Utpal Borpujari

June 14, 2010

Divakaruni and the art of storytelling

By Utpal Borpujari

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s day job describes her as the Betty and Gene McDavid Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Houston. But the world knows her for is not what she teaches, but what she herself practices in that field. And why not? She has 15 books to her credit, and quite a few of them – short story collection Arranged Marriage and novels like The Mistress of Spices and The Palace of Illusions – have earned many awards and much accolade. Her stories have delved the deepest recesses of the human mind, sometimes using the path of realism, and sometimes that of mysticism.

But Divakaruni this time has come up with a novel that is not just a story but a tribute to the art of storytelling itself. Yes, in her One Amazing Thing, published by Penguin under its Hamish Hamilton imprint, Divakaruni’s characters, trapped in a hopeless situation brought upon them by a natural calamity, try to give one another solace by telling stories from their own lives. In a way, through those characters, Divakaruni professes her belief in the “incredible” power as well as the art of storytelling. And the author wholeheartedly agrees to this conclusion. “The stories the characters tell when trapped in a life-threatening disaster transforms their emotions and their relationships with each other, and that is truly amazing. I am a great believer in the power of stories,” she says.

Perhaps it was in her subconscious all these years to pay this tribute to the art of storytelling, as both her grandfather and mother were excellent storytellers. She remembers how particularly her grandfather used to follow the “wonderful ritual” of telling the children stories every evening whenever the occasion arose. “He exposed me to the folktales and fairytales of Bengal and our epics and Puranas as well, which left an incredible mark on me and has deeply influenced my writing,” says Divakaruni. And she has tried to continue the same tradition with her own children with regular bedtime storytelling. “I think if we are not careful, we may lose this wonderful tradition in the hustle of modern life,” is her worry.

One Amazing Thing has a setting that is one moment mundane but turns surreal the next. In it, the reader goes into the lives of nine people trapped in the visa office at an Indian Consulate after a massive earthquake in an American city. The nine are an eclectic mix – two visa officers on the verge of an adulterous affair; a Chinese–Indian woman in her last years; her gifted teenage granddaughter; an ex-soldier haunted by guilt;, an Indian–American girl bewildered by her parents’ decision to return to Kolkata after 20 years; a young Muslim man angry with the new America; and an enraged and bitter elderly white couple. In a way, the setting and the characters reflect the the chaos of the modern, multi-ethnic globalised society. At the same time, it also reflects the growing visibility of India in the global arena. Divakaruni says it was a challenge to tackle all these multiple angles. “I had to let the story flow, keeping some of these themes in the back of my mind. I had to let the characters and their motives pull these issues into the novel so that they fit organically. Otherwise the novel would have become idea-driven and wooden,” says the author, who herself admits to have been left often surprised by the direction the plot took.

Divakaruni, whose work has been translated into 18 languages, and two of whose novels have been made into films, says that writing her latest novel has been quite a different experience for herself. “One major difference is that unlike my other novels which have one or at most two protagonists, in this one all the characters are equally important, all their stories equally crucial to the creation of community. It is also more multi-cultural than my other books, which have mostly Indian main characters. It has a larger number of important male characters than my earlier books,” she points out. Also, unlike Mistress of Spices or Palace of Illusions, which largely dealt with the imaginary world, in this one Divakaruni deals with both the real and the imaginary in equal measure. “It was a challenge, because the ‘magic’ or ‘miracle’ in this novel exists on a different, psychological level, in the power of stories to transform our lives, both as speaker and listener. The power of the imagination is central in this novel,” she explains, even as she points out how it also explores how human beings behave while under pressure, something she learnt to analyse in her own case too as she wrote the book.

As a writer, Divakaruni believes it is important for creative people to explore pain, something her characters in this novel undergo in great measure. “I feel as an artist it is important for me to explore pain. Pain can help a character to grow — or it can destroy a person. It is in painful moments that the essence of who we really are is often revealed. Without some analysis or depiction of pain, most books would remain superficial,” she says. Divakaruni might have drawn some inspiration about developing her characters from the wide spectrum of people she interacts through social networking and blogging. “I took on social media as a challenge from my sons who are now teenagers and think I am completely technology-deficient. I started an author page on Facebook sometime back and am surprised by how much I enjoy it. It puts me in touch with readers from many countries of the world. It gives me a sense of what in my writing touches people. I try to respond to everyone who writes in,” she says. In a sense, she is practising the art of storytelling on this platform too. That is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni for you, the storyteller per excellence.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 13-06-2010)


