Research can fill in some holes, but you will have to do a lot of inventing, and invention equals novel. By definition, a memoir is a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation. My inspiration for this story is a simple spark from real life, not a complete story arc.
A story requires an arc—a beginning, middle and end—and a main character whose actions drive the plot. In a good memoir, you try a lot of different things to solve your problem. I wanted to write about the two years my mother spent in hospice care at her home before she died of course I took notes while she napped. My mother was going to die. I was one of her daughters, reacting to events, but not initiating them the way a good protagonist should.
I discovered it would not have made an exciting book. Similarly, a student of mine is struggling to write about how her troubles at the hands of an abusive adopted brother ended when he died in a car crash. To write a more engaging story with a compelling protagonist, a novel would be a better form in which to explore the story that inspired her. Other people will strongly identify with my story, and I want to be able to share the truth of what happened. You may want to talk to groups, go on talk shows, and connect with readers who are also mothers, or cancer survivors, or men who graduated from medical school after the age of Another thing to consider is that a novel must create a believable world, one in which a bizarre event can look made up or over-the-top.
Memoir allows you to tell the stories that would seem too convenient, or sentimental, or jarring in a novel. This did happen. I find the unlimited choices of fiction overwhelming. I know I am. When my mother flops as a showgirl in Las Vegas and my dad meets her on a San Francisco beach. I have a quirky, appealing voice. Voice is probably the most important element in memoir today, when so many subjects have already been written about. Having a strong voice means adopting a more heightened version of yourself: more emotional, more dramatic, more vulnerable, maybe funnier or more ironic.
I am writing the story to explore questions about what happened. You want to get to the bottom of things, find the hidden patterns, achieve insight into your own behavior and that of others. If you feel compelled in these ways, then you must set down the unvarnished truth as you remember it. In most novels I read, the narrative completely overwhelms whatever it was the writer supposedly set out to explore in the first place.
If your imagination has always led you, if fanciful events creep into your retellings even when you try to stick to the facts, you might be a natural novelist, one prone to drawing on his own experience for inspiration, but nothing more. If, however, your story has a strong voice and can survive the scrutiny of nonfiction, it wants to be a memoir. EVERY detail is true, and many can be proven by medical records and police reports. But can a memoir writer adjust the timing of events?
And if so, how much?
Torey Hayden is a good example, and she writes about this exact issue on her blog. Again, there is absolutely nothing made up, no stretching of the truth, etc. But if you write your grandmother as dying earlier or later than she did, the timing of when you moved from a certain area, and so on? This was an amazingly helpful article—one I think the universe led me to at the perfect time! I am always searching online for articles that can help me. There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also.
Keep working, great job! That is very interesting Smile I love reading and I am always searching for informative information like this. Only when Mrinal bursts into tears and admits that she is not happy does the truth begin to push its way through the fiction. Mrinal has been forced into this revelation by her realization of the lack of love in her life, an element that Asha does have in her relationship with Dinesh. One of James Bond's defining characteristics is his lack of a love life as opposed to a sex life, which he does have or a family.
Mrinal's story suggests that Bond is a character deserving of pity rather than blind admiration. Moreover, in using Bond as a desirable image, Divakaruni cautions people not to measure their own lives in terms of the slick ideals promoted by any culture. The story is set in two locations: India, where Asha was brought up and married and which is presented only in her memories and California in the United States, where she now lives. As well as being two separate countries, India and the United States have two different cultures and sets of social expectations.
Asha's Indian upbringing teaches her to be a certain kind of wife and mother, whereas the United States challenges her to break away from these traditional roles and forge an independent life. The United States is presented in both negative and positive aspects: the negative, chaotic side is represented by Asha's fear of "failing grades, drugs, street gangs, AIDS" that lie in wait for Dinesh, and the positive side is represented by the greater freedom and power that beckons to the newly divorced Asha.
The plush restaurant where Asha meets Mrinal brings out Asha's insecurity about affluent Western society: she feels that she does not belong there and that every person in the room knows it. She is more comfortable with inexpensive places like Chuck E. Cheese or the Chinese takeout. Asha and Mrinal are contrasting characters who represent the different choices facing Indian women and to varying degrees, women of all nationalities : to follow the traditional route of marriage and children Asha or to stay single and pursue professional success Mrinal.
