Chitra Banerjee Divakarunis latest novel,Oleander Girl,is a story of self-discovery and loss. In an email interview,she talks about her bipolar world,flawed characters and childhood in Kolkata.
Oleander Girl,like all coming-of-age stories,is about discovery at many levels. What was its genesis?
The book was inspired by my last few visits to India,when I saw the clash between old and new values as India rushes ever faster to take its rightful place in a global economy.
Does the story of Korobi (the protagonist) and her family secrets have any personal parallels?
I grew up in Kolkata in a traditional family. We had friends who lived in mansions just like the one in Oleander Girl. Growing up,I was fascinated by the old house and the old Bengal lifestyle. Im equally fascinated by the culture among the youth which I portray in the book. The latter half of the book travels across America. Ive lived in some of those places. Ive stood in front of the emptiness in New York where the Twin Towers used to be,just as Korobi does. All these settings affect Korobi,making her who she is,and changing her as the novel progresses.
How do you work on your characters?
To me,characters are at the heart of great literature. I learned that early from Tagore and Sharat Chandra,and continue to notice it in writers I admire,such as Anita Desai,Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe. I work very hard at creating complex characters,a mix of positives and negatives. They are all flawed. I believe flaws are almost universal and they help us understand,sympathise and,paradoxically,feel closer to such characters.
Two significant backdrops in the novel are 9/11 and the Gujarat riots. As a writer,how did these two events affect you?
I feel these two incidents,occurring so close in time to each other,were both,in their own way,tragic examples of religious violence. I had friends who died in the 9/11 tragedy; some of my friends lost family members in the aftermath of Godhra. But beyond my personal life,as a writer Im very concerned with a growing tendency in the world of using violence to deal with people who are different from us,be it racially or religion-wise. I want readers of Oleander Girl to think about the costs of such intolerance. I also hope the book provides some answers.
In the novel,bipolar worlds traditional and modern,East and West meet.
Contradictions and juxtapositions come naturally to me as an Indian living in the US,as a writer married to an engineer,and as an activist in the field of domestic violence who regularly comes across terrible tales of abuse by men,but whose three favourite people in the world are men (my husband and two boys).
Your next novel is a retelling of the Ramayana from Sitas point of view. Could you share something about it?
I am excited about this project. A little worried,too,since the Ramayana is such a sacred text and I want to treat it with respect while exploring the character of Sita as I understand her. I think Sita was far stronger and more courageous than she is given credit for. I would like to bring that out in my novel. I want to showcase Sita as a timeless woman,with thoughts,feelings and values as relevant to our times as to hers just as I did with Panchaali in The Palace of Illusions.