Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I’d done an interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of Mistress of Spices, Palace of Illusions and One Amazing Thing, after returning from the Jaipur Literature Festival’11 for BookChums.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I’d read Palace of Illusions before heading to Jaipur and was mighty excited when I discovered Chitra would be one of the authors attending. That’s because Palace of Illusions was one of my favoritest reads of 2010 (I know, I know, review’s pending. Soon, soon) and she turned out to top my short list of Indian Authors I Like very soon.

The interview is finally up. Excerpts from the interview..

AM: Your latest novel, One Amazing Thing, tells the story of 9 people stuck in a crisis. I remember you spoke about how the idea for this book came to you at JLF. Could you give our readers a glimpse into that experience?

CBD: One Amazing Thing comes out of an autobiographical experience. In 2005, I, too, faced a natural disaster — Hurricane Rita was headed toward Houston, Texas, where I live, and we had to evacuate the city. There was a lot of panic, huge traffic jams, etc. It made me contemplate how human beings deal with catastrophe and the fear of death, and how we might be able to connect with strangers under such circumstances. That idea is at the heart of One Amazing Thing.

AM: Spanning a time of over 15 years, you have written 12 novels, contributed in various anthologies. You are often called a prolific author. Prolific authors sometimes tend to build a formula around their style and stories, but you have always taken up different narratives, even while keeping some similar themes. Where do you find the inspiration and the creative energy required to keep writing?

CBD: I don’t know. I only know that it’s important for me to set myself a new challenge with each book. For instance, with Palace of Illusions, I wanted to retell the story of an epic (Mahabharat) with a woman (Draupadi) at its center. In One Amazing Thing, I wanted to write a novel about creating community, and I used a disaster scenario as the setting.  In Mistress of Spices I used magical realism.

AM: We often see folk tales, myths and legends being retold in your various novels. Do you think as an Indian you have an advantage that you can mine into a treasure trove of stories that can be used as a trope in your narratives?

CBD: Yes, I feel very fortunate that I had a grandfather who was a wonderful storyteller and shared these folk/legendary tales with me. It gives me a very rich source to draw from, and I have used them amply, especially in my children’s books such as The Conch Bearer.

Palace of Illusions
Palace of Illusions

AM: Your novel The Palace of Illusions was a retelling of The Mahabharata through Paanchali. There have been several versions and retellings of the Mahabharata. Despite that, were you apprehensive with your retelling of one of our most sacred and beloved epics?

CBD: Yes. The original is such a great text, I wanted to do it justice & knew it would be the hardest task I’d set myself until then. I did a lot of research & reading in preparation.

AM: Following the same train of thought, Mahabharata and Ramayana are two of our most important epics. Both have women in a central role who have faced great injustice. What made you choose Draupadi over Sita?

CBD: I have always pondered about Draupadi, who is very timeless & modern (both) in her questioning of her role & rights as a woman. That said, I do want to write a novel about Sita.

You can read the full interview here.

From Behind The Yellow Door

Anjum Hasan
Anjum Hasan

Anjum Hasan is a poet, novelist, and a chronicler par excellence of our times. She has published two novels, a book of poems, short fiction, reviews and essays in various anthologies and journals. Her first novel, Lunatic in My Head was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award 2007 and her second novel Neti, Neti was on the longlists for the 2008 Man Asian Prize and the 2011 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the Hindu Best Fiction Award. She is also the Books Editor at The Caravan.

I first met Anjum at a panel discussion titled These Hills Called Home at the Jaipur Literature Festival.I thought she was the quietest panelist present. I ran into her at some other events and I always saw her with a diary, making notes, intently listening to the various speakers. Following this interview and after reading some of her works, I’ve come to realize how keen and discerning an observer she really is.

Excerpts from the interview:

Before we begin talking about writing, books and other things, could you please tell our readers a bit about yourself and how writing came into the picture?

Writing is a kind of biography, an alternative one. I don’t mean that one always writes about one’s own life, but that one creates a life story in and through the writing.

In Shillong, I grew up in the protected and somewhat insular way in which most Indian English writers grow up – going to an English medium school and reading a lot in English. Writing appeared naturally – I was always attracted to literature and with a house full of books and teachers for parents, it didn’t seem like a very radical thing, putting pen to paper.

