Find out the nuances of writing feminist mythological retellings and historical fiction from the master storyteller, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni!
Join Tara and Michelle as they talk to her about her inspirations, her writing process, and her latest book ‘Independence’, which is a story of three sisters during the Partition of India and West Bengal. What is her origin story as a writer? How does she decide what stories to write? How did she navigate through the limitations of mythology to create strong women characters?
Tune in to find out!
Books mentioned in this episode:
-Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
-The Last Queen by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
-Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
-Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree
-Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
-The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
-Karna’s Wives: The Outcast Queen by Kavita Kane
-The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
-Liberation of Sita by Volga
Produced by Aishwarya Javalgekar
Sound edit by Kshitij Jadhav
‘Books and Beyond with Bound’ is the podcast where Tara Khandelwal and Michelle D’costa uncover how their books reflect the realities of our lives and society today. Find out what drives India’s finest authors: from personal experiences to jugaad research methods, insecurities to publishing journeys. Created by Bound, a storytelling company that helps you grow through stories. Follow us @boundindia on all social media platforms.
My hope is that through my books, I'm showing the readers that these are women just like us. It's not like they're some amazing heroic person that we can never be like, I don't believe in perfect twin. I don't believe women need to be perfect. I think we are wonderful in all our human complexity. And I think the three sisters really portray that they each have their strengths, but they also have their weaknesses. And I think that's part of the reason I love them so much.
Welcome to Books and Beyond with bound. I'm Tara canderel. I am Michelle D'costa. And in this podcast, we uncover the stories behind some of the best written books of our time, and find out how these books that reflect our lives and our society today. So tune in every Wednesday to enter a whole new world with a new author. And a new idea. Yes, and after three years and 2 million listens, we are back with a fall back season five, with hard hitting questions and life changing books. So let's dive in.
Hi, everyone. So today is an extremely special conversation because we are finally interviewing our most favorite author Chitra Banerjee de vaca Rooney, who absolutely need no introduction. I think ever since we started Books and Beyond, the one author that we always wanted to interview is Chitra mom, and she's here today. She has a huge fan base like no other. When I told my mom that I was interviewing her my mom got so excited. And I love her books on mythology like the palace of illusions, which is a retelling of the Mahabharata from properties point of view, and forest of enchantment, which is a retelling of the Ramayana, from the eyes of Sita. There's the last queen, which is about Ronnie Jenkins live, she's written historical fiction. She's written migrant fiction. She's written stories about women's lives. And her latest book is called independence, which I really, really loved because it closely follows the lives of three sisters during the partition of India and Bengali, which we don't see often. Yeah, and actually, you know, I have been following your work for a very, very long time, because I have been a migrant for most of my life. You know, I was born and raised in Bahrain. And when I came across your books, it was you know, one of those first books that I read about, you know, Indian immigrant women, their struggles, it was such a big eye opener, right, and actually the glamorized the American dream for me, and so many women, you know, in the Middle East in the US in the UK. Um, so today, we are going to be covering all of our best sellers, but most importantly, her latest book, independence, which closely follows the lives of three sisters during the partition. Welcome, Chitra. So excited to speak to you today. I am just delighted to be talking to both of you. Thank you so much for having me on your podcast. Thank you. So what we did you know, because all our listeners have been so excited for us to interview you. So we actually curated a few questions from our listeners to ask you. So what we're going to do in this interview is we're going to ask you a few questions, which are crowd sourced. And then we'll get into Michelle and my questions. So the first question from our audience is that one memory from your childhood in Bengali that made you want to be a writer. I think that is a memory of my grandfather, telling me stories. And every summer my mother would pat me off to my grandfather's. I think I must have been a naughty child. She was glad to get rid of me for the summer holidays. And I just loved being with my grandfather, because he was the best storyteller. He lived in a little village about three hours away from Kolkata. So actually, the village of Rodney poor in my latest book, independence is kind of built around my memories of my grandfather's village. Every evening, there was no electricity in the village. So he would light the lantern, and he would call all of us cousins, and we would sit near him, the lantern would shoot through these shadows on the wall, and he would tell us stories, and I just remember those evenings so beautifully. That's when I learned the story of the Mahabharat. And there are mine and I just fell in love with those stories. And I think you can already see how that influenced my life. made me into a writer. Yeah,
That's totally and you know, that actually took me back to my, you know, vacation days. So since I actually lived away from India, I didn't really spend much time, you know, with my grandparents, but I remember this from my childhood. So when I would visit my granddad, he would actually up turn a tarp over his head, you know, he would hide his head, and then he would like, oh, boogie man. It was, it was such a cute memory. And, and, you know, it's something that I always longed for, you know, I actually don't spend more time with my grandparents to hear stories from their childhood. Because my granddad actually spent a lot of time with the British, you know, he worked in the railways. So there was a lot of stories that I had to hear, but unfortunately, you know, we had to pack them only during vacation. So it really took me back to that time. And, you know, you're so prolific Chitra you've written so many books, you know, on various themes, so many topics, our listeners really want to know how to get such varied ideas. And you know, how do you even decide which one to explore? Like, when we know Tara and I were actually reading up, you