Those of you know me are well aware of how big a sucker I am of Indian mythology. I just love to criticize them! On top of that, I have had to study the Ramayana and Mahabharata as text last semester. So quite evidently, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the fiery feminist author who had breathed new life into Draupadi and now Sita happens to be one of my favourite authors. Palace of Illusions is one book that I absolutely treasure.
Thank my lucky stars, I happened to get an interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in January this year when she came for the book launch of her latest release The Forest of Enchantments, or Sitayana, to Kolkata. She’s an extremely sweet and grounded person and here’s what we discussed:
The stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata are something that we all have grown up hearing. What was it like to be the voice of characters that have received such cult statuses?
What I think I was trying to do was modernizing Panchali in Palace of Illusions and also make Sita a woman who is timeless and relevant to our lives today and to just give them their voice. I didn’t know whether it would become popular. It was just a project that really delighted me.
How do you view the several retellings of these epics and has that given you the opportunity to explore this space more?
Yes. I think it’s very important to retell our epics. We have such wonderful epics and if we don’t retell the stories then for many of the readership, these stories would be lost because very few people, especially younger people, would say that okay I want to read Valmiki’s Ramayan. No! They don’t feel the connection. I’m hoping that books like Forest of Enchantments would give them a chance to connect and then maybe go and read the original also.
What is that one memorable emotion that you went through while writing Forest of Enchantments?
Oh my goodness! I cried a lot because as I was writing Sita’s story I was feeling her challenges, her pain, how it felt to be in captivity in Lanka for a whole year not knowing what’s happening and then how it felt to be abandoned in the forest when she was pregnant. Yeah, I cried a lot.
One trait each that you admire in Draupadi and Sita.
I think it is the same trait but it comes out differently. They are both very courageous women. Draupadi is much more assertive. She will fight with people in order to get her way or if she sees someone doing something wrong she tells them that. She’s very outspoken. Sita’s not necessarily that outspoken but she has a deep reservoir of strength. If she comes across something that’s wrong, she’s not going to compromise. She’s not going to waste time fighting with people or emoting. She’ll just do the next thing she needs to do. Like when she’s abandoned in the forest when she’s pregnant, she’s heartbroken but she says ‘What can I do? Now my job is to take care of these babies’ and that’s where she puts all her energy. So it’s a different kind of courage.
Has relooking at these characters changed you as a person?
Definitely. I’ve learnt so much both from Draupadi and from Sita and I hope I can use some of that in real life.
India has been facing a lot of religious hostility in the name of Ram. How do you view this?
My feeling is that our epics give us wonderful stories. They are very nuanced and if people will only go back and see, they’ll realize that there’s no need to fight about it. We can all agree on wonderful values which each one of us can pick from our epics and shastras and religious texts. We don’t need to be fighting with each other about it. I think we can all agree that they are wonderful texts that teach us to be better human beings.
What is your message for our readers?
I hope you read a lot because that is the way to open up the world. I am very fond of reading myself and I have learnt so much! A lot of whatever I’ve learnt as a human being and a writer has come from reading books.