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.