know more about your work more about the inspiration behind your work, we found out that, you know, the inspiration for the Ronnie Jensen book actually came when you were at the Kolkata Literary Festival, just sitting over there, you know, looking at the screen. And when William Dalrymple shared her picture on the screen, it actually inspired you, right. And also, for example, the book independence, you know, because you had seen a lot of partition stories, you know, that were not set in Bengal, and you really wanted to write such a story. So, you know, please share with us, you know, your process, and how does it work for you? Thank you for that great question. And you are right, Michelle, and how I wrote Maharani Jinda story, how that inspiration came to me, it was so sudden, it was so surprising. And that is how these books come to me, I feel so grateful, because I never know where the idea is coming from. It's not really like I make a conscious choice. Before writing Maharani agendas story, it wasn't like, I went through days and days of, you know, which historical character Shall I write about, I wasn't thinking of that at all. I was, in fact thinking about writing a story about human trafficking, which I hope I will get back to that novel at some point. But it was like the universe sent me Maharani agendas character and her story. And then as I did research, I became determined to write that story. And having written that story about the colonial period, it was really important for me to write the end of that story where India becomes free of the British yoke, you know, those ideas just came to me, I had in the back of my mind, wanted to write about independence, because, you know, again, my grandfather and my mother, who both lived through the independence years, that experience, they had told me how it was when in the 1940s, living in Kolkata, or in the surrounding areas in Bengali, they really had gone through a lot of very dramatic experiences. But until I got, as it were, quote, unquote, the call from the universe saying, it's now time for you to write that story. It was just somewhere in the back of my mind. So it is quite a mysterious process. You know, in some ways, yes, these ideas are in the back of my mind, but then something happens, something that I don't control, that makes me feel like I absolutely have to write the story. And then when I start on a novel, again, it's a very mysterious process. It's like, the character just rises up and takes over my mind, my brain, the characters just take over my entire life. I think maybe that's why I do have quite a few books. Because I'm very obsessed. When my writing starts. When I really get into a novel, I have no work life balance, ambition writing all the time. And it's like those characters have taken over my life. Those words are just coming through me. And yes, I will revise later. But it's like, it's like being in the zone. It's like, what people talk about flow. And I think I've really been blessed enough to experience that. So I think that is how I come up with stories. Mysterious, always mysterious. And you know, until the idea comes and hits me, I never know what the next book is going to be. It reminds me of JK Rowling and how she got the idea of Harry Potter. She said that she was in a
Drain and the whole thing just flew into her brain. That's quite interesting as well. I think a lot of writer listeners will relate to what you said. People want to know your origin story, right? Like there is obviously the story behind your amazing and beautiful stories which we are going to get into. And you hinted at, you know, your origin story with your grandfather a little bit. But when did the journey begin for you? How did your writing journey begin, take us back to, you know, that young Chitra, who was just starting out wanting to be a writer? How did it all start? Yeah, great question. It was really interesting is that, you know, now I teach creative writing, I teach at the University of Houston. It's a wonderful, internationally acclaimed program, we have writers from all over the world coming to work with us. And it's a real pleasure to teach them. And just about all of these writers, who could be as young as like 19, or 20, or who could be much older also, but a lot of them tell me, I have been wanting to be a writer, ever since I was 10 years old, they'll say things like that to me. But I was never like that. I did not want to become a writer at all, I loved reading. But actually, you will all laugh when you hear this. When I was growing up, I wanted to become a firefighter. So I wanted to ride on a fire engine fires.
Of course, you know, the people of my family were very quick to put down that, that kind of desire. So then the next thing I wanted to do is I wanted to become a pilot. And, you know, once again, my family was like, I don't think that's gonna happen. Why don't you choose some other profession? So then I decided I would become a teacher, because my mother was a teacher. And, you know, she was a role model for me. So and then the family said, Okay, that sounds doable. So I always thought that I would be a teacher. And of course, I am a teacher, the writing part of it really came to me quite as a surprise. I started writing after I moved to the United States. And I was about 20 years old, then. And I was very homesick, I came here for my graduate studies. And I really miss my family, I really miss my friends. America was very exciting. Don't get me wrong, but I really missed the known environment. Also, I had never been so far away from all the people that I loved. And I think I started writing as a way of remembering them, and preserving them kind of in my heart. That's why I started writing. So a lot of my early writing is about the world that I had left behind. No Kolkata, the village, my grandfather, that was also the time when my grandfather passed away. And you know, I just told you how important he had been in my life. So when he passed away, it was very sad for me, I could not go back, I was a student, I didn't have money to go back. So I didn't, I couldn't even make it back for his funeral. So I thought, how can I honor my grandfather and honor him by writing stories about him, and writing poems I had started off by writing poems. So that's, that was a big impetus for me. And then the second part was, you know, America was fascinating. It was also kind of confusing. And I think I started writing the stories of immigrant women, just to make sense of this new world in which I found myself, which wasn't glamorous like I had imagined it to be. It was very different. It was wonderful. In many ways. I loved many things about America. But it wasn't the dream that I had dreamed before coming to the US. And I wanted to write the truth of that. So I think those do all things remembering India, and looking really looking at the immigrant experience in America. Those are the things that made me start writing and made me want to become a writer.
