realm of the senses, intense, chaotic, site of our pleasure and pain. These are moving lyrics of lives at the edge of the world.” Scholar Neila C. Seshachari of the Weber State English department offers praise for the emotional complexity of the work:
Those who read Divakaruni’s poems for the first time may be astonished at how the poet writes with such sensitivity and poetic sensibility on issues like abandoned babies on hospital steps, a daughter recollecting her nights spent with her prostitute mother, young Hindu girls growing up in the care of Catholic convent sisters who despise their religion and traditions. It is not surprising, then, that with this work Divakaruni drew the respect of her contemporaries. Author Quincy Troupe writes, ”The poetry of Chitra Divakaruni carries a wisdom rarely seen in contemporary poetry, runs through the reader like a cool drink of water on a hot day.” This work, he concludes, ”is a magical, beautiful book of poetry, strong, passionate, and lyrical.”
- Banerjee, Debjani. ”’Home and Us’: Re-defining Identity in the South Asian Diaspora through the Writings of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Meena Alexander.” In The Diasporic Imagination: Asian American Writing, volume 2, edited by Somdatta Mandal. New Delhi: Prestige, 2000.
- Barat, Urbashi. ”Sisters of the Heart: Female Bonding in the Fiction of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.” In The Diasporic Imagination: Asian American Writing, volume 2, edited by Mandal. New Delhi: Prestige, 2000,44-60.
- Pais, Arthur J. ”Spice Girl has a Fresh Recipe for Women.” India Today (January 25, 1999): 73.
- Softky, Elizabeth. ”Cross-Cultural Understanding Spiced with the Indian Diaspora.” Black Issues in Higher Education 18 (September 1997): 26.
- Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Retrieved September 20, 2008, from http://www.chitradivakaruni.com.
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