Far from being stereotypes, however, both characters suffer conflicts and doubts amid their strengths and achievements that render them thoroughly human and believable. The fact that the story is told in first person from the point of view of Asha allows Divakaruni to expose Asha's opinions and hidden feelings, while she misreads Mrinal's appearance and what she knows about Mrinal's life.
This point of view works to emphasize the story's point: people judge other people's outsides by comparing them to their own inner reality, often at their own expense. Preparing elaborate meals from fresh ingredients for the family is an important part of Indian culture, one that Asha fully embraced in her married life with Mahesh. For her, cooking has come to symbolize the unity and nourishing quality of family life; it also signifies her investment in relationships with Mahesh and Dinesh.
Now that Mahesh has left, Asha cooks differently. She relies on fast food and takeouts, reflecting her new, independent life: "I've decided that too much of my life has already been wasted mincing and simmering and grinding spices. However, when Asha faces a crisis of confidence, worrying about the negative influence of "failing grades, drugs, street gangs, AIDS" on Dinesh, she takes refuge in cooking once more, as if there were some protection in that very ritual, "As though the translucent rings of onions and the long curls of carrots could forge a chain that would hold him to me, close, safe forever.
Unable to face the truth or to discuss it openly with her son, she takes refuge in the motherly rituals, casting him as a child by using his baby name, Dinoo. The tactic fails miserably, since it is also a kind of lie; Dinesh has already eaten out, is no longer a child, and sullenly refuses to be drawn into the charade. The turning point for Asha comes after she poisons herself with fumes and then vomits—a reversal of nourishing oneself with food.
During this incident, she is finally able to let go of her motherly role and allow Dinesh to look after her.
Only then does Asha forgo her deceptions and decide to tell Dinesh and Mrinal the truth. With mother and son communicating openly once more, they are able to share some pistachio milk that Asha prepares. Pistachio milk is a traditional Indian drink. The final scene in which Asha and Dinesh drink to their "precious, imperfect lives" with the pistachio milk symbolizes Asha's acceptance of her Indian tradition; Dinesh's acceptance of his mother he accepts her offer of the milk, unlike his previous hostile response when she cooked him his favorite meal ; and Asha's and Dinesh's acceptance of each other as they are, not as they might be expected to be in some illusory, presumably perfect family.
Indian immigration to the United States was uncommon before ; Hindu beliefs discouraged it, as did the British colonizers of India, who restricted the movements of the Indian people. In , the Luce-Celler bill was signed into law. This law permitted one hundred Indians per year into the United States and allowed them to become citizens.
The following year, India gained independence from Great Britain , marking the second wave of Indian immigration; between and , over six thousand Indians entered the United States. In , the number of Indian-born persons living in the United States was , By , India had become the second highest source of legal immigration to the United States, second only to Mexico.
As of , ethnic Asians made up 4. Traditionally, many Indian women and women of other Asian countries have their marriages arranged through relatives, so-called marriage bureaus, or paid matchmakers called bride brokers. Many Indian families living in the United States retain this practice.
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The s saw a surge in classified advertisements placed by parents looking for prospective brides and grooms in Indian newspapers circulated in India and the United States. In the late s, the growing Internet provided a variety of matrimonial websites to replace the traditional matchmaker.
The advantages and disadvantages of arranged marriages are much debated in Asian communities. Defenders of arranged marriage point out that great care is taken by the families to match the bridegroom and bride according to social background, education, and interests. They say that most young people are not forced into an arranged marriage, that love usually grows between spouses after marriage, and that such marriages have a far higher rate of success and a lower divorce rate than marriages that arise from courtship and love that are more usual in the West, which may be based on short-lived infatuation or sexual desire.
Opponents of arranged marriage claim a high incidence of incompatibility and various types of spousal abuse. Some commentators in India or Asia draw a link between arranged marriage and the growing phenomenon of bride burnings and dowry deaths. They point out that arranged marriages are commonly between a man of higher caste class with limited money and a woman of lower caste whose family has money, with the incentive to the bridegroom being a lucrative dowry provided by the bride's parents.
In some cases, once the man has pocketed the dowry, or if the family has failed to make the dowry payments, he kills his wife, often by dowsing her with gasoline and setting fire to her. He then claims that she died in a cooking accident. Because many cases of bride burnings are covered up, the number of victims can only be estimated. In , the National Crime Records Bureau of India gave the number of reported dowry deaths, including bride burning, as 6, In , the bureau reported the number at 7,, an increase of Proponents of arranged marriage comment that spousal abuse is as common in non-arranged marriages.
