Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is on a roll right now. Having released her latest book, The Last Queen, the author is busy with online promotions, teaching (at the University of Houston), and binge-watching horror series on Netflix. We caught up with her at the ongoing digital Jaipur Literature Festival and had a chat about her fictional characters. Excerpts.
ELLE: Tell us about the protagonist in your latest book, The Last Queen. What inspired you to write about Rani Jindan?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (CBD): I came across Rani Jindan’s story very serendipitously. I think it was meant to be (smiles). I was in Kolkata for an event and William Dalrymple was talking about his book, and as I came in, I saw a painting of Rani Jindan in his presentation (it later became the cover of my book). So I heard her story and I was quite fascinated by it, and also surprised that I didn’t know about it. I thought that people need to know about this amazing woman who had such indomitable courage to continue fighting against the Britishers throughout her life.
ELLE: All your characters are strong women in their own ways. However, there is still something relatable, and traditional about them. Is this a conscious choice?
CBD: Yes, it is a conscious choice. There are two different things that I really wanted to show, through my heroines. Even if they are mythological heroines or historical characters I have always tried to show them in their everyday existence. The second thing I wanted to really show is that they’re not perfect because I think that is a great burden placed upon women. Women can be admirable and inspiring without being perfect.
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ELLE: Was it hard to find an audience for your stories? Did you ever consider changing the narrative?
CBD: You know my agent was like, ‘How will I find an audience for you?’ Luckily she had some faith in me and I think God was with me (laughs). I also made a shift in my career at some point, where I started writing about the heroines in mythology. I always felt that in these stories, the women were often misunderstood. Even my husband, who is very supportive of my writing, was worried when I first started and he said, ‘You know you’re messing with mythology,’ and I said I am doing it respectfully. I don’t want to break these women down, I want to build them up.
ELLE: You write about Indian mythology, yet your characters are very global…
CBD: Yes, I think that is what I want to show in my stories. We cannot confine these stories only to India. These are women doing amazing things, ahead of their time, while being challenged in multiple ways. This is the story of every woman.
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ELLE: Your writing is fueled by your own experiences as a woman between cultures. How much does real-life spill onto the pages?
CBD: I’ve been working in the field of women’s activism for a long time, so empowering women is a big part of my life. Women have such potential but unfortunately, they are not always able to make full use of that. I want to push against those boundaries, both through things that I do in my life and through my writing.
ELLE: Are there any lessons you have learnt from the strong women you write about?
CBD: Given the year that we’ve all lived through, I have learnt from Sita that there is really no use worrying about something that I can’t do anything about. When she is in the forest banished for no fault of her own she doesn’t waste time crying over what she can’t do. She’s like, ‘Okay, this is a terrible situation but I’m going to do the best I can’. Similarly, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to focus on writing the best book that I could write’. The silver lining here was, I was not as distracted because there was no place to go and I could really focus. I was able to write Last Queen much more smoothly without interruptions.
ELLE: When you are not with your books, we would find you binge-watching…
CBD: Oh, my goodness, I love binge-watching but to feel less guilty I exercise while I watch (laughs). I love scary movies. I have watched The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor.