Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a celebrated author of bestsellers like The Palace of Illusions and The Mistress of Spices among others. Recently, the acclaimed writer launched her new book, Before We Visit the Goddess, in New Delhi. In January, Divakaruni also had a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 on her book. Guardian 20 interviewed her in Delhi around the same time.
Q. It is often difficult for readers to switch from a particular book to another as soon as they finish reading one. Certain dialogues and images remain with you. Is it equally difficult for writers to start writing a new one as soon as you complete one project?
A. Once I finish writing a book, I take about two weeks just to clear my head. During that time I read other things — writing that is different from my past book but a little similar to my new project. In this way, I get into the mood for my fresh project. I start researching early. I then focus on outlining the first scene. The first scene is always very important to me and I have to get it right.
Q. How much time does it take you on an average to complete one book?
A. It takes me about two to three years to finish writing a book, depending on the research and depending upon how complicated the book is. Before We Visit the Goddess took me two-and-a-half years. Similarly, The Palace of Illusions took me over three years. In fact, The Palace of Illusions is to be made into a film by Aparna Sen.
“I have always loved reading fiction. As I was writing poetry, I began to see that I become more and more interested in stories. My poetry started becoming very narrative, I felt I needed a larger medium where I could develop the story, I could show the characters changing and so I moved to short stories.”
Q. Since you talked about research, could you tell us about the kind of research you conducted for Before We Visit the Goddess?
A. This book revolves around three generations of women’s lives. The life of grandmother Sabitri that is set in a time before me, so I had to a lot of historical research. I looked at old pictures of Kolkata where she has grown up to get the feel of vintage Kolkata. Fortunately, when I was growing up in Kolkata, there were still some of those old houses like the one she will stay in for a while, so I had those visual images. Now thanks to the Internet, one can see a number of images, so I got lots of pictures to understand that time. Also, there is a lot of instances in the book about food, so I had to read about that as well. At some point in the book, one of the characters turns alcoholic. So I had to study the behaviours of alcoholics for that.
Q. In this book, you have explored the theme of past demons and the way the characters learn to forget their past. Could you talk about this?
A. I think there are some past demons that the women in the book carry in their lives. There is a secret in one character’s past which will haunt her for years but in the end she learns how to deal with it. Yes, it is a good way of thinking about the past because we all carry certain demons from the past and hopefully this book gives a way to many people on how to get rid of those troubled times. One of the things that the readers will learn is how important it is to communicate with their family. Having said this, I feel that it is not easy to converse with family because when there are strong feelings, there is also a lot of defences. We don’t want to share our problems for we may be judged/scolded. That’s why mothers and daughters have difficulty in communicating. I hope that by reading about these characters, readers will begin to think about their own life and how they communicate with their loved ones. This book is about heritage, both positive and negative. I hope the readers will also start thinking about heritage; about what they gained from previous generation and what can they pass on to the next. One of the important questions in the book is: what does it mean to be a successful woman and what is the price of that success?
Q. You started writing poetry first. Please elaborate on your shift from poetry to fiction?
A. I have always loved reading fiction. As I was writing poetry, I began to see that I became more and more interested in stories. My poetry started becoming very narrative. I felt I needed a larger medium where I could develop the story, show the characters changing — and so I moved to short stories. Then I needed even a bigger canvas where I could give a whole sense of the culture of a city like in Oleander Girl. Similarly, I wanted to lay out the problems of immigrants like in The Mistress of Spices. Then I realised that a novel is the best form for me to do that.
Q. Palace of Illusions is set back in time. Can you enlist the challenges a writer comes across when writing something set in that time period?
A. For this particular book, the challenge was to do research of that time. It was based in pre-history, myth and epic. The challenge was to create that world. And the problem is we don’t know much about that time. Details like what kind of jewellery women would wear in the past, the food people ate and so on. Precision is important. If I am not precise as a writer, you as reader would have a difficult time imagining the scene. For instance, If I am writing about palaces, I have to get the details right.
Q. Can you give us an insight into your writing process?
A. I write regularly. I think that is very important. I usually write in the morning after my yoga and meditation routine. I try to find a quiet place in my house and write for three to four hours. I keep a notebook on my side for taking notes. I write for three days and I teach at a university on the other days.
Q. Who are your favourite authors?
A. I really like the works of Amitav Ghosh and Anita Desai. Also, I like Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Tagore.
Q. As a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, Texas, what do you advise your students?
A. I often say that you have to start off by reading and you have to read widely. You have to read different writers, but read like a writer. One needs to write down things you like in a notebook, which can be a scene or characterisation. One learns various elements like style, technique and so on. An aspiring writer should write regularly and edit very carefully.