They say that all family members share responsibility for an arranged marriage, so victims of such abuse can take refuge in the homes of relatives. The collection was well received by the public, quickly becoming a bestseller, and met with critical acclaim. Paul Nathan's review in Publishers Weekly is typical of those who affirmed Divakaruni's first foray into prose: "The name Chitra Divakaruni is one that more and more people are going to learn to recognize, pronounce and remember.
Donna Seaman, in her Booklist review of Arranged Marriage , hails Divakaruni as "a virtuoso short story writer" and comments that "these are ravishingly beautiful stories, some profoundly sad, others full of revelation, all unforgettable. For Seaman, the message of the stories is predominantly feminist and pro-Western society, as they "revolve around the attempt to maintain traditional gender roles in the free-wheeling U.
Sethi notes that the women in the stories, far from being defeated by their ordeals, "prepare to battle the conventions they have left behind to take full advantage of their new lives in America. Francine Prose, writing in Women's Review of Books , observes a more ambiguous tone in the stories, commenting that the young Indian protagonists are "learning to cope with the unsettling novelties of life in the United States," performing a "strenuous balancing act.
She cites the final line of "Meeting Mrinal" about "Drinking to our 'precious, imperfect lives'" and comments, "No real catharsis is found but only adjustments and compromises. Prose cautions against what she perceives as a weakness of some of the stories—that they depend too heavily on a certain sort of "hot-button, up to the minute, highly contemporary and instantly recognizable" social problem, rather than on character.
Examples of such problems featured in the stories include divorce, abortion, and spousal abuse. But she adds, "Divakaruni's work is strongest when her characters exhibit a surprising and truly moving intensity of response to their situations. Robinson is a former teacher of English literature and creative writing and, as of , is a full-time writer and editor. In the following essay, she examines how the mirage of the perfect life is explored in "Meeting Mrinal. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's "Meeting Mrinal" opens on a scene in which Indian-born and newly divorced Asha prepares a meal for herself and her teenage son, Dinesh.
Food and cooking identify a central theme of the story. Here, they symbolize how far Asha has departed from her accustomed wifely practice of preparing elaborate Indian meals from fresh ingredients. Now, Asha and Dinesh make do with ready-made pizza and whatever remnants of moldy vegetables Asha can find in her refrigerator. Dinesh often eats at Burger King, where he works. The scene is loaded with significance. It is traditional for an Indian wife to cook complex meals from scratch for her family and for the family to sit down to eat together.
Now that Asha's husband, Mahesh, has left her for a younger white woman, Asha has left off cooking in the old way: "I've decided that too much of my life has already been wasted mincing and simmering and grinding spices. Another aspect of the scene is that the limp and moldy vegetables that Asha finds in her refrigerator suggest the rot that, unnoticed by Asha, had set into her marriage and that now threatens to infect what remains of her family life, her relationship with Dinesh.
The convenience food and lifeless vegetables that she now serves up, somewhat guiltily, also reflect the lack of time, attention, and nourishment she is giving to her relationship with Dinesh. Since his father left, Dinesh has withdrawn to his room and into his music and now looks at her with "a polite, closed stranger's face.
The barrier between Asha and Dinesh is the same as that which arises between Asha and Mrinal: Asha's inability to openly acknowledge the failure of her marriage. When Mrinal telephones Asha, Asha cannot bring herself to tell her the truth about her situation. Instead, she keeps up the pretence of a happy family life, complete with invented, respectable activities for Dinesh. Witnessing his mother constructing a fake veneer of perfection over the ruins of his family life is too much for Dinesh to bear. He angrily demands, "I'm not good enough for your friend just the way I am, is that it?
She has worked hard at being the perfect wife and mother and feels that she has failed. Her feelings of shame deepen when, in fury at Dinesh's challenge to her to tell the truth—that Mahesh "got tired of you and left you for another woman," she slaps him. However, she loses the opportunity to be truthful with Dinesh when she falsely claims that her anger stems from his swearing rather than the uncomfortable truth that he voiced. In the ensuing coldness between Asha and Dinesh, she tries to win him round by cooking his favorite food and calling him by his baby name, Dinoo.
This tactic fails miserably because it is another lie; Asha is no longer the all-capable, all-nourishing mother, and Dinesh is a young man, not a child. Asha's situation is particularly perilous because she has no firm foothold in her old life or in her new life. Though she has made her first brave steps towards establishing an independent life in a harsh and alien Western culture in the form of her training and her fitness classes, she feels that she is not up to the task.
