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n one of her novels, masterful storyteller Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni chronicles the lives of two cousins bound by fate. In another, she shares the tale of a magical woman who uses spices to help people overcome their problems. And in her most recent literary creation, Divakaruni tells the story of a young Indian American woman whose mother has the power to share and interpret dreams. And while the plots vary wildly from work to work, Divakaruni’s books often share the theme of the South Asian native or immigrant experience. But Divakaruni insists she doesn’t write for a specific audience in mind. “I like to stay close to the story, think about the story, stay close to the characters. I find it distracts me if I begin to think of the audience while I’m writing,” she explains in a soft, gentle accent that betrays her Bengali background.

But Divakaruni recognizes that different readers will take different things from her work. “As I write more and more, I really want my books to have different kinds of audiences. I would want very much a South Asian or South Asian American audience who will come to the books and think about issues in their communities and lives, and have, I hope in some cases, discovery or validation for the challenges they’ve gone through,” she says. “But I do want to invite people of other communities into my books. So that creates a challenge. I don’t ever want to explain things in my books. I want the culture to be presented without dilution. I have a lot of trust in my audience—people understand through context a lot of things that are not explained,” she says, likely referring to the instances when she mentions a Bengali word without translation or an Indian cultural reference without explanation. “There is one level that only South Asian audiences will understand,” she admits.

It’s quite mysterious the way art is created. We talk about it a lot, but it’s mysterious and intuitive.

Queen of Dreams

“A dream is a telegram from the hidden world,” says the matriarch in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest work, Queen of Dreams. Indeed, the hidden world plays an important role in this compelling, lyrical novel detailing the story of Rakhi, a young Indian American women living in Berkeley, California. Rakhi’s life is spliced with the mystical and the mundane. Her mother is a dream-teller with a magical ability to foresee the future in her dreams, a gift that has always mystified and fascinated Rakhi. Yet Rakhi’s everyday life requires attention to more worldly things—raising her young daughter, managing her relationship with her ex-husband, salvaging the business she runs with a friend.

After her mother dies, Rakhi’s two worlds—the mystical and the mundane—begin to collide, and she must make sense of the dream journals her mother has left behind with the mysterious elements of her own life. When the tragic events of September 11, 2001, occur, Rakhi is faced with seeking her late mother’s guidance in a confusing and terrifying world.

Divakaruni skillfully brings together various perspectives to tell a complete story. Like many of Divakaruni’s other works, the novel shifts from different points of view. “I feel that stories are complex and there are many sides to them. It oversimplifies the story if it’s told only from one person’s point of view, because that same thing might be seen as totally different from someone else who is involved in the story—[so] I’m drawn to perspective shifts,” Divakaruni explains.

Through her perspective shifts and vivid prose, Divakaruni weaves a satisfying, sensual, complex tale that takes the reader on a journey through the magical realm alongside the harsh realities of life. Queen of Dreams is a fascinating read—one that will have Divakaruni’s audience begging for more.

What almost all of Divakaruni’s audience can understand is that she is a compelling, lyrical writer whose bestselling works have garnered much praise. Director Gurinder Chadha of Bend it Like Beckham fame is transforming Divakaruni’s first novel, The Mistress of Spices, into a movie next year (starring Aishwarya Rai in the title role). Her short story collection Arranged Marriage is a beloved text for many young South Asian American women, and her new book, Queen of Dreams, has debuted to positive reviews. But Divakaruni is hesitant to explain how, exactly, she continues to captivate with her words. “It’s quite mysterious the way art is created,” she explains. “We talk about it a lot, but it’s mysterious and intuitive.”

The writing process

Indeed, the element of mystery is an integral part of her work. Divakaruni skillfully conveys the experience of South Asians in America. She says that her books are partly based on experience, partly on “social observation.” But Divakaruni strives to weave such observations with “the element of myth, magic and ancient culture alongside contemporary culture. I try to bring those things together—a sense of ancient culture and the daily realities of immigrant life.” She certainly does so in Queen of Dreams, her latest novel that combines the story of a young Indian American woman and her dream-teller mother with the events of September 11, 2001.

