The lives of Indian immigrants are central to Chitra Divakaruni’s work. Her focus is shifting to include children of immigrants who face a different challenge in assimilating into the world they live in.
Like many Indian immigrants, Chitra Divakaruni came to the United States as a hopeful young student planning to pursue a postgraduate degree. She helped pay for that education in the time-honored American tradition by earning money as a babysitter, store clerk, and a bread slicer in a bakery. Divakaruni got her degree, and along the way also became an award winning writer and poet of 17 books.
Her short story collection Arranged Marriage: The Unknown Errors of Our Lives won the American Book Award and her best-selling novel Mistress of Spices was made into a Hollywood movie starring Aishwarya Rai. Other major novels include Sister of my Heart (which was aired in India as a Tamil television serial), One Amazing Thing, (optioned by Hollywood), Palace of Illusions, a bestseller in India, and Oleander Girl.
Divakaruni currently lives in Texas, where she is professor of Creative Writing at the University of Houston, and this spring published her latest book, Before We Visit the Goddess.
“I’ve lived in Texas for 13 years and this is my first book where Texas is there in a major way. It takes me a long time to learn a place and now I feel comfortable about writing about it,” Divakaruni says. “This book is different from all my other books in that every single place that appearsin it, I have actually lived in. “
The book took three years to write. “The character Sabitri’s time span is before my birth, so I had to do a lot of reading,” says Divakaruni. “I read novels set in that period, and studied newspapers, and photographs about women’s education at that time. I believe that detail not only brings a scene alive, it makes the reader trust the writer. “
The book moves through the lives of the three women, spotlighting pivotal moments that bring about their lasting awareness and also impel the story forward. Divakaruni says she chose not to write the book chronologically, charting the course of each character’s life. “I wanted to create the reading experience.
This is a very associative book,” she explains. “It moves through emotions and thoughts. One of the themes of this book is how things affect people, but not necessarily chronologically.”
Divakaruni also points out that the strong women she created did not exist in a void, but also had men in their lives, as friends and as lovers, who supported or destroyed them. “I wanted to make the men as real as possible because it brings out many sides to each story. The truth is complicated and that’s what this book reflects,” she says.
Divakaruni herself is not a writer who lives in a void. Her books often have a resonance to the world she born into or a response to the world around her. “My previous novel, Oleander Girl, on how to live in a world fractured by communal violence, was inspired partly by the Godhra riots and partly by 9/11,” she says. “Palace of Illusions was a retelling of the Mahabharata. It was influenced by my love for the original text, but also my desire to hear the voices of the women characters. And Mistress of Spices came out of my love for spices and of our cuisine. Running underneath many of my stories set in this country is the changing challenges of immigrant life.”
As a writer, Divakaruni finds that managing time to carve out a writing life, as opposed to her role as a teacher, can also be a challenge. “Teaching is consuming,” she admits. She credits the University of Houston for generously agreeing to let her teach her graduate and PhD students for a semester and taking the other semester off for writing. “I’m blessed to have this arrangement,” Divakaruni says, adding that she nevertheless tries to write all year. “I can lose touch with writing a book if I don’t write for half the year. So I think it’s fair to say that I write more during my off semester and less during my teaching period.”
Strong-willed women who resist their fate are a running theme of Divakaruni’s books, and her feminist perspectives were probably rooted from an early role model. “In my life, my mother is a very strong character,” Divakaruni says. “She pretty much brought me and younger brother up almost as a single parent, because my father was not around all the time. We had a strong and close and sometimes stormy relationship. You can’t relive your mother’s life, but I think conflict between mothers and daughters is a universal fact across cultures and generations.”
Another common thread in many of her works is the transformative and redemptive power of food in the lives of immigrants. “Food influences and affects our identity and I think our relationship with food helps to show who we really are,” she says.
The lives of Indian immigrants are central to her work. Her focus is shifting to include children of immigrants who face a different challenge in assimilating into the world they live in. “I see this often in the younger generation that is born here. They move away from their home culture initially. But when they reach a certain level of maturity, then they begin to see value in their culture. I think it is a discovery of something that is rich and meaningful in our culture,” Divakaruni says.
The title of the book, which refers to the Meenaskhi temple in Texas, which Sabitri’s granddaughter Tara visits at a turning point in the book, is example of the difference between first and second generation Indians. “Visiting the goddess to me symbolically means to really know who we really are. What is my own true inner identity? That is the metaphor for visiting the goddess. Before we visit, change has to take place in us.”
One of the questions that Divakaruni would like readers to take away from her book is what does it mean to be a successful woman. “For me that resonates in everybody’s life,” Divakaruni says. “I hope this book encourages that question. It is a complex and important question.”