When she drives to her meeting with Mrinal, she finds that she is not used to negotiating city traffic, a reference to her uncertainty about negotiating her way through Western culture. When she arrives at the plush restaurant, she feels dowdy and awkward. She reflects, "I knew I didn't belong here, and that every person in the room, without needing to look at me, knew it too.
Asha's feelings of inadequacy are strengthened by the images of perfection against which she has chosen to measure herself. First, there is the image of wifely perfection that, it is suggested, comes with the territory of traditional Indian marriage. When Mahesh leaves, she blames herself, as is clear from the shame that prevents her from speaking openly about his decision. The second image of perfection that plagues Asha is her idealized picture of her friend Mrinal: " She has the perfect existence—money, freedom, admiration … and she doesn't have to worry about pleasing anyone.
The competitive nature of their relationship is given an added edge by the fact that Mrinal warned Asha against contracting an early arranged marriage, advising her instead to finish college and get a job, but Asha ignored her friend's suggestion. Not only does Asha think that she has failed to measure up to Mrinal, but she is convinced that she has been proved wrong and, understandably, is reluctant to admit it. The third image of perfection is James Bond, who, with his "golden guns and intricate machines and bikini-clad beauties," represents an idealized Western image of male sophistication and success that young Asha and Mrinal admired while they were growing up in India.
They vowed that if they got to the West, they would celebrate with Bond's favorite drink, vodka martini, shaken, not stirred. For Asha, Mrinal is part of James Bond's world, with her perfect grooming and sophisticated manners. What Asha fails to bear in mind is that Bond is a fictional character. The edifice of perfection that Asha has created crumbles when Mrinal bursts into tears and admits that she is unhappy and lonely.
She envies Asha her husband and child as much as Asha has envied her. Once again, Asha avoids telling the truth, but inside, she is plunged into a crisis by Mrinal's revelation: "I feel like a child who picks up a fairy doll she's always admired from afar and discovered that all its magic glitter is really painted clay.
She wonders, "What would I live on, now that I knew perfection was only a mirage? In despair, Asha drives home and makes a halfhearted attempt at suicide by gassing herself with car fumes in the garage. When she changes her mind and staggers out of the garage, Dinesh appears and helps her to the bathroom where she vomits; he looks after his mother as if he were the adult and she were the child.
He seems, she remarks, " motherly. She finally lets go of her need to be perceived as the perfect wife and mother and realizes that her role models were unhelpfully the superhuman heroines of Indian mythology and a hero of Western mythology. She thinks with compassion of Mahesh, noting that perhaps he had the same idealized notions when they married. She sums up her situation in brutally honest words: "I've lost my husband and betrayed my friend, and now to top it all I've vomited all over the sink in my son's presence.
At last, Asha has allowed herself to be helped and faced her frailty; she can move forward into a future guided by truth and self-knowledge rather than false images of external perfection. In her moment of resolution, Asha has a vision of a simple clay bowl from her art appreciation class. She remembers her teacher explaining that the master potter who made it always left a flaw in his later works, in the belief that it made them more human and more precious.
The image is a positive transformation of the negative image she held in her disillusionment about the "painted clay" of Mrinal's life. The clay bowl, beautiful yet flawed, is a symbol of Asha's life, and, by extension, of Mrinal's and Dinesh's and Mahesh's life—indeed, of everyone's life: far from perfect, but infinitely precious.
The resolution unfolds into a new truthfulness in Asha's relationship with Dinesh. She freely admits that she "made a mess" of her meeting with Mrinal and offers to tell him about it over a glass of pistachio milk. It is significant that Asha is here breaking her new habit of convenience food and returning on this occasion to a nourishing and traditional Indian drink; it is a reconciliation with her Indian roots and with the motherly role that she turned her back on after Mahesh's departure.
Dinesh smilingly accepts her offer, a sign that he is ready to be reconciled with his mother. As Asha and Dinesh solemnly raise their glasses to their "precious, imperfect lives," the final image that readers are given is optimistic: "The glasses glitter like hope. Liberated from false notions of perfection, Asha plans the letter she will write to Mrinal to tell her the truth. Belonging to the group of young Indian writers that emerged on the literary scene with a postcolonial diasporic identity after Salman Rushdie , Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's position as a South Asian writer in English is distinct and well established.
