Arts Listings

Divakaruni, I-House Alumna of the Year, Returns to Berkeley

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday May 01, 2008 - 10:32:00 AM
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni at the I-House fete.
Jim Block
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni at the I-House fete.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni climbed up the red-tiled stairs of the International House at UC Berkeley on a recent April afternoon with the familiar gait of someone who has done it a thousand times before. 

“Aren’t these pretty?” she asked, pointing at the colorful mosaic which gives the otherwise placid building on 2299 Piedmont Ave. the warmth hundreds of students flock to every year from all over the world. 

Divakaruni—who called the historic residential center home from 1978 to 79 while completing her six-year Ph.D. program in Renaissance Literature at UC Berkeley—began her prolific literary career from its very rooms. 

The American Book Award-winning author was back under its iconic dome last month to receive I-House Alumna of the Year honor—but this time she skipped her old dorm room and spent the night in the Ambassador Suite, reserved for VIP’s. 

“I had no idea they even had something like this,” Divakaruni said, unpacking in her room after a five-hour flight from Houston, Texas, where she lives with her husband Murthy and two sons, Abhay and Anand. 

“Bangla bolo?” (Do you know Bengali?) she asked me, and as we chatted in our common native tongue, familiar places, customs and people surfaced like voices from the past. 

Divakaruni’s classmates at Loreto Convent, Calcutta, remember her as a good student, and an avid sketcher, often delving into the mystical and the magical to draw inspiration. 

“Chitra was a five pointer, and mind you in those days getting five points wasn’t easy,” one of them told me in a telephone interview from Calcutta, where Divakaruni grew up. 

About 8,000 miles away from the city where she was born, and where many of her novels were set, Divakaruni reminisced about her high school days, and her love for literature. 

“I knew from the beginning that I wanted to major in literature, but I never knew I would be a writer,” she said. “I thought I would major in it and teach it at the university level, and that’s what I came here to Berkeley to do. And for many years I taught literature, and I still do, although I now teach creative writing.” 

Myth and folklore play a prominent role in all of Divakaruni’s stories, but at the same time she also writes to destroy stereotypes about Indians, and to some extent, Americans. 

Stories passed down orally through generations are often woven with intricate detail into her prose in an effort to keep long forgotten traditions alive. 

“There are superstitions, there are traditional ways of thinking about women which I don’t agree with,” she says. “But I bring those in too. They are all part of the texture of Indian culture.” 

A smattering of Bengali words such as parota, khichuri, chorchori can be found in almost all of Divakaruni’s stories—but her more recent novels neither italicize them nor list them under a glossary for the benefit of her western reader, something she promptly defends.  

“English is always a changing language and with immigration many words have entered English and are entering English, and this is just part of that larger movement,” she said. “I wanted to introduce them into the texture of the book without pointing to them as foreign words which by italicizing you do.” 

Divakaruni, who left the I-House for student housing in Albany after getting married, later went on to teach English at Foothill College in Los Altos. 

As a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, Divakaruni teaches the literature of India, where she introduces students to the works of her contemporaries—Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Arundhati Ray and Anita Desai, and other Indian and Indian American prose writers.  

“One of the things I miss about the Bay Area is that it’s just geographically so beautiful,” she said. “Another thing I like is the easy cultural mixing. It’s a place of great intellectual stimulation and social awareness. Houston is also culturally diverse but I notice people stay more within their ethnic groups.” 

Bengal and Bengalis play a very important role in Divakaruni’s novels, as do themes such as alienation, rootlessness, domestic violence, economic disparity and loss of identity. 

Her characters live, love and forge friendships inside Calcutta’s (Bengal’s capital city) centuries-old buildings or just find themselves inexplicably connected to the place through their past. 

“Bangla culture is a big part of my writing,” Divakaruni continued. “I realized that in order to remember the people and places I knew while I was growing up, I needed to write.” 

Standing in the middle of College Street—or “Boi Para” as it is commonly referred to—in present-day Calcutta, it is easy to picture Sudha and Anju, characters around which her novel Sister of My Heart is centered, being chaperoned down its sepia-tinted streets, as was customary in traditional middle-class Bengali families when Divakaruni was a young girl. 

Divakaruni often draws inspiration for her characters from her own cross cultural experience, which began when she left Calcutta when she was 19 to pursue a master’s degree in English at Wright State University in Ohio. 

“It was being an immigrant that made me into a writer, because when I moved away from my culture, I began to be able to see it more clearly,” she said. “When I was living in Calcutta, my culture was all around me. I didn’t give it much thought. It was only when you are in a place where you don’t have many Bengalis around you, you can’t speak your language, you can’t eat your food then you start thinking about those things, what they meant to you. You want to re-create those things.” 

Living in the Bay Area, and especially in Berkeley, for a long time, made Divakaruni aware of different cultures. 

Set in Oakland in the 1980s and recently made into a movie starring Aishwarya Rai, her novel Mistress of Spices shatters the divide between modern-day America and myth through Tilo, a magical figure who helps Indian immigrants overcome difficulties through her exotic spices, but in the end battles with her heritage to accommodate her own desire. 

“A lot of it is about living in a culture that’s not your own and how you adapt to it,” Divakaruni said. 

Women—especially those victimized by domestic violence or abuse—have always been central to Divakaruni’s writing, something the writer said piqued her interest when she was volunteering for the Women’s Center in Berkeley. 

Today, Divakaruni serves on the board of the Bay Area-based Maitri and the advisory board of Daya in Houston—organizations which help battered South Asian or South Asian American women reclaim their lives. 

“What I learned when I worked with women who were victims of abuse has changed me as a person, and some of them inspired me to create other characters.” 

Two of her books, Arranged Marriage and Mistress of Spices, revolve around women trying to break out of difficult situations and the lack of respect society often has for them. 

According to Divakaruni, incidents of domestic violence have increased since she helped start Maitri in 1991. 

“The good thing is today, women come out more to talk about it,” she said. “Earlier there was a great deal of stigma attached with being abused. Womens’ organizations do a lot of outreach work in India today to explain to parents and families about what causes abuse. There are lots of checks and balances in place.” 

Some of Divakaruni’s more recent writings (such as The Unknown Errors of Our Lives) also focus on the changing Indian Diaspora. 

Her protagonists are people who go back to India to reconnect with their culture and take their children back with them to connect with their heritage, a theme that has also been explored by other Indian writers such as Amit Chaudhuri. 

The Palace of Illusions—Divakaruni’s latest book—is a retelling of the Indian epic, the Mahabharat, through the eyes of one of its most misunderstood characters, the Princess Panchaali. 

Divakaruni spent four years writing the book, which is twice the amount of time it usually takes her to write a novel. 

Her meticulous historical research involved reading several different versions of the epic poem—including the translation from Sanskrit by the 17th century Bengali poet Kashiram Das—and learning about the architecture, food and beauty secrets which existed thousands of years ago. 

“The story goes way back into an ancient world, and yet one of the things I wanted to show is that human concerns are not that different,” Divakaruni said. “Mahabharat is really on one level a book that warns us about the consequences of war, and look several thousands years later, we are involved in so many wars and so much destruction.”