-Sophie Das is living in big-city Bangalore, with all the freedom that she can get and yet she feels unable to let go of that “out of place” feeling. Do you think that this feeling, of not finding oneself accepted, of not belonging anywhere, is something that never really leaves a person, but swings from one extreme to another with time and place?

It’s different at different times and in different places. I think it’s important to try and pinpoint the exact nature of 21st century urban Indian alienation. I think the lack that Sophie feels is a cultural lack. It’s about the values that are on offer. She likes her friends but cannot completely fit in with their world of hard materialism and functional attitudes. And she feels this as a shortcoming. She would like to be more like them but cannot. There is nowhere, no institution or space that she can turn to whose values fit in completely with her own unarticulated ones – the family is breaking down, religion has become functional in its own way, and as for literature and art, which she does fall back on from time to time, that is of limited help because she has only read 3 books! But even if she had read more, literature would offer a solitary recompense, while Sophie wants a social one. She would like to belong.

-Your characters migrate from one microcosm to another, from one faraway corner to a big city, across the vast diversity that is India. Where smaller cities are sprouting up malls, multiplexes and CCDs, youngsters are getting trendier and stylish everywhere and economical development is seen as a means to bridge the cultural gap, how wide really do you think is the divide between big cities and small towns? Can and should this breach be removed?

Yes, you’re right – smaller towns are increasingly becoming like bigger cities. The middle class everywhere seems to want the same things. That’s what Sophie Das discovers too in Neti, Neti. But what my characters are interested in and what I’m interested in are the ways in which these are place aren’t the same – how each place has a specific local character which is erased in the name of development. That’s what my novels and poems try to capture.

-You have published poems, essays and novels. Which form comes to you most easily and which poses the biggest challenge?
They’re all incredibly difficult! What I enjoy is not being locked into one form, being able to move from one to another. That movement itself is inspiring because when you’re turning from one form to another, there is a sense of freedom and possibility. I like that.

What Happens in Jaipur, Doesn’t Stay in Jaipur

(Note: I know this blog has been barren and starved of attention for nearly two months now, but believe me, it was hardly my fault.  Also, this post is really, really long. I tried and tried to edit, but I couldn’t bring myself to commit any omissions.  So please be patient, and kind when you read this.)

Everyone has had their share of news to report, their accounts, and their observations and quickly arrived upon conclusions about the Jaipur Literature Festival 2011, so far called the biggest literary extravaganza happening this side of the hemisphere, and being compared to cult festivals like Woodstock. Given it’s been a good 5 days since the fest ended; I thought it’s time I put down my two cents worth of experience.

Once the festival kicked off and people got into the mood and started being prolific about their #JLF experience on social media channels, there seemed to develop a dichotomy between the avid followers of the event- those who loved everything about the fest and everyone who was there, and those who attacked almost everything said and done there as elitist, for being pseudo-intellectual and whatnot.  I’d say it had its own balance of the good, bad and ugly and it’s entirely upon the participant at the event to take the best of it.

There were more than 100 different sessions, over 200 authors present with varying degree of participation in the sessions, and around 50,000 or more, comprising students, media people, book lovers, and those who just came to sightsee, at the fest this year.  From this cacophonous mix, I’m going to try to enlist my top five seven events (in chronological order, if nothing else) from the fest. These aren’t the most enjoyable or thought-provoking ones necessarily, but these events are representative of the whole festival for me and will remain in my memory for long.

The Opening Ceremony and Sheldon Pollock

Sheldon Pollock
Sheldon Pollock

The inauguration of the fest took place on a quite grand note (for a literature event methinks) with Dr. Karan Singh as the guest of honour and politicos from Rajasthan present. Sheldon Pollock, who delivered the keynote address, in my eyes, set the tone for the fest with his lament on the state of classical languages, and literature written in those, in India. If there are Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technology, why can’t there be an Indian Institute of Classical Languages he asked. It was humbling to see an outsider remind us of our travesty, posing as a society that prides itself on a dying culture, not bothered enough to save the remnants. He spoke of the importance of poet who describes, but the necessity of the scholar to interpret and appreciate. The question he posed as a corollary is something that will be hard to forget. He asked, “Who do you think appreciates the beauty of the daughter, the father or the mother?”