As someone who has spent more time outside India than in it, she has been accepted as an Asian American writer, living with a hybrid identity and writing partially autobiographical work. Most of her stories, set in the Bay Area of California, deal with the experience of immigrants to the United States, whose voice is rarely heard in other writings of Indian writers in English. She has been published in more than fifty magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker , and her writing has been included in more than thirty anthologies.
Her works have been translated into eleven languages, including Dutch, Hebrew, Portuguese, Danish, German, and Japanese. Chitra Banerjee was born in Calcutta on 29 July and spent the first nineteen years of her life in India. Her father, Rajendra Kumar Banerjee, an accountant by profession, and her mother, Tatini Banerjee, a schoolteacher, brought up their four children in modest middle-class ambience.
As the second-born child and only girl among three brothers, Partha, Dhruva, and Surya, Chitra spent her childhood days in sibling rivalry and camaraderie. She studied at Loreto House, a convent school run by Irish nuns, from where she graduated in At the age of nineteen she moved to the United States to continue her studies as an English major and got her master's degree from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, in She held different kinds of jobs to pay for her education, including babysitting, selling merchandise in an Indian boutique, slicing bread at a bakery, and washing instruments at a science lab.
She did not begin to write fiction until after she graduated from Berkeley, when she came to realize that she loved teaching but did not want to do academic writing: "It didn't have enough heart in it. I wanted to write something more immediate. Her two sons, Anand and Abhay, were born in and Divakaruni and her husband moved to Sunnyvale, California, in For several years she was interested in issues involving women and worked with Afghani women refugees and women from dysfunctional families, as well as in shelters for battered women.
In she became founder-member and president of Maitri, an organization in the San Francisco area that works for South Asian women in abusive situations. She also associated herself with Asians against Domestic Abuse, an organization in Houston. Her interest in these women grew when she realized that there was no mainstream shelter for immigrant women in distress—a place where people would understand their cultural needs and problems—in the United States.
Because of the experience she gathered from counseling sessions, the lives of Asian women opened up to her, revealing unimaginable crises. She turned to writing as a means of exploring the cultural differences she encountered as a newcomer to the United States. Initially, she started writing for herself, and during the mid s she joined a writer's group at Berkeley University. She wrote poems during that time, and, as she told Roxanne Farmanfarmaian in Publishers Weekly 14 May , her venture into serious poetry writing began after she received the news of her grandfather's death in her ancestral village in India: "Poetry was closest to my psyche.
Poetry focuses on the moment, on the image, and relies on image to express meaning. That was very important to me, that kind of crystallization, that kind of intensity in a small space. As he has been with the publications of many Indian writers in English, Professor P. She had already established herself as a poet by the time she published The Reason for Nasturtiums , her first verse collection published in the United States. The subtitle of the volume explains her primary interest and indicates that her main focus is the immigrant experience and South Asian women.
She shows the experiences and struggles involved in Asian women's attempts to find their own identities, as her poem "The Arranged Marriage" illustrates:. These poems draw on similar subject matter to her fiction: womanhood, family life, exile, alienation, exoticism, ethnicity, domesticity, love, and romance. Leaving Yuba City is a collection that explores images of India and the Indian experience in the United States, ranging from the adventures of going to a convent school in India run by Irish nuns to the history of the earliest Indian immigrants in the United States.
The opening poem, "How I Became a Writer," describes an abusive father "the gorilla with iron fingers" and the suicide of a mother who puts the poet to bed and locks her in "so I would not be the first to discover her body hanging from the ceiling.
Leaving Yuba City comprises six sections of interlinked poems. Although they feature many of the same characters, they explore a variety of themes. Divakaruni is particularly interested in how different art forms can influence and inspire each other. The series of poems based on paintings by the American artist Francesco Clemente is of particular interest. In a section devoted to his "Indian Miniatures" series, Divakaruni's words enter into Clemente's dreamscapes and reveal moments of startling visual clarity. She also takes equal inspiration from other artists' interpretations of her native land—photographs by Raghubir Singh and Indian motion pictures , including Mira Nair 's Salaam Bombay!
As with all of her writing, these poems deal with the experiences of women and their struggle for identity. Her persistent concern with women's experience often deepens as it is arrayed against varying cultural backgrounds. As Meena Alexander, another poet of Indian origin, states: "Chitra Divakaruni's Leaving Yuba City draws us into a realm of the senses, intense, chaotic, site of our pleasures and pain. These are moving lyrics of lives at the edge of the new world.