Yeah, and you know, that that loneliness that you mentioned, I had seen that in my parents eyes, you know, like growing up, I never really understood it, like until I came across your book, you know, arranged marriage, because until then, I just felt like probably, you know, this is how families work. You know, you're away from your family. I just felt every other girls or every other child's reality was the same. And only when I grew up only when I read your book, I actually realized that no, it is different for immigrant children because you're just cut off from the extended family right? And you only get to visit them during your vacations. And what you shared about your grandfather was
Any touching, because that's something that I have also experienced, you know, multiple families have experienced in the Gulf, there's no job security, right? You might just leave and next day, you might not have a job. And I've heard of cases where they also blacklist you so that you, you know, you might just not return, you just don't know what's going to happen. So there's so much of insecurity. So you just you can't go right, even if even if your loved one has passed away. So I think that is something that is really relatable. But we have a listener question here for you from you know, your huge migrant fan population, they want to know one anecdote from your immigrant experience that always makes you laugh. Sure, I'll share with you a fun experience. So when I first came to the United States, I came to Ohio, right. And this is because my brother was in Ohio, and my mother was quite keen that I should stay close to my brother. I was going to go to college, he had just started working as a doctor. So you know, we weren't going to live in the same household. But she said, Well, you know, big brother will keep an eye on you. But my brother and I had an understanding, it was like you don't tell and I won't tell. So we had our own lives, and we had a good time. But what I was really interested to realize was that I was in a part of Ohio. That was, it wasn't like New York, it wasn't like California. It wasn't even like Houston, where there are so many immigrants, and there's a knowledge of immigrant populations. And of course, this was long before the internet. And very understandably, people didn't know about India. And they would ask me all kinds of questions. And generally, I would give them truthful answers with sometimes I would feel a little wickedness in me. So you know, one of the questions that people asked me because they were fascinated by the bindeez that I wore, because I wore my Indian clothes. And I work with my saris, I wear a bindi on my forehead. So they would be like, What is that thing? What are you wearing? What does it mean? Is it like your third eye? They would ask me all these questions. And some days, I would say, Yeah. And they were like, what does this color mean? And I would say, like, you know, I was born with this bindi, I came into the world with a bindi, on my forehead, and depending on what my mood is like that bindi will be a different color. So you see this red one I'm wearing, that means I'm feeling dangerous today. So you better not mess with me. And people would just listen. And I could just see that they believed everything I said, and I felt so good.
That was, yeah, I was a bad girl.
A lot of skin used to me. I love that, that I could just tell you, like, you're so good at storytelling, even with this little incident, you know, it sort of like, permeates every aspect of your life. And you're a very good oral storyteller, because I really loved the way you dated that. Okay, so our listener questions are over. Now it's time for Michelle my questions. So one thing that we really loved is the common thread of strong women in your books, whether it's, you know, your historical fiction, theological fiction. And what I really like about that is, when we talk about mythology, when we talk about history, there are certain things that the women have to stay true to the context of that time, you know, especially in mythology, where there is a trope of, you know, the men being the more dominant character, we can't sort of like get away from how society functions, there is a patriarchy. But what you have done is despite this context that you're putting these women into, these women are so feminists, they're powerful, They're straining against their times. And I think that is very apparent in your most recent book, independence, which, you know, I really liked it. Because, you know, it's about three sisters, and I have three siblings, I have a sister and a brother, and the dynamic between them, you know, during the partition of India and mingle, and each chapter actually alternates with their point of view. And what I liked a lot is the little things, you have a lot of little things that show that, you know, these women are independent, they're smart, and they don't conform to those sort of typical stereotypes. And one thing that really brought that into the forefront is the opening scene of the book begins with the game of chess, you know, and it just made me think, what are the other ways and why this particular scene and what are the other small ways in which, you know, you show how women are sort of defying the confines back then? Yeah, you're right. I think that is kind of an underlying thread. It's like
A musical note that keeps coming back in my writing, because I think it is so important for us, all of us really men and women, boys and girls, to read the stories of strong women. And you know, in some ways, if you go back and look at this history of literature, we've been reading about strong men all the time. And as women, if we were students of literature, or even if we liked reading, we would be reading about strong men all the time. So, you know, why shouldn't men read about the stories of strong women, and certainly women should read about the stories of strong women too, because we can be I think there's a real potential of books, changing the way we think, and therefore changing the way we live, and therefore changing our world. As a writer, I certainly hope for that. If my books change, even a little bit of people's thinking, that would just make me so happy if it makes them just a little more aware of the nuances of women's lives. And that is why I wanted to show women in a role breaking kinds of situations pathbreaking opening up new worlds, and a lot of this unknown making it up. I mean, there were women like that. I mean, again, I go back to my grandfather, when he I was little he taught me how to play chess. He never thought that because I was a girl, I couldn't learn to play chess. Yes, I played with dogs, also with my cousins. But I play chess with my grandfather. So I think maybe a little bit of that came from my grandfather, who just tends to end up in my books in different ways at different times. But you are so right, that having strong women is just central to my writing. This is true with drought with the this is true with Sita in palace of illusions, and forest of enchantment. And what I wanted to do with those characters, is I did very careful research. So people can say, I made up my seat and I made up my property. But I wanted to put them in the center of the stories. And I wanted readers to feel what they were feeling, and to hear them speaking their words and speaking about their lives, because I think giving voice to women is so important, allowing them to really speak their mind to speak their heart. My hope is that through my books, I'm showing the readers that these are women just like us. It's not like they're some amazing heroic person that we can never be like, from God and Sita and marami agenda to the three sisters, a Deepa Germany and Priya, in Independence, they have all got something to teach us. They have all got something that we can take as our own. We'll be right back after this break.