March 27, 2010

Search for ET life is too narrowly focused: Paul Davies

Is anybody out there? This question has continued to perplex human beings for ages, and even though the ET has become a popular character in sci-fi novels and movies, the real ET, should there be one, is yet to contact us. The US-based SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), the most-ambitious project to search life beyond planet Earth, completes 50 years this April 8. Almost coinciding with it, internationally-acclaimed cosmologist and astrobiologist Paul Davies has come up with The Eerie Silence (Allen Lane), a fabulously-told story of what goes into the search for ETs, and whether our science is even equipped enough to recognise a message that might come in from a planet far, far away. A winner of the Templeton Prize, Davies chairs the SETI’s post-detection task group that would be among the first to know about any ET contact. In an interaction with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari & Kalyan Ray, Davies shares his views on SETI and its future:

On its 50th anniversary, how would you assess the SETI’s achievements?

There has been an enormous increase in sensitivity, frequency range and data processing, following its own version of Moore’s Law. 

Do you think it needs to change the way SETI has been operating?

Yes. SETI is too narrowly focused at the moment, by concentrating on the search for narrow-band signals. This stems form a reliance on the scenario that a message is being directed at Earth from an alien civilization. That is not credible at this time because the aliens do not know we are here. If they are 1,000 light years away (a typical guess by SETI optimists) they see Earth as it was 1,000 years ago. There were no radio telescopes here in 1010 AD.  

The US government stopped funding the SETI. What would be your view if SETI can be turned into a global project funded by various countries?

Private funding has proved more secure for SETI. If other countries or agencies join in, they should do something new and different. However, I don’t think money is the key issue. 

Do you think instead of an unfocused SETI, something like the focused Project Phoenix (which concentrates on nearby systems most likely to have planets capable of supporting life rather than attempting to scan the whole sky for messages) should have been the ideal model for adoption from the very start?

No. I think the search strategy is flawed. They should scale back looking for narrow band signals and concentrate on looking for beacons instead. 

How do you view SETI@Home, which invites users to network their computers with SETI to help analyse date? Is it an effort to involve the common man in SETI or just a prop to develop curiosity value?

It’s a bit of fun that broadens the appeal of SETI. It is unlikely to make much difference one way or the other. 

What would be your explanation if someone asks you why humans are still not able to find out the existence of other life forms in the Universe in all these years?

It may be that we are alone in the universe or, as I explain in the book, that there will be no narrow-band directed signals. We should be looking for more general signatures of intelligence instead. I give many examples in the book. Then we might be successful. 

Science fiction – both books and movies – is full of various forms of ET life. Do you think the first contact with ET intelligence, whenever that happens, would be as dramatic as it is mostly in the sci-fi world?

Yes and no. I don’t think “contact” is likely. Rather, we will simply observe unambiguous signatures of alien technology, maybe in the remote past. This would be dramatic only in the sense that Copernicus and Darwin’s discoveries were dramatic. 

As the chair of SETI’s post-detection task group, what you think should be the ideal reaction to detection of ET intelligence, as and when it happens?

If it’s just a signature of technology, it needs to be published and announced like any other astronomical discovery. If it’s a radio source, we need to keep the coordinates secret until scientists have had a chance to evaluate what we are dealing with. That is to prevent unauthorized transmissions to the source from Earth by self-appointed representatives. 

How you would answer the question you yourself ask on the cover of your book: “are we alone in the Universe?”

Nobody knows the answer. It could be yes or no. We have no evidence either way. 

Why do you think most the radio-astronomers are not interested in searching for ET signals or beacons? Do they think it’s a childish idea on which one should not waste time?

They are not hostile, but they are interested in other things – things likely to yield results. SETI may never succeed, so it is a high-risk career strategy. 

What are the chances that proposed bigger radio telescope like SKA and Paul Allen array or the planned more sensitive neutrino detectors actually get ET signature?

It’s impossible to quantify the chance. Obviously the broader the strategy the more significant is the eerie silence. 

In the book, you argue that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a universal law of biology. Assuming that it is applicable to ET life also, what are the possibilities that the shadow biosphere has evolved over time and currently indistinguishable from the ordinary life?

I don’t think evolutionary convergence is so strong as to create identical biochemistry.

Have all the UFO sightings been explained satisfactorily? Scientists most of the time say that “most of them have been explained” without telling whether “all” have been explained. Are there still some secrets locked in military files or are there still some incident, which is beyond the current scientific knowledge?

I think they can all be explained. There are no significant “secret files” in my opinion. 

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 27-03-2010)


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