Critical Mass

From the Archives: 2 Questions for Chitra Divakaruni

By Jane Ciabattari

In honor of the fifth anniversary of the founding of Critical Mass in April 2006, we're posting some of the most popular entries from our archives. This interview with Chitra Divakaruni first appeared on March 25, 2008. Since the novel she discusses here, Palace of Illusions, she has published Shadowlands (2009) and One Amazing Thing (2010).

In her poetry, story collections and novels, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni explores the experience of contemporary Indian women, mostly immigrants to America adjusting to life in the New World. Like the characters in the Mahabharat, the ancient Sanskrit epic poem that is one of the pillars of Hindu culture, her characters have clear-cut human failings and virtues–and they pay in the end for actions they take. She took a moment from touring to answer a couple of questions.

What inspired your new novel?

I've been thinking about “Palace of Illusions” for several years now–remembering the stories my grandfather used to tell by lantern-light when I was a child visiting his Bengal village. Perhaps what pushed me into this challenging project was that I'd been getting increasingly upset about America's involvement in Iraq. I have a brother in the US army who has served there several times now. Speaking with him brought home to me the lessons underlined in the Mahabharat, the epic on which my novel is based: war is devastating; it's easy to start but hard to end; in war, everyone pays–and everyone loses.Six thousand years have passed since the writing of the Mahabharat, but ironically, we haven't learned a better way. It seemed the right time to tell that old story of pride and revenge and thwarted love again–this time from a woman's consciousness.

How has your relocation from Northern California to Texas affected your creative work?

At first when I moved to Texas I found the change in the intellectual climate so great that I was shocked into writer's block for several painful months. In the Bay Area, with its wonderful acceptance of other cultures, I'd been cocconed in liberal thinking. I'd lived there so long, I'd been lulled into believing that most people thought the way I did.

But after I found my feet (and a community of like-minded friends) in Houston, I wrote with more fervor–and perhaps some desperation. I tackled more issues of prejudice (as in my novel “Queen of Dreams,” which deals with the hate crimes following 9/11). I became committed to writing for children, because I felt that it was important to invite children into worlds peopled by heroes and heroines of my culture, to open their minds to a celebration of diversity. [Her children's book “The Conch Bearer: was picked as a Bluebonnet List book, which means it is read in many schools.] I've made it a point to visit schools regularly here in Texas, to talk to children about my work. Maybe moving to Texas has made me into more of an activist–as a writer and as a person.