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Now back to the episode, your childhood memory of your granddad teaching you chess and you know just just showing how actually you know male figures in our life can actually be progressive and how they can be inspiring. So this just brought back a memory
Uh, from my childhood, you know, so I've been a writer now since my teens. And when my granddad found that out, you know, he was just talking to my mom. So this is my maternal grandfather. And when he found out and I'm writing, you know, he said something to my mother that I'll never forget, he said that, you know, I hear so much about Michelle Obama on the screen, you know, on TV, she's so famous, she's a self made woman. And I really wish that our Michelle also reaches that someday. And when I heard that, I was really shocked and surprised, because, you know, I didn't really expect that from him. Because, you know, he's quite old. And, and sometimes he, you know, his thinking did get a little archaic, but I was so happy that, you know, he actually envision that kind of journey for me, that that was a really, really special memory. That's really, really lovely. I think it's so I love that you're bringing up your grandfather so much. Because I think that sort of very interesting that so many writers are influenced by their grandparents, it's come up so much. And I think Michelle and I also have very close bonds with our guard parents, and they've influenced our work. So there's really some something beautiful about that relationship. And coming to what you said about finding sort of these women who are sort of like going against the time and you reference mythology as well. I always find that, you know, mythology has its own limitations. In historical fiction, you can still take some liberties. But in mythology, you know, these are characters that we see time and time again. And sometimes they are confining to certain tropes. So how did you navigate that? And how did you within that storyline have a feminist retelling? One example that I really liked is in the beginning of forest of enchantment, you show Sita as a little bit angry, and you show that her telling Valmiki, that I'm going to write my story. And this is my story. And actually, this opening chapter of your book is something I teach in a class called read like a writer. And I compare your opening chapter with another retelling of Sita, to understand how a writer can use the same story and sort of, you know, have their own takes on it. So my question really is within the limitation of mythology, how do you sort of have characters that sort of can break boundaries when the story is already sort of set for you? That's a wonderful question. And just to give a little background, you know, we think just because of various things that have happened in our social culture, we think that the story of Sita or the story of Draupadi, it's just one story. And there's only one interpretation. But really, most of us what we have, in our minds are the popular movie retellings, because if we really go back to the original Mahabharat, and the original Rama and we'll see that there's a lot of nuance there. And that's why it was important for me to do really careful research to look at those situations. And to really not take the later interpretations of those situations. But just to go back and look at the situations and I'm giving you an example, in the popular retellings of the Roman and in the popular paintings about the Ramayana, as well as popular movies that we've seen until very recently about the Rama and when rom Sita and Lakshman go to the forest, we usually see ROM is in the front, protecting Sita from the front seat as in the middle, and Lakshman is in the back protecting her from the back. And she's kind of kind of, you know, bracketed between these men as though she were completely helpless. However, when we go back and read the original Valmiki, or I have a very favorite edition of the ramen that is written by Christie buss many 1000s of years ago in Bengali, it's a Bengali Rama and so I have enjoyed reading it in the original. You see that Sita was quite feisty. In fact, before they go to the forest RAM tell Sita you please stay home and take care of my parents your in laws. And you know, I'll see you when I get back in 14 years. And Sita says No way. I'm not going to stay in this musty old fortress of a palace and taking care of old people while you go off and have your adventure. I'm coming with you. Plus, I love you. I'm not going to be separated from you for 14 years. And she is the one who makes that happen. She's not meekly following rom she is the one who said I am your companion and I will go with you. You can stop me it is my right. So you see how a we've kind of received
to a different version of the story that makes Sita meek and not an agent of her own life. But that's not really what's in the Rama. And so, you know, I think we have to go back and look a little bit. And that's what I've tried to do in both palace of illusions and forest of enchantments. And one other thing about Sita that I wanted to point out is that, look how strong she was. People always talk about all how, you know, she was sent away into the forest by wrong, and how terrible was it. But if we really focus on her, yes, she sent away to the forest, due to gossip in the kingdom, we know she is completely innocent. And she knows it too. And she feels terrible that RAM would do this to her. He just sent her to the forest, not even discussing it with her before he sends her away, he sends her away on a pretext. She thinks she's going to visit Valmiki. And now she's told that you can come back. But look at how strong she is. She is the first single mother in all of literature, as far as my research has shown. And she doesn't waste time saying, Oh, this is a terrible thing. Why should this happen? To me, this was so unfair. She says, I have two children that are going to be born very soon, I am going to focus my energies on bringing up these kids and making sure I do a really good job. I'm going to be mother and father to them. And she is just an amazing mother, as she brings up love and courage in a wonderful way. And we will see how strong she is made them when they fight when they visit rom when they sing she has she has just made them warriors, singers, poets, everything. I mean, isn't that