The group of poems about the immigrant experiences of the Sikhs is especially poignant. Because of immigration restrictions, most of the original Sikh farmers who settled in Yuba City, California, could not bring their families with them or, in the case of single men, go back to get married until the s. As a result, in the s and s several men married local women from Mexico. This section imagines the lives of the farmers who arrived in and takes on their voices in lush, novelistic prose poems: "I lay in bed and try to picture her, my bride, in a shiny gold salwar-kameez, eyes that were black and bright and deep enough to dive in.
After three books of poetry, Divakaruni realized that there were things she wanted to say that would be better expressed in prose. In she edited Multitude: Cross-Cultural Readings for Writers , an anthology she uses in her own classroom; it is also used at many major universities in the United States. Her criterion for selection, as quoted by Elizabeth Softky in her article "Cross-Cultural Understanding Spiced with the Indian Diaspora" , was "quality, but also stories that focused on problem solving, not just how terrible things are.
The book includes works by a variety of authors, some of them her own students. Divakaruni's first volume of short stories, Arranged Marriage , explores the cross-cultural experiences of womanhood through a feminist perspective, a theme that continues to inform her work. Although her outlook has softened and her interest has shifted to more general human themes of memory and desire, at that time she felt militant: "I really wanted to focus on women battling and coming out triumphant.
How changing times affect the cherished Indian institution of arranged marriage is the theme of the eleven stories of Arranged Marriage. Most of the stories are about Indian immigrants to the United States from the author's native region of Bengal and are told by female narrators in the first-person-singular point of view, often in the present tense, which imparts to the stories a sense of intimacy. They capture the experience of recent immigrants, mostly from professional classes, such as electronic engineers and businesspeople, but also a few from the working class, such as auto mechanics and convenience-store clerks.
There are several immigrant brides who "are both liberated and trapped by cultural changes," as Patricia Holt puts it in her "Women Feel Tug of Two Cultures" , and who are struggling to carve out an identity of their own. Though references to local attractions, postgraduate education, and her Bengali culture are sprinkled liberally throughout the tales, Divakaruni says the stories themselves—which deal with issues such as domestic violence, crime, racism, interracial relationships, economic disparity, abortion, and divorce—were the result of her own imaginings and the experiences of others.
Some critics have accused Divakaruni of tarnishing the image of the Indian community and reinforcing stereotypes of the "oppressed" Indian woman, but as Julie Mehta quotes the author in "Arranging One's Life" Metro , October , her professed aim was to shatter stereotypes: "Some just write about different things, but my approach is to tackle these sensitive topics. I hope people who read my book will not think of the characters as Indians, but feel for them as people. At once pessimistic and filled with hope, Divakaruni creates contradictory as well as connected fictional worlds through the stories in Arranged Marriage.
In "Silver Pavements, Golden Roofs," the protagonist—a graduate student newly arrived in the United States, which she considers a land of illusion—is brought face to face with harsh reality when she is assaulted on the mean streets of Chicago. In "Affair" two temperamentally ill-matched Indo-American couples, whose marriages had been arranged on the basis of their horoscopes having matched "perfectly," divorce after many years of affluent living in Silicon Valley.
In "Doors" the character Preeti, after moving to the United States, has come to love the western idea of privacy. She faces a dilemma when her husband's cousin wants to come to live with them. She expresses her discontent with the situation, which shows her newfound decisiveness and her determination to oppose her husband's view of the traditional Indian wife.
In "Clothes" the husband of the narrator, Sumita, dies, and she is faced with deciding whether to stay in the United States or to go back to India to live with her in-laws. Sumita calls widows who are serving their in-laws "doves with cutoff wings. One common theme that runs through all the stories is that Indian-born women living new lives in the United States find independence a mixed blessing that involves walking a tightrope between old beliefs and newfound desires.
Though the characters vary, the themes of the short stories are essentially the same—exploration of the nature of arranged marriages as well as the experience of affirmation and rebellion against social traditions. Divakaruni's first novel, The Mistress of Spices , is distinct in that it blends prose and poetry, successfully employing magic realist techniques. Its heroine, Tilo short for Tilottama , is the "mistress of spices.