Pamuk and the Art of the Novel

I think this was one of the most anticipated events of the fest and one that gave JLF the big kick-start that it needed to silence its detractors and validate its reputation as Asia-Pacific’s leading literature event. Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Laureate and author of novels My Name is Red, Snow and Istanbul was in conversation with Chandrahas Chowdhury. He spoke of his relationship with history, with painting and the subject of time (the darling subject of modernist writers  according to him) and how a novelist can draw personal inspiration out of these relationships to tell their story.

“I paint objects through stories, because I’m a failed painter”, he remarked before the Q&SA session with him was to begin. There were two instances in this Q&A session which made an impression on me. One involved this old gentleman who gushed on about Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red and wondered aloud about how good the translator was to have captured the essence and beauty of Pamuk’s storytelling. I’m not sure if the question was posed in the right way, but Pamuk’s dismissal of the point/question and person was a bit of a sad comment, more so after the topics that he spoke at length on and will do so in later events.  The second question came from another gentleman, slightly on the older side who asked “Which do you think is deeper of the two- philosophical love or physical love?” To this Pamuk joked, “I’d say that depends entirely on the penetration”. Amidst much appreciative laughter, Pamuk pointed out his urge to make that joke because the questioner has used the word “deep”.

A Eunuch’s Life

A. Revathi, author of The Truth About Me, was in conversation with Urvashi Butalia. Revathi, who was once a son of Armugam is now a member of the Hijra community. In her book, she has put down her journey, her trials and tribulations, and as far as I know, it is the first of its kind in English from a member of the Hijra community. There are three reasons why this event is on this list: A) This was a window to look at JLF’s aspiring culture to have an event where topics like this have been treated with such respect and maturity.  B) Despite the horrors that Ms. Revathi has gone through, what you see is not a defeated bitter person, but a brave, quite jovial person who makes no bones about her sexuality.  C) The lack of propagandist and sexist talk by the members of the audience.  Rest all was mere dressing for me.

A. Revathi
A. Revathi

Seated in the richly decorated Durbar Hall, dressed in a simple saree, Ms. Revathi fielded questions with a frankness that was quite endearing. When asked by an audience member why she chose not to write the book through a fictional narrative and thus avoid any probable stigma that might come with the event, Ms.Revathi did this enactment of how she would have to think and mull if she were to write it through fiction which had the audience in splits. She then went on to say that she didn’t have the time or knowledge to think of a fictional story and felt that it was important that people know her story the way it is, that she wasn’t ashamed to hide behind the cloak of anonymity, and that I think was what earned her the respect of every member in the audience.  In response to the abuses she had mentioned she had suffered, a member of the audience asked her opinions on perpetrators of abuse from the Hijra community. When asked this by Ms. Butalia, who also played interpreter, Ms. Revathi didn’t seem abashed at all. She answered quite honestly, with much humility, that there’s a case of bad apples in every basket. There are bad ones among men and women and the same holds true for the Hijra community. Someone posed the question of harassment women have to suffer and if this harassment made her doubt her choices and decisions to which she quipped, “India mein pathar ko bhi saari se lapetega toh aadmi haath lagaega.” (In India, a man would harass even a stone wrapped in a Sari.) For those who understood Hindi, her responses and animated delivery of those had the lot of us trying hard not to grin too widely.

A.Revathi was the Director of Sangama which is a non-governmental organization working for the rights of Sexuality Minorities namely, Hijras, Kothis, Bisexuals, Double Deckers, Lesbians, Gays and Transgenders. She is presently the advocacy co-ordinator at Sangama.

Out of West

This was a star-studded discussion to say the least. With a panel comprising Orhan Pamuk, Kiran Desai, Chimamanda Adichie, Leila Aboulela, and Nam Le, and moderated by Rana Dasgupta, what else could you begin with for a description?