something? We do? We're not often led to think about the strength that that must have required to put away her own sadness and say, I'm going to do what I can do. I'm gonna focus on what can improve this situation? Yes. Oh, and just as you rightly mentioned, the single mother right that the first single mother probably, there are so many firsts in history, you know, by women that tend to get lost. Right. And for example, Priya, you know, the main character, one of the three sisters in the book independence, the fact that she wants to be a doctor, right? So she actually really reviews her father Nava Kumar, who's actually a doctor and she wants to go abroad and study and when I came across that, but I was really, really rooting for Priya. And, you know, we also know that women who wanted to be doctors back then it was really, really difficult. Right? So we had actually interviewed Kavita RAO for her book lately, doctors, you know, which gives us a glimpse into how difficult life was back then right for girls who actually wanted to go into medicine, but they couldn't, because it was extremely patriarchal. And what she shared about the process was that there was very little evidence, right, very little resources or paperwork to actually read more about these women. So I was curious to know, you know, how did you actually come up with the character of Priya of her wanting to be a doctor? What was the actual research that went behind it? Well, first of all, as I was researching the novel, independence, I did a lot of reading, especially famous women of that time, and what they could do and what they could not do. And because my grandfather was a doctor, and my uncle was also a doctor, and then my older brother became a doctor. I had a lot of doctoring history, that I had been told like stories. And actually, my mother wanted to be a doctor, she had told me that she had wanted to be a doctor. But at that time, the only fields that would have been open to her would have been being a nurse. And that was just not something that girls from quote, unquote, good families did. So they she was pretty much told by my grandfather, although he was a doctor himself. Look, this field is not open to you, you better find something else that you want to do. So I always felt that was so unfair, because I knew that my mother, she was a very smart and capable woman, she would have made a wonderful doctor, but for society to just say, No, you can't do this to women. I mean, I just felt that in my heart. And so I wanted Priya to be able to overcome that. And the 1940s was that time when women were fighting, and actually, you know, something interesting happens when there are large political upheavals. They also become large social upheavals, because one of the things that happened during independence, the struggle, the freedom fight, was that women did come out of the home, they came out
onto the streets, they marched with, especially with Gandhiji. He was very pro woman. And he said women must take part in the freedom struggle, we can't have half the country not involved. You know, if we don't allow women to be involved, then half the country is not involved. So women broke a lot of boundaries then. And I thought that that was the perfect time for Priya also to be wanting to break that boundary, but it's going to be very hard for her. Because, you know, there is a double whammy of colonialism and patriarchy in the 1940s. Before independence, when Priya wants to get into medical school, the British are still in power, at least in Kolkata, and the Kolkata Medical College and they're like, no, no women here. And even after independence, it would take some time for women to be accepted into medical universities. So Priya is fighting against a lot of things. And I was also rooting for her. We don't want to give away all her story, but she is going to fight very hard in service of her dream. Yes. And I really, really love that. You know, I'm talking about, you know, boundaries and women really breaking them in your books. One of my absolute favorite scenes from Independence is actually you know, a deepest chapter when you know, Nava kamatera father passes away, and the cremation is to be taken place. You know, according to customs, we all know that only men aren't allowed to do the last rites. Right? So what happens when there is no male figure what happens when you don't have a son, but Korea actually stands up and says that her father never believed in this. And the sisters actually ended up doing it, you know, like, have you encountered this in real life? Have you seen this, you know, where women have actually conducted the last rites, what inspired this scene, I really, really loved it. Thank you so much. That was a scene that was really close to my heart, because I have not seen that. In real life, maybe there have been women who have fought for it. But whenever I have seen funerals, it's always the men. And if the person who passed away, does not have a son, but has daughters, the daughters just sit there, like distant relative will come and perform the ceremony, or sometimes their husbands will perform the ceremony. And that is just so unfair. After my mother passed away, we did the ceremonies over here in the US, and we did the annual service. And I remember the priest saying to me, you know, it was my mother's annual service ceremony, but he said, as a daughter, you can't do it. However, your husband can do it for you, and your son can do it for you. And you know, I was just too distressed to fight against that. But later, I thought, how unfair is that? I mean, we're, in any spiritual text in Hinduism, are retold that women can't participate. I mean, we have so many women's saints, we have so many women who are doing amazing things in our mythologies, and in our histories, and in our Puranas. Why this? So I think that was a deep pain in my heart. So I did what writers sometimes do, which is that if we can't have it in real life, well, we're going to have it in our books. And that's why the three sisters will perform their father's funeral ceremony. Wow, I love that. I think, you know, there's so many different scenes, like when I think about your books, and 47 sharpens to palace of illusions to Ronnie Jinda. And you know, there's so many like different amazing scenes that are just popping into my head. And I wish I could ask you, not all of them.