Here she encounters an ancient woman who imparts instruction about the power of spices. Ordained after a trial by fire, each new mistress is sent to a far-off land. Tilo heads for Oakland, California, disguised as an old woman, and sets up a shop where she sells spices. While she supplies the ingredients for curries and kormas , she also helps her customers to gain a more precious commodity: whatever they most desire. The chapters of the novel are named after spices such as cinnamon, turmeric, and fenugreek, common ingredients of Indian cuisine. Here, however, they have special powers, and Tilo practices her magical powers of healing through them.
Through those who visit and revisit her shop, she catches glimpses of the local Indian expatriate community, which includes an abused wife, a naive cabbie, a sullen teen, a yearning young woman, and an old man clinging to dignity, all of whom lack balance. To each, Tilo dispenses wisdom and the appropriate spice, for the restoration of sight, the cleansing of evil, the pain of rejection. When a lonely American ventures into the store, however, a troubled Tilo cannot find the correct spice, for he arouses in her a forbidden desire—which if she follows will destroy her magical powers.
Conflicted, she has to choose whether to serve her people or to follow the path leading to her own happiness. Tilo has to decide which part of her heritage she will keep and which part she will choose to abandon. The Mistress of Spices has a mystical quality to it, and, as Divakaruni puts it in "Dissolving Boundaries," an essay for the on-line journal Bold Type May , "I wrote it in a spirit of play, collapsing the divisions between the realistic world of twentieth century America and the timeless one of myth and magic in my attempt to create a modern fable.
They represent the grace of the universe, and by that, I mean they are not governed by logic but come to us mortals as a blessing we cannot understand. Her own immigrant experience in Ohio helped her express the feelings of loneliness and cultural separation that suffuse the novel. Thus the book also becomes a kind of metaphor for the struggle between social responsibility and personal happiness. When asked by Morton Marcus, in an interview for Metro May , why she had taken the risk of plunging into fantasy when she had already secured a large following and critical praise with the realistic Arranged Marriage , Divakaruni replied candidly: "First, I believe a writer should push boundaries, and I wanted to try something new, take risks.
But more to the point, the risk-taking came of a near-death experience I had two and a half years ago with the birth of my second child, Abhay, who was born of a Caesarian operation that went wrong. As she explained to Marcus, "Looking at this question from another perspective, you could say that I took three 'literary risks' in the book. I bridged the purely realistic world and the mythic one; I extended my subject matter from dealing exclusively with the Indian-American community to include three other ethnic groups living in the inner city—Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans —and finally, I tried to bring together the language of poetry and prose so the idiom of the book has a lyric quality appropriate to the genre of magic realism.
The Mistress of Spices is also a love story, the outcome of which keeps the reader in suspense. Interestingly, when Tilo makes her decision, she changes her name to Maya, the Hindu term that defines the everyday world of desire, pain, and joy as the world of illusion, a place of inevitable sorrow from which one is trying to escape. The novel was named one of the best books of by the Los Angeles Times and one of the best books of the twentieth century by the San Francisco Chronicle , and was nominated for the Orange Prize in England in From mid to early , Divakaruni also wrote a regular column, "Spice of Life," for the online magazine Salon , in which she focused upon the issues she knows best.
In a column titled "My Fictional Children" 28 January she notes that everything she ever tried to write about her children has been a failure but that the fictional mothers in her stories have become much more complex and full:. My writing is made more complicated by the fact that I'm exploring the experience of being Indian, of being brought up in a culture where many still consider motherhood a woman's supreme destiny, and the inability to get pregnant her supreme failure.
This is one of the major themes of the novel I'm working on right now. I think I'm not exaggerating when I say … that I wouldn't be writing this book had I not had children myself. Unlike her first novel, Sister of My Heart is written in the realist mode and describes the complicated relationships of a family in Bengal. Born in a big, old Calcutta house on the same night when both their fathers mysteriously disappeared, Sudha and Anju are distant cousins and are brought up together. Closer than sisters, they share clothes, worries, and dreams. The Chatterjee family fortunes are at a low ebb, as there are only widows at home—the girls' mothers and their aunt.
The forty-two chapters of the novel comprise a sort of extended, multitiered dialogue. The chapters themselves are alternately titled "Anju" and "Sudha" and utilize techniques that are epistolary and exclamatory, with transcultural settings, a tone that is adjectival and highly lyrical, italicized stream-of-consciousness passages, and a romantic style.
Slowly the dark secrets of the past are unveiled and test the cousins' mutual loyalty. A family crisis forces their mothers to start the serious business of arranging the girls' marriages, and the pair is torn apart. Sudha moves to her new family's home in rural Bengal, while Anju joins her immigrant husband in California. Although they have both been trained to be perfect wives, nothing has prepared them for the pain, as well as the joy, that each will have to face in her new life.