Out of West
(L-R) Kiran Desai, Orhan Pamuk, Rana Dasgupta, Leila Aboulela, Nam Le, Chimamanda Adichie

Rana Dasgupta opened up the discussion with his interpretation of the topic, to be rudely woken up by Orhan Pamuk and receive an explanation of what the topic actually meant as envisaged by Pamuk when he suggested this topic to the organizers for a discussion.  Pamuk listed down lack of representation for non-English writers in the world, their marginalization, the provinciality to which their writing is subjected on basis of their nationality as some of the topics that should be covered by the panel.

Raising the issue of representation, Kiran Desai commented how writers are sometimes taken as diplomats of their respective nations and Chimamanda recounted how everything she writes is turned into a political allegory on account of her Nigerian nationality and the country’s political turmoil.  Pamuk touched upon provinciality and the subject of interpretation when he recounted how whenever he writes about love, international reviewers label him as someone who writes about “Turkish” love.  All the writers consented that they are all trying to write of human experience, not Nigerian, Turkish, Sudanese or Vietnamese human experience, irrespective of cultural, political and socio-economic influences and languages in which they write or think.

It would have been interesting if the panel had in fact debated upon the points raised by Orhan Pamuk, but it turned a bit farcical with the moderator claiming to make enemies out of all those present at the table with him. Pamuk clearly dominated the discussion, talking most of the time, talking a lot of sense but it didn’t seem like a discussion that you could take something from.  I think Nam Le’s comment towards the end of the session, “One good thing about the literary world is that you can always find some hurt feelings”, summed it all up.

Readings from Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee
J.M. Coetzee

Two times Booker Winner, Nobel Laureate, author of classics like The Life and Times of Michael K, Disgrace and Summertime, John Maxwell Coetzee was clearly The Man at the event (Though many I know would claim that title for Junot Diaz. Even I found Mr. Diaz quite entertaining, brilliant and full of acerbic humor, but there’s a reason why Mr. Coetzee is the clear winner here). Known for being extremely reclusive, it is a big deal in itself that he came down to a festival like JLF, teeming with thousands of people, eager fans waiting and milling around and wanting to “engage” with him.  In all other reading sessions, the authors read some pages, talk about the process and hidden nuances a bit, this and that, answer some questions thrown by the audience, but not so for Mr. Coetzee.  As Patrick French said in his introduction to the session, “Some writers perform, some write, John Coetzee will read.”  Thus, Mr. Coetzee read a short story called The Old Woman and Her Cats, the story of the character John’s visit to his mother’s place and his discovery that his mother is sheltering the local village exhibitionist along with many cats. Mr. Coetzee read out this story, without any break for forty-five minutes. For forty-five minutes, the audience was silent, of its own volition, rapt in attention, listening to a man delivering a “Lesson”. Some might not see why this would be exceptional, but again, Mr. French comes to our rescue by pointing out that Mr. Coetzee has performed a miracle of sorts by keeping an audience, that is largely made up of Indians, enthralled and quiet for a full three-quarters of an hour. That there is the reason for Mr. Coetzee to be crowned The Man at JLF.

The book signing line for Mr. Coetzee wasn’t as long and winding as the one for the trio of Pamuk, Desai and Dasgupta but the conditions set by the organizers while getting the book signed (it went from three books per person to two to one book quite soon) and the rate at which the festival book store ran out of stock for all of his books must give you some idea as to how big, important and essential Mr.Coetzee’s presence was at JLF 2011.

Veda: Ends of Knowledge

Roberto Calasso, author of books like The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Ka was in conversation with Devdutt Pattanaik, author of Myth=Mithya, Jaya and other popular titles covering Indian mythos and their retelling in today’s times.

 

Roberto Calasso
Roberto Calasso

I’d never heard of Mr. Calasso nor read anything by him before. I had gone there to try to secure an interview with Mr. Pattanaik and because the title of the event had immense appeal for me.  Mr. Calasso began with, what I remember as a breaking of the myth of myth. He explained how our times do not have any myths, what we have mere urban legends, and what myth really is. He spoke of the consciousness imbibing what has been told to us countless times, of myths that have a power even today, millennia later.

