I cry all the time: author Chitra Divakaruni on writing about the lives of Sita, Draupadi and Jindan
By NIMMI RAGHUNATHAN
By giving voice to three Indian women of the past, Chitra Divakaruni seems to have found a unique voice for today’s women too: fiery and independent.
With that, the prolific Texas-based novelist whose books have won awards and gone celluloid (eg, “Mistress of Spices” with Aishwarya Rai), is now a star in the historical fiction genre too. In three recent works, she has explored the lives of iconic characters: Sita from ‘Ramayana’, Draupadi from ‘Mahabharata’ and now, Jindan, the last wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the last queen of the Sikh Empire.
All Indians know them, especially the first two, but Divakaruni unlocks the box they were held in to become aloof characters and invite readers into their lives with an intimacy that proves whatever the era, just how they are powerful, rich or beautiful. individual and human emotions will remain surprisingly universal.
Her latest release, “The Last Queen,” is easy to read and you don’t have to be Punjabi to understand the ebbs and flows of Queen Jindan’s life or even be Indian to get it. But the complex circumstances and choices that determine the trajectory of lives are never subsumed by the seductive simplicity of prose.
Divakaruni’s sensitive handling of her characters also proves one more thing: the story would read differently, perhaps even a little more smoothly if women had been the primary scribes.
The author’s interest in understanding women is not limited to the past. Active in women’s groups, she now joins the Daya association which works with South Asian survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
Divakaruni, who holds a doctorate from UC Berkeley, teaches writing at the University of Houston and settles in the city with her husband Murthy. The couple are parents to two boys, both consultants.
In his conversation with West India, she was articulate, friendly and overflowing with information. Excerpts:
Q: Are your books primarily read by women?
A: They are in the majority. It makes me happy when men read my books and say they made a difference. So I say please tell it to other men; we are not in combat, together we form society. A healthy society for women creates a healthier one for men as well.
Q: Sita, Draupadi, and now Jindan – are they heroines in your opinion?
A: Yes. But I never wanted to create statues of perfection; I wanted them to be humanized in a way that we could all identify with them. In the case of Draupadi for example, she is accused of having started the war. But of course it’s more complicated than that, there were other factors at play. But she was upset about being stripped in public. What woman wouldn’t? There is a tendency to blame the woman and I wanted to write against that.
Q: Does it surprise you that Sita is considered more of an ideal than someone like Draupadi?
A: No way. This corresponds to the belief that women should be seen and not heard. Sita is not an iconoclast, but neither is she a doormat. She’s comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone. I see her as a role model for single mothers – probably the first in literature. How wonderfully she does it instead of wasting her time complaining about her condition! It took me longer to understand Sita’s quiet strength… I was attracted to it, and I wanted to show it. By the way, in ‘Adhbut Ramayan’, she is a warrior!
Q: When you write about the angle of love between Draupadi and Karna, one more tale in the ‘Mahabharata’ is being created, isn’t it?
A: Throughout the ages, people do not repeat what Sage Vyasa said. At different times, authors wrote for their time. So there is a precedent! And then there is already mention of it, even Tagore talks about it.
Question: Abortion. Jindan is having one and in our time we have the Supreme Court ruling against it…
A: I am very saddened by the decision. We are going back to the dark ages. A major choice has been taken away from women. Women have no control over their own bodies now, how is that possible? I hope people will look at Jindan with sympathy. As queen she wanted the regency to look after her child but as a woman she was widowed young but was not allowed to do what she wanted to do and could not have married a no -sikh. That’s the trick of literature, it pushes us to put ourselves in the place of the other and it makes us more compassionate: what would we have done in their place?
Q: Jindan was known as the Messalina (Roman queen known for her promiscuity) of Punjab. The average Indian, even today, won’t know who it is, will they?
A: What the British did really upset me. They couldn’t control her, so they went after her character. Warren Hastings (Governor General of Bengal) said she was the only one with a manly understanding…look at that compliment! No, you are right, the term was used between them and educated Indians. Fortunately, she was always there with the people, and they never believed her. His servants loved him with their lives.
Q: What does your headspace look like during the writing process?
A: For me, the first step is research. My husband is now used to seeing me cry. I feel their danger and their pain. I cry a lot. I believe that I have to feel what they feel only then I can touch the readers.
Q: How does this affect daily life?
A: I think it made me more empathetic. I realized that no one is really a villain, it’s more complex than that. No one grows up wanting to be a bad person. The British are getting closer, but they too were patriotic.
Q: Are you afraid of idealizing them in your work?
A: I actively monitor this. When I take notes, I think about how to humanize them, what their faults are. If Sita in her stubbornness had not wanted this deer, things would be different. Jindal loved her brother too much and instead of dismissing him, she gave him official power. Draupadi had his temper, his barbed tongue. All learn through their mistakes. I too have learned; with ‘The Last Queen’ I grew up a lot. We think we are loved by so many people, but ultimately it is only the Divine who is with us.
Q: In ‘The Last Queen’ you have included relevant verses from the Guru Granth Sahib. Did you adapt the story to meet them?
A: Jindan was pious and read it all the time. Even when she ran away with a suitcase, she took it with her. I did all the research and studied the holy book as much as possible. I felt like I knew which verses would apply to her. Many thanks to Harper Collins India, who gave me a fact checker.
Q: You are talking about samosas, bhatura, biriyani…
A: (Laughs) I’m a foodie! It’s such a big part of our culture, isn’t it? We show our love by cooking for them. For Jindan, it becomes more important; it comes from poverty. She cooks for her husband. It’s peasant food, the kind even Maharaja Ranjit Singh would have grown up on. He was a very simple man. He never sat on the throne but placed the Guru Granth Sahib there. Such humility. There is something we can all learn.
Q: As a foodie, is there a cookbook waiting to happen?
A: Nope! But on my website, I blog about my favorite recipes. My rule is that it should be quick and easy. Only my boys can roll me rotis.
Q: Were there any gender lessons you passed on to them?
A: That they must respect every human being regardless of gender and treat them equally regardless of gender. Women have always struggled, it’s in their hands to try harder with women to give them the dignity to make choices.
Favorite Pandava: Bhim is a cook!
Favorite Female Character: Sita
Favorite Historical Fiction Writer: Rabindranath Tagore
Favorite food: You’ll laugh, pizza!
Last visit to India: My hometown of Calcutta, Chennai where my husband is from, and Jaipur for the literature festival.
A Vedantic value that you strive to respect: to see Brahman (god) in everyone.