It’s a cold, cold day at Jaipur Literature Festival here in, well, Jaipur. The temperature sits at a low 18 degrees (low for the Mumbai girl I am, any way) and I am buried under many jackets. An interaction with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni turned this day around. Her popular most novel till date is perhaps The Palace Of Illusions, the telling of Mahabharat from Draupadi’s perspective but I have practically inhaled every book Chitra Banerjee has written. Her book, The Mistress Of Spices, was made into a motion picture of the same name in 2005. We caught up with her at the Jaipur Literature Festival and I fangirled very hard. I was giggling throughout and on this cold day, thrilled to be in the company of someone I consider one of the best authors of India and this interview warmed the cockles of my heart.
ELLE: Your books tell the story from a woman’s perspective. How did you decide to do this?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: It took me a while actually. Some of it was just natural. I started writing the stories of women just because they were more natural to me. I felt like I understood other women more and of course, I thought it was an authentic view point. My early books were always from women’s points of view and after a while when I wanted to write The Palace Of Illusions, I realised that all of our great mythological heroines were always shown to us from a male writer’s perspective. And the stories were always interested in the men. The women characters were there, but they were kind of pushed to the side. Their complexities were not explored, their voices are not heard. So that became really important to me. For me to imagine them in the centre of the narrative, telling their stories, in their own voice. And to show them as complex women with flaws. Because that’s what we all are.
What is the use of showing these women as heroines who are perfect and then saying, ‘You’ve to be like that.’ That’s a no-win situation.
ELLE: Tell us a little bit of the research that goes into creating these worlds that are history and creative liberties meshed together.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: You know, when I did the research for my books, I realised that these were complicated and strong women. But in the retelling of the stories down the ages and especially in the popular narratives, like TV serials and movies, they’ve been made flat and seen through the male gaze. And if they are to be admired, they are seen as passive and accepting of whatever happens to them – that’s usually how they are portrayed. If they are shown as strong, then they are “problem/bad” women. They are the cause of the war, they are the reason all these bad things are happening. I wanted to reshape that narrative.
ELLE: Do you take creative liberties with your characters? For example, in The Palace of Illusions, you allude to the fact that perhaps there was a mild flirtation between Draupadi and Karna.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: One of the things I do with my novels is careful and meticulous research. And everything that is in these novels has been mentioned in earlier tellings. So I can always point the source and say, ‘There it is.’ I am just amplifying it for my story. I didn’t make up anything. In fact, the attraction between Draupadi and Karna is mentioned by Tagore before this.
I do, of course, interpret the character the way I think she was. For example, with The Last Queen about Maharani Jindal. I did the research on her life and made her very authentic but nobody knows what she was thinking, that’s just not available. I then take the liberty to say what this kind of person would think in this situation. With Draupadi and Sita, all the conversations they were not allowed in the original, I imagine that would be the kind of thing they would say, this is how they would behave. My first impulse is to always make it accurate, because otherwise people will just discount it and say ‘She’s making it up, we don’t need to take it seriously.’
For The Palace Of Illusions, The Forest of Enchantments and The Last Queen, I did a lot of research especially. So people cannot say The Last Queen was not brave like this. But also, her story has been forgotten. I am just reminding people.
ELLE: Do you think you’re drawn to stories of women whose voices may have been drowned by design?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Sometimes I do think strong women are forgotten by design. (laughs) I feel like I might be the messiah of these women whose stories need to be told. I think, ‘Whoa, she’s an amazing person, why do we not know about her?’ I think heroines need to be more complex because it gives women living now more options, inspiration and hope. We all need role models and we need fiesty, human role models. If you look back on literature, men were always allowed to have flaws but women were not extended the same courtesy. And what a burden to put on women to be perfect, otherwise you’re bad.
Women face a lot of pressure, from men and also, from women of their time. For example, in The Palace of Illusions, Draupadi faces a lot of pressure from Kunti – something that holds valid till today. My books are timeless, while the stories are not realistic, what is happening to the women is very real and very relevant. That was my whole point in writing these stories. One of the common themes you will find in my books is that the women were always victim shamed. Draupadi- her clothes are going to be torn off her- so that she is shamed, what is her fault. Sita was taken by Raavan and then victim shamed, because she was “impure.” It’s happening in our community even now. Unfortunately, this continues to be a contemporary issue.
Read more about the author here.
I write a lot about travel. You can read my review of the Hyatt Regency Dehradun here.