It was clear to me from the first few minutes of the session that Mr. Calasso is an authority on this subject.  From Greek mythology to Mesopotamian civilization, from the Brahmanas to the Odyssey, he impressed us all with his deep knowledge and recounting of stories, anecdotes, explanations and questions that were aimed as much at the audience as to himself. The passion with which he spoke of the human mind and consciousness, of its link with the rise and fall of civilizations was captivating, to say the least. At one point, he raised the question of research being done into the human consciousness by neuroscientists by saying, “Neuroscientists, paleontologists are now busy solving workable issues. They are a long way from studying consciousness.”

As he quoted from one of his books, “These things never happened, but are always”, he moved from mythology to metaphysics with surprising ease and grace, which felt only natural given the topic of discussion.

If human evolution, the journey from caves to the cornucopia of our times, were taken as a big jigsaw, Mr. Calasso’s retelling of myths, exploration of ancient texts and his attempts at connecting the dots and clues left from one civilization to another, one history to another, seem like vital precursors to pieces that would complete the puzzle.

The Alchemy of Writing: Truth, Fiction & The Challenge of India

I’m sure this is not an unique observation by any measure, but the number of journalist-turned-authors, journalist-cum-authors, media person-cum-authors was quite high at JLF.  Given that, it was no surprise that this event with Tarun Tejpal, the man behind Tehelka who made “sting operations” a catchphrase and Manu Joseph, editor, Open

Tarun Tejpal
Tarun Tejpal

Magazine and the man behind the Radia Tapes, was going to be a major crowd-puller. Both of them have written novels that have received some acclaim and positive reviews, but everyone present knew it wasn’t going to be about that. The session was to hear the man speak and be charmed by him and it is a difficult feat to keep one from falling for the words that come out of Mr. Tejpal’s mouth.

Another non-unique observation was the politically charged atmosphere at JLF. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but one had to concede that if not here then where would such discussions happen? From the now regular India-Pak debate that seemed to follow author Kamila Shamsie, to any discussion that comprised more than one media person (natural connection?), politics was a very dominant topic at this Literature Fest. Given our current headlines are filled with words like “scam” “illegal” “chargesheet” and so on, it wasn’t surprising that the session was all about what media is doing, should be doing, and how it has come to place where what it does matters a lot more. It was clear that Mr.Tejpal had the crowd under his spell with his charming and inspiring tale of how he started Tehelka, his struggles, his daily fights with the Indian judicial system, the red tapism, the bureaucracy. He spoke of young journalists from Tehelka reporting from Chhatisgarh, of reporters breaking news that matter to the public, of being an activist and of taking up journalism to serve some purpose and not just sell sensational stories.

Amidst all this, it wasn’t too difficult to not detect the subtle brand promotion that was going on.  Much blame was laid on mainstream media and its indiscriminate ignorance of news stories that are relevant for the public, which led one frustrated member of the mainstream media to question: Who’s to be blamed for this- our editors who pick these stories or the consumer who crave for these? I think he gave a very well framed answer without mentioning the two most relevant letters of our times: PR.

At the end of the session, you were very inspired and very charged up but it was difficult for you to let go of one question “So, what was new?”

These were my favorite seven events. There were five-six other contenders to this list, but I think I’m quite content with this edition. Most of the discussions were a bit of a sham with topics being left alone in a corner, many quotable lines being delivered individually but quite unsatisfactory when seen as a whole. I think I’ll refrain from any social commentary concerning the fashion scene, the sightseer crowd and the occasional slip in organization that led to chaos, because it didn’t matter. None of that mattered when you came to look at it. What mattered and still does is that there’s a forum now. Readers and lovers of literature can come here and take their pick in listening to the heroes they have adored through pages and tomes. Book lovers can come here and enjoy a moment of unrivaled excitement and pure joy when the writers they have loved and worshiped scrawl their name on their book and exchange a word or a smile with them. I had my share of high and low, jubilation and disappointment, wonderment and disillusionment with JLF 2011, but come January 2012, I think I’ll be there, struggling between chairs and choices.

Psst.. This is a sort of proper and official account. I’ve got some other tales to tell and many books signed that need showing off . I’ll do that here as soon as I am done with some distractions. 🙂

Also, you can read other posts about the #JLF Experience here.