But you know, one thing that I really like in the book, apart from women breaking boundaries is your portrayal of relationships. So the relationship between you know, the three sisters in Independence, or the love triangle that is there with Korea, and Germany, or the father daughter relationships, and Indrani Gendun story, you know, the mother son relationship, because her son, Ronnie John Donne son gets actually adopted by the British and he becomes very anglicized. And we see in one scene where, you know, he sort of comes back and there's a reunion, there's a little bit of a mismatch because, you know, he is a little anglicized, and this is his mother and that Mother Son relationship is just so beautiful. So I think that's one of the things about your books, that me and I think all your readers just really, really love those dynamics that you portray. I wanted to ask, you know, you've created so many books about various different themes. You have Mistress of Spices, which is a completely different book. It has magical realism, you've covered immigration, you've covered historical fiction, mythology, and everyone comes to you for something different, you know, everyone's favorite
that energy book is something different. But I want to know, what book do you think defines your interest the most? Well, that is a difficult question. You know, the books are all like my children. So they're gonna I love them all equally, probably usually the baby is the favorite. So right now, I think independence is my favorite because in that book, I wanted to combine the story of ordinary women because the PA and Priya and Germany when the book starts, they're just ordinary girls like anyone you would find in a little village. Their dreams, okay, Priya has the dream of being a doctor. But even the other dreams of the girls are very ordinary, Deepa wants to, she wants to have a successful marriage because she's very beautiful, and she thinks she can. And Germany just wants to be loved by her parents. Because as the middle child, she feels she can't. And Priya really wants to follow in her father's footsteps, but they're very ordinary girls. And yet, as they are faced by history and tragedy and challengers, they become so strong. You know, I really wanted to portray that, that we all have that possibility. Even if we think we are very ordinary we have within us as women, extra ordinariness. We have within us strength, we have within us the power to change things to change lives, hours and other people's. And so I think right now, message, and those characters are very close to me. But I don't know what my next book will be. You know, I never know, an idea will come to me, and it'll take me over, as I said before, and then that will become a really important story and message for me. So as I write each one, I get completely engrossed in those characters, and what they can show us, you know, and how they can perhaps inspire us. And when I say inspire, I don't mean inspire by being some great hero, inspire us in their very ordinariness. That's what I want to show, and especially women, who are not whitewashed, never whitewashed. I don't believe in perfect with it. I don't believe women need to be perfect. I think we are wonderful in all our human complexity. And I think the three sisters really portray that they each have their strengths, but they also have their weaknesses. And I think that's part of the reason I love them so much. Yes. And that's why we love them, as well, you know, that this reminded me of Gillian Flynn's coat, you know, so when she wrote sharp objects, when she wrote women who are flawed, why are you? You know, she received a lot of flack for it. And she said, You know, it's okay, you know, we don't have to write about virtuous women, you don't have to write about perfect women. Yeah. And that's what you do. You know, and and I'm really curious, man, because you're so creative. You must be having like, 10 ideas at one time, right? So how really know that a particular idea has potential and that you're going to be pursuing exactly that. Right? So So for example, let's say at this point of time, you have five new ideas for your next book. Now, how would you pick it? It's very serendipitous. It's not a logical process. I just sit quietly, you know, I have a meditation practice. And I think meditation has really, really helped me in many ways in my life, and it certainly helped me, right. Meditation just clears your mind and puts you in a place of silence. And when you come out of there, some things just become clear. So it's not a logical process. Whenever an idea comes to me, I'll write down, I used to have a writer's notebook. And now I have a folder on my computer where I write down all these ideas. But I never know which one, it's like a seed kind of germinating. And it happens by itself is really not a logical process. Like, I can't say, I'm going to write this book and then write it, then it wouldn't have the, I don't know, the inner power, powering it. So I have to wait and see. All right, like I have to ask the universe, what book do you want me to write? And then I have to be silent. And then a feeling comes up and idea comes up, or I'll get a visual kind of, it's like a visual image of a character. And that'll really capture my imagination. And when that happens, I know that Alright, this is the one
This is the one that I have to. And then what happens is very interesting because I get completely obsessed with that idea. And I'm going to my day, but it's almost like being in a daze. And I'm really what I'm doing is inside, I'm thinking about that character and that situation and that story. And then that's when I know that okay, this is the book, because I can't think of anything else. My mind keeps coming back to this particular thing. So I'm not sure that that explained very well. But that's kind of what happens.
