13 March, 2019

Enchanted by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

“I am buoyant and expansive and uncontainable--but I always was so, only I never knew it!” ~ Palace of Illusions

Author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was at Zee JLF 2019, promoting her latest release ‘The Forest of Enchantments’; Sita’s version of The Ramayana.

I have been enchanted by the author ever since I read ‘Palace of Illusions’ which I read sometime in late 2008 when I had just started my first job. Chitra B. Divakaruni’s portrayal of Draupadi had me enamoured with the protagonist and the story - telling. In the Epic, it had been always about the Pandavas, the Kauravas and Lord Krishna to some extent. Getting a look at the lady who left her hair down as a reminder of the insult she had to endure was interesting to say the least. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Panchali was fierce, independent and someone who never stepped back from taking things in her own hands. In short, a heroine in her own right in the epic tale of the clash between the heroes and the villains. The narrative and language of the author was enthralling to say the least. It is no surprise then, that I put Palace of Illusions as a standard when it comes to mythological retellings.

As I was trying to get my hands on ‘The Forest of Enchantments’ and preparing my questions for this dynamic author, only one thing was clear to me. I admired the many aspects of the author’s works, but what I loved the most was the way she portrayed the strength of women through her words and storytelling and I wanted that to be my first question to her.

Sita and Draupadi

On the Strength of Women:

Women can be strong in many ways. For instance, Sita in The Forest of Enchantments has a quiet strength that adapts to the situation around her. She doesn’t fight unnecessarily or go headlong at her problems, but she works a way around them. I think that’s a good quality for women to have when they want to be strong and effective in the world.

On writing from the POV of the most famous women of the epics:

I feel compelled to write about women like Sita and Draupadi because I feel that they have been misunderstood and misrepresented in the talks about the epics down the age. Not in the epics themselves, but the popular retellings show them as either too meek or too aggressive. What I feel they are is that they are strong and they are themselves. They give so many opportunities for women today to also be strong.

On the Mystical Elements in her books:

I have always believed that this world has a whole mysterious level to it. Mysterious / Mystical /Magical... and I am attracted stories that bring that out.  So, be it ‘Queen of Dreams’ or ‘Mistress of Spices’ or the retellings of the great epics in ‘Palace of Illusions’ and ‘The Forest of Enchantments’, I am very interested in being enchanted.

On challenges of redefining epics & Bringing the Surreal elements in modern scenarios:

Each one is challenging in a whole different way. When I am creating a whole new story of my own, I have to think about the plot and I have to think about how the magic is going to come into that world. When I retelling the epics, I am delighting because I already have a story and I know the magical elements in it. The challenge there is telling it in a new way; in a way appropriate for our age and our readers right now.

It was such a pleasure to meet Ms.Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni! She is so humble and friendly and had a smile for all of her readers through the festival. She has spun webs of magic through her books and she managed to only reinforce my respect not only for her, but also for the power of words. Her words have influenced a lot of readers over the years and her words have made a lot of readers fall in love with literature all over again. 

If you haven’t read her books, you must get to them at the earliest. And to her fans - which is YOUR favourite book by the author?

The Ramayana, one of the world’s greatest epics, is also a tragic love story. In this brilliant retelling, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni places Sita at the centre of the novel: this is Sita’s version. 

The Forest of Enchantments is also a very human story of some of the other women in the epic, often misunderstood and relegated to the margins: Kaikeyi, Surpanakha, Mandodari. A powerful comment on duty, betrayal, infidelity and honour, it is also about women’s struggle to retain autonomy in a world that privileges men, as Chitra transforms an ancient story into a gripping, contemporary battle of wills. 

While the Ramayana resonates even today, she makes it more relevant than ever, in the underlying questions in the novel: How should women be treated by their loved ones? What are their rights in a relationship? When does a woman need to stand up and say, ‘Enough!’

Special Thanks to Jaipur Literature Festival & Teamwork Arts for making this possible. 

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