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Arranging One's Life

Chitra Divakaruni
Mistress of Spices: Novelist, poet and short-story writer Chitra Divakaruni explores the worlds of Indian-American women.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Sunnyvale author Chitra Divakaruni talks about marriages and stereotypes

By Julie Mehta

LIKE THE HEROINES of her stories, Sunnyvale author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has come a long way, both figuratively and literally. Recently awarded the 1996 American Book Award for fiction for her short-story collection, Arranged Marriage, Divakaruni is looking forward to the publication of her first novel, The Mistress of Spices, next February.

A theme that runs through her acclaimed collection of stories about Indian immigrant women dealing with cultural conflict is that there is no such thing as a perfect life. But to an observer, Divakaruni's appears to come close. In addition to her writing success, she is in the seventh year of a teaching career at Foothill Community College, runs a support hotline for South Asian women, and is a wife and the mother of two small boys. She appears Oct. 10 with dancer Sonali Vepa as part of the Center for Literary Arts' Origins: Dialogues on Writing and Culture program at San Jose State University.

Looking right at home among the buckling bookshelves, colorful wall-hangings and family pictures in her tiny office at Foothill, a smiling Divakaruni talks enthusiastically about her first novel, which, like most of her short stories, is set in the Bay Area.

She says the novel, which has a magical tone, is about a woman who owns an Indian grocery store and uses spices to solve the problems of customers. As in many of the tales in Arranged Marriage, love creates conflict. "[The woman] falls in love with a non-Indian and must make some difficult choices--she must decide if she should continue to serve her people or look for her own happiness," Divakaruni says of her protagonist.

Though Divakaruni's path to literary success was quick and unconventional, it still took years of study and struggle. Born in Calcutta, India, Divakaruni lived in several Indian cities while growing up and immigrated to the U.S. in 1976 at the age of 19.

Having already earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Calcutta, she pursued a master's at Wright State University in Ohio. To earn money to start and continue attending college in the U.S., she worked a variety of odd jobs, including babysitting, selling merchandise in an Indian boutique, slicing bread in a bakery and washing instruments in a science lab.

While continuing her English literature studies at the doctorate level at UC-Berkeley, she lived in its International House and worked in the dining hall, slicing Jell-O and removing dishes from the dishwasher. Though she admits these weren't tasks to write home about, they did make it possible for her to continue her education and gave her the financial independence she has always valued. Toward the end of her graduate studies, she came to a realization. "I loved teaching but didn't want to do academic writing. It didn't have enough heart in it. I wanted to write something more immediate."

AFTER THREE books of poetry, she made another decision: that there were things she wanted to say that would be better expressed through prose. So she enrolled in a fiction-writing class. Impressed by her stories, a professor showed them to an agent. That agent got her Doubleday as a publisher, and Arranged Marriage came out in hardback in 1995. In addition to the national award it recently garnered, it has also won the Bay Area Book Reviewers and PEN Oakland awards for fiction.

Though references to local attractions, postgraduate education and her Bengali culture are sprinkled liberally throughout her tales, Divakaruni says the stories themselves--which deal with issues including domestic violence, crime, racism, interracial relationships, economic disparity, abortion and divorce--are inspired by her imagination and the experiences of others.

She continually encounters women dealing with culture shock through Maitri, the help line she helped start in 1991. The service, which Divakaruni says receives 25 to 40 calls per month, offers counseling and referrals to South Asian women suffering from domestic violence, depression, cultural alienation and other problems.

This project and her stories have prompted some to accuse Divakaruni of tarnishing the Indian community's image and reinforcing stereotypes of the "oppressed" Indian woman, but Divakaruni says her aim is 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."

Through her depiction of various types of relationships, Divakaruni says she hopes to show people that not all Indian-Americans have arranged marriages. But though her own marriage was not arranged, she feels the arranged-marriage system is a valid one, with its own share of advantages and disadvantages.

And whether sharing her opinions or discussing her work, Divakaruni is quick to point out that she does not represent all Indians--just one perspective--and more voices are needed.

Arranged Marriage will be released in India next February together with The Mistress of Spices. Divakaruni says for her next book, she will return to the poetry in which her literary career is rooted.

Poetry will play a large part in Divakaruni's collaboration with Sonali Vepa at SJSU. Vepa, a classically trained Indian dancer, has choreographed several original pieces based on the poems that Divakaruni will read at the Origins program. Twelve-year-old violinist Rangashree Varadarajan will accompany the two women. Echoing themes that run throughout Divakaruni's work, the evening is dedicated to victims and survivors of domestic violence.

When asked to speculate on what her life would have been like had she stayed in India, she pauses for a moment. There would have been different stories to write, she believes, but no less significant or meaningful. It is this quality of seeing value in every life that underlies her characters, whether they be a battered wife, a disillusioned mechanic or a single mother. "No one has a perfect life," says Divakaruni. "Perhaps our mistake is in thinking we need to have perfect lives."

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni will appear Tuesday (Oct. 8) at the Almaden Branch Library, 6455 Camden Ave., San Jose. Admission is free. (408/268-7601). She will take part in a poetry and dance program with Sonali Vepa Thursday (Oct. 10) at 7:30pm at the Music Concert Hall, San Jose State University. Tickets are $10. Divakaruni will discuss her work Friday (Oct. 11) at 12:30pm at Washington Square Hall 109, SJSU. Admission is free. Both events are sponsored by the Center for Literary Arts at SJSU.

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From the October 3-9, 1996 issue of Metro

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