In the novel Indian discrimination against women stands exposed: the cousins consider themselves inferior beings because they are female. Feminist views—both overt and covert—are present in many passages of the novel. The story line, however, becomes predictable. Anju saves Sudha from the machinations of her husband and in-laws, who want to kill the girl child she has conceived, and brings her to the United States.
Reception of Sister of My Heart was overwhelmingly positive. For most western readers, the novel provided a new look at female bonding. Divakaruni's impetus was to write about a female-centric theme in a South Asian setting. The novel is her perception of an utter lack of emphasis on women's independence in South Asian literary genres.
She identifies the novel as ultimately about storytelling. Influenced by her grandfather, who told stories from South Asian epics, she has woven those childhood folktales into her novel. She explains that the "aloneness" of epic heroines seemed strange to her even as a child. In a 28 February San Francisco Examiner article, she declares that in South Asian mythological stories, "the main relationships the heroines had were with the opposite sex: husbands, sons, lovers, or opponents.
They never had any important friends. Perhaps in rebellion against such thinking, I find myself focusing my writing on friendships with women, and trying to balance them with the conflicting passions and demands that come to us as daughters and wives, lovers and mothers. Though Sister of My Heart is set in Calcutta, Divakaruni admits that the rest of the story is far from autobiographical and is based on observation and imagination. Around the time the novel was published, she also over the course of about a year wrote a column for the magazine India Today.
Titled "Stars and Spice," the column dealt with immigrant issues. Apart from her poems and fictional writing, Divakaruni has also established a reputation for herself with her nonfiction pieces. In "Foreign Affairs: Uncertain Objects of Desire," which appeared in the March issue of the Atlantic Monthly , she sifts through several hundred carefully categorized matrimonial advertisements in The Times of India , surmising that in India, a country that straddles the old and the new, they are a good place to look for signs of shifting values. Usually the ads and responses are handled by parents—proof that the practice of arranged marriage is alive and well in India.
Reading between the lines of two ads typical of their eras, one from and one from , she concludes that a great deal about the nature of desired partners, and the protocol for finding them, has changed. Apart from other factors, Divakaruni suggests that perhaps "this echoes a larger pattern of social movement in which the Indian woman's role is changed more rapidly than the Indian man's. The female protagonists of eight of the nine stories in Divakaruni's sensuously evocative collection The Unknown Errors of Our Lives are caught between the beliefs and traditions of their Indian heritage and those of their, or their children's, new homeland, the United States.
Seven out of the nine stories collected in the anthology had been published earlier in various journals and anthologies. The diverse range of the stories of this volume is noteworthy. Most of them depict life in East and West perceptively. The problem of acculturation is deftly dealt with in "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," a story in which a widow discovers that her old-fashioned ways are an embarrassment to her daughter-in-law. They illuminate the difficult process of adjustment for women in whom memory and duty must coexist with a new, often painful, and disorienting set of standards.
In an interview with Esha Bhattacharjee published in The Sunday Statesman on 2 February , when asked what she felt she was—an Indian, an American, or an Indian living in the United States, she confessed: "I have to live with a hybrid identity. In many ways I'm an Indian, but living in America for 19 years has taught me many things.
It has helped me look at both cultures more clearly. It has taught me to observe, question, explore and evaluate. In Divakaruni moved to Houston, Texas, where she began to teach in the creative-writing program at the University of Houston. In that same year she published The Vine of Desire , a novel of depth and sensitivity that can be seen as a sequel to Sister of My Heart. It continues the story of Anju and Sudha, the two cousins of the earlier book.
The young women now live far from Calcutta, the city of their childhood, and after a year of living separate lives, are rekindling their friendship in the United States. The deep-seated love they feel for each other provides the support they need: it gives Anju the strength to survive a personal tragedy and Sudha the confidence to make a life for herself and her baby daughter, Dayita, despite not having her husband.
The unlikely relationships they form with men and women in the world outside the immigrant Indian community as well as their families in India profoundly transform them, especially when they must confront the deep passionate feelings that Anju's husband has for Sudha. Sudha, seeking a measure of self-worth and trying to assuage loneliness, succumbs to Sunil's need for her and then flees from home to be a nursemaid to an old and ailing man.
Sunil also moves out and away. Anju sticks to studies and makes it to the dean's list.