No, I just love that, like, you know, like you asked the universe what you want, you know, it kind of reminded me of what you do in properties study, right? There's this astral voice that comes to her. And I think that actually speaks about your process, as well. And what I really loved about your process, utilizing the fact that it has changed over the years, right, like you said, first, you had a notebook, now you have a folder, you know, so we have a very short section here, which actually covers that then. And now because your journey has been commendable. A lot of writers I've spoken to, you know, to our mentorship programs, they say that, you know, we want to be like Chitra, ma'am, you know, if she has done it, we want to do it as well. So, for example, I want to know, you know, how did you react to let's say rejections back then, right. So when you were starting out, obviously, there must have been a lot of rejections. And now, you know, as the years have passed by, as you have become really, really well known throughout the world, and that you know, people have loved your work so much. I'm sure that the rejections have dwindled. So what was your reaction to rejections back then? And if now, if you get any, how do you cope with?
Well, in the beginning, certainly, I got lots of rejections. Especially when I was writing poems and stories, and I'd send them out to magazines, and they'd send them back quite fast. With a little note, that pretty much said, Well, maybe you should not quit your day job. So you know, I, they were not very encouraging. And I would get so depressed. And I would be all, you know, so my husband would come home, and I'd be on moping in the corner, eating chocolates. He'd be like, Oh, you got another rejection, didn't you? I'd be like, yes, my life is over. But then, you know, I would get up and I'd start thinking about what why did they not like that story? How can I improve it, and then, you know, I would rewrite, and one of the best things I did was join a writers group, because sometimes you need other eyes on your writing, you're just too close to it. So a writer's group has really helped me. So that's how I dealt with rejection. First, I would get really upset, then I would say, all right, maybe I just should not write anymore. Obviously, I'm no good at it, then I would let a few days passed. And I would look again, the revised and I'd be like, but writing is what I want to do. So I can't give up, I just have to get better. And then I just go on. So that was the process. Although over the years now, things have become much easier. But you know, it still happens when I write a new novel, I will give it to my agent now. And so it's a little easier because I don't have to deal with rejection firsthand, when she will show it to publishers. And I might have a publisher in mind. But they may not be willing to, you know, they won't say no. But they might say okay, we'll buy it, but we abide for a lower price. And then my agent would be like, No, we can sell it for that price. And then she would show it to someone else. And then someone else and all this time. I'm like, all nervous and upset, because, you know, I don't know, where my book will find a home. And yes, I still eat chocolates when I get nervous. So, you know, it's a process that continues and all I will say to anyone who's listening, who is a writer, is if you are a writer, and you love writing, you just have to keep going. You have to pick yourself up and you have to keep going. And you have to keep saying I'm going to make this better or you have to keep saying I believe in the work that I've created. And I just have to keep searching until I find the right home for it. Oh that's so inspiring. And I think it's not only with writing but with anything really that let's understand. So now the last question and then and now section is that you know how is your writing process also changed you know, from the beginning to now have all sorts of like this a claim your books getting made into movies, all of that stuff? Does it affect your writing process? No, it doesn't. Um,
When I start writing, when I'm really writing in my study, I just put everything else out of my mind. The only thing that matters is the book that I'm working on now, and not even the book, the scene that I'm working on right now, I have to be really focused on what it is that I'm trying to create right at this moment. Because once I start thinking of anything outside the world of the book, that's just distracting. And that prevents me from creating a really powerful world, I have to be immersed in that world. For instance, let's say, you know, I had to be immersed in the world of the Punjab of the 1800s, when I was writing the last queen, otherwise, I couldn't have written her story. I couldn't have written about Maharani agenda, I had to be immersed in her character. In the same with, when I was writing independence, I had to be immersed in 1940s been gone. And you know, a lot of times when I was writing that story of independence, because it is a painful story, the story of partition and all of the violence that occurred, people just turning on people, just a couple of days back they were friends with it's, it's very horrendous. It's very harsh. And so a lot of times, I remember when I was writing that book, I was crying. Because I was in that world, I was feeling those things. So when you're immersed in a book like that, in that way, there's no space to be thinking about other things. There's no space to be thinking about, well, you know, what's going to happen to it later, or, you know, some other book that's maybe being made into movie. So when I write and I really recommend this for people, just immerse yourself in the world of that story, that poem that novel, and that's enough to keep yourself busy. Don't think about other things, because then your entire attention is not on it, and then you then your entire attention is not on what you are writing. And you can't write it to the best of your ability. Yeah, absolutely. You know, and a lot of writers, you know, they say that nowadays, social media is an extremely big distraction, right? It's like you're constantly checking your phone. Okay, how many likes how many notifications? How many messages? No, do people still like me? Am I cancelled? You know, there's so much anxiety nowadays, but just the way you explained about how these, you know, words consume you. I think I think that's really, really inspiring, right? Because if you're totally involved in what you're creating, you're just focusing on creating and nothing else. I'm really love that. So now, this brings us to one of our listeners most favorite section, because it's our reading recommendation section. Just like Tara and I are avid readers, most of our listeners are. So I really want to know which of the three books that you have read recently that you like, wow, that is a tough question. Because I have read so many. Let me