“Soon after September 11, I knew I wanted to write about it. I wrote a number of articles in magazines and newspapers, but that was a personal response. I had just started putting together the idea for Queen of Dreams. I knew I wanted to interpret dreaming and the dream world, so I started thinking about how they could be put together.” The violence against many minority groups after September 11 particularly affected her. “I really felt what was happening in our community was so sad—that a national tragedy should have brought us together, yet so many communities were in fear of what would happen to them. I hope that comes across [in the book]. For the history of our community here, it is important to recognize and remember.”

Divakaruni is convinced that the written word is vital to remembering and preserving the history—that’s why she started writing in the first place. After spending the first 19 years of her life in Calcutta, India, Divakaruni immigrated to the United States to study at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Writing was certainly not an intended part of her then-academic career path, but it may have preserved her identity. Having moved to California to pursue her doctorate in English literature at UC-Berkeley, Divakaruni was settling into her life in America when her grandfather died. “I realized [then] how much I had forgotten already about India and life there. I started writing as an action to prevent myself from forgetting. It was a very personal thing,” she recalls. And so began her writing career.

But she doesn’t only look to the past; her books are often set in her beloved new home, the San Francisco Bay area, combining her knowledge of the immigrant experience with her knowledge of a rich and diverse setting. And though she’s currently teaching literature classes at the University of Houston, she and her family spend their summers back in California.

Striking a balance

Even after three decades of adaptation and assimilation, Divakaruni maintains an affection for her cultural background, visiting India fairly regularly. Her husband is of South Indian descent, and they have two young sons. “[At home] we speak English and Hindi, our common Indian language,” she says. “The boys are interested in learning it because that is the language my husband and I use when we don’t want them to understand,” she laughs.

Becoming serious, she adds, “It’s important to maintain a sense of cultural identity. Everyone makes choices of what in their culture is important to them. I do wear Indian clothes, especially when I do formal events, and even when I teach. We go to Chinmaya Mission, a big Hindu organization for spiritual values, and our boys go to Sunday school there.” But, she says, “Other, more external things, I don’t care about, like cultural habits, socializing, food, music—I’m open to my boys choosing what they like and don’t like. I want them to have non-Indian as well as Indian friends.” The main thing she’d like to preserve is the importance of family Indian culture promotes. “The way I grew up, there was a lot of respect for people in the family—parents, grandparents. We did a lot of things for them, and they did a lot for us. I want my boys to grow up with that, not thinking you just take care of yourself and that’s it. It’s a question of balancing what the individual wants and what’s good for the family.”

It’s so different now. We have a much stronger community here, yet the sense of ‘the other’ is still there. We will always be a visible minority; in that concept of ‘America,’ we will always be strangers.

Divakaruni agrees that American society has come a long way in the past three decades. She remembers how there was “so much excitement” when she first wore her saris in Ohio back in 1976, an act that marked herself as someone different. “It was the first experience of how it was to be a visible minority, something I hadn’t experienced in India. That was the beginning of how I became interested in how we see people as ‘the other,’ and how we treat ‘the other.’ We all do it—every community does it—to someone who looks different.” She continues, “It’s so different now. We have a much stronger community here, yet the sense of ‘the other’ is still there. We will always be a visible minority; in that concept of ‘America,’ we will always be strangers. In Queen of Dreams, when a tragic event or catastrophe occurs, that fear [of ‘the other’] comes up to the surface.”

And now that Queen of Dreams is in bookstores, she’s turning her attention to helping South Asian American children, like her own young boys, dispel that notion of “the other.” She’s writing another novel for children (she’s already published two: The Conch Bearer and Neela: Victory Song). “South Asian children have very few books that are based in their culture. It’s so important for children to see themselves reflected in their literature in a meaningful way. I want to give South Asian children characters like themselves. And for children of other [non-South Asian] communities growing up here, I want them to have characters they really love, hopefully making them more open to other communities,” Divakaruni says. “My hope is that the books will bridge cultures.” n

Published on October 1, 2004.
Photography: Anand Divakaruni
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