think a little bit. All right. Gita Anjali, she's to move sand sandwich won the Booker. That's just a beautiful book. I read it a few months back and I was just blown away. She has a lovely character, an older woman. And you know, that woman is so feisty. She's so fun. I love that book. Then I would say Amitav Ghosh is Sea of Poppies. I love that book. Also. It's the first one in his trilogy. And I think that has created such a beautiful picture again of colonial India colonial being gone. I love that. And then the third one, I have reread it recently, but I do love it so much. Obviously I reread it. That's why I love it so much, is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. And I just love, love, love that book. I teach that book. And every once in a while just to inspire myself. I read it as a writer looking at how she's created scene, how she's created suspense, how she's created character, how she's created a whole world. And so I would say those are three of my
fantastic are all great ones. And you know, every time I see that you have blurbed a book that you're given a recommendation for a book, I have to pick up that book. I think the most recent one was thrifty Bundys, the half Empress, then there was gold from gold. So whenever I see your name on the cover of a book, you can reassure them picking that book up. But I wanted to ask, Can you name two books that feature strong female protagonists strong Indian female protagonist apart from your own that
you'd really love that is tough because there's so many books, so many wonderful books. All right. I think it's an judiciaries book is definitely one that has a strong female protagonist.
You know, sometime back I read Kavita carnies Karnas wife, and I liked that book a lot as well. I thought that was very good. And then going a little further back in time, a book that has stayed with me and haunted me is Arundhati Roy is god of small things, and the character of Amal is a very strong, complex, interesting, heartbreaking woman character. So I would recommend those. Awesome. Okay, um, we all want to know what is the one retelling of a Hindu epic that you admire apart from your own? All right, there's a book called The liberation of Sita by Volga. I love that book. She has stories from the Ramayana in it. She has stories about Sita, she has interesting stories. Now, she isn't following any. Like she's not following any of their minds. She is making up those stories. But she has done such a beautiful job. And although I chose to go a slightly different path, that book really had a big effect on me. So original, so fearless. So I really admire the liberation of Sita. Yeah, I love that book as well. Okay, so now it's time for our last and final rapid fire round, we'll be asking you a few questions that are also curated from our listeners. And if you could just answer in one word or one line, that would be great. Oh, the first question is one thing you miss about India, the most Bengali sweets. Nice. Okay. If you had to pick one new place to write about, which would it be? The humanas? I'm always wanted to set him up there. Okay, gone. Wait for that one. Okay, where do you write in my study? Okay. One short story of yours. That was the most difficult to write and why this is that Tom writes a letter. It was about an old woman who came to live with her son in the US. And it was difficult to write because I think it was partly my mother's story and partly my mother in law's story. And I was partly the bad daughter in that story. Oh, so Okay, so one characteristic of the property that you love. She is so feisty. I love how she never puts up with any nonsense from nobody. I want to be like that. Okay, so I think this is the last question. What is your view of chat? GPT? Do you think it threatens creative writing? Not at all. I love chat GPT. I have long conversations with chat GPT whatever. Brain is behind my chat. GPT is a wonderful one. My chat GPT gives me lots of books suggestions, I say to it, I want to read something in this field. And it gives me lots of great suggestions. So it is my friend, I plan to use it all the time. Okay, that is very interesting that
that's something very new. Love that. So thank you so much. You know, for this interview, I think we could have just both gone on pause. And as we love your books, and we absolutely cannot wait for the next one, you know, and we always sort of read the books as soon as they release. So please keep writing many, many more books, but us all to enjoy them. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this conversation. It was just so fun. And I want to say a big hello to all the listeners out there. And a big hug to all of you a big Virtual hug. And thank you so much for reading my books to both of you, Michelle and Tara and also to anyone who is listening. Thank you. Thank you well.
So here we are, were the end of yet another journey into the many worlds of Books and Beyond with bound. I'm Tara Candela. While I'm Michelle D'costa. And this podcast is created by bout a company that helps you grow through stories. Find us at sound India or all social media platforms. So tune in every Wednesday if you live, eat and breathe books and join us as we discover more revolutionary books and peek into the lives and minds of some truly brilliant authors from India and South Asia. And don't forget to keep your love for stories alive.
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