June 17, 2019

Acclaimed writer traces orphan girl’s trajectory to womanhood in Oleander Girl

An interview by Vinita Kinra (@VinitaKinra)

Chitra B. Divakaruni

Chitra B. Divakaruni

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning and bestselling author, poet, activist and teacher of writing. Her work has been published in over 50 magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, and her writing has been included in over 50 anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, the O.Henry Prize Stories and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her books have been translated into 29 languages, including Dutch, Hebrew, Bengali, Russian and Japanese, and many of them have been used for campus-wide and city-wide reads. Several of her works have been made into films and plays. She lives in Houston with her husband Murthy, and has two sons, Anand and Abhay, who are in college. She loves to connect with readers on her Facebook page.

Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Chitra. Tell us about yourself.

Chitra B. Divakaruni:    I am a fiction writer, poet, activist and teacher. I write about the Indian experience, contemporary America, women, immigration, history, myth, and the joys and challenges of living in a multicultural world. My books have been translated into 29 languages. I teach Creative Writing at the University of Houston, and write for both adults and children. In 2015, I was honored to be chosen by the Economic Times for their list of Twenty Most Influential Global Indian Women.

Vinita Kinra:  Give us a brief glimpse of your latest novel, Oleander Girl.

Chitra B. Divakaruni: In this novel, a young woman from a distinguished and orthodox Bengali family falls in love with a man from a nouveau-riche business family in Kolkata. On the brink of marriage, she will discover a family secret which will shake up her sense of self, cause her to put off her wedding, and impel her on a journey to America that will ultimately transform her in ways she cannot imagine. What will she find in America? How will it change her vision of the world? The answers are to be found in this novel.

Vinita Kinra:  Of all the genres you have explored through your writings, which is your favourite and why?

Chitra B. Divakaruni: It changes, but right now it’s the novel. I love the novel because it allows me to explore the world in depth and travel through the minds of many characters.

Vinita Kinra:  Tell us about the time your heart said to you, “I want to be a writer.”

Chitra B. Divakaruni: Some years after I came to the US, I felt an urge to write about India—perhaps because I was missing it so much. Also, for the first time, I felt I really understood India—the distance made me see it more clearly. I began to realize what I appreciated most about India, and also about America. My book, Arranged Marriage, came out of this understanding.

Vinita Kinra:  Talk to us about your involvement with charitable organizations.

Chitra B. Divakaruni: The causes that touch my heart the most are literacy and domestic violence. I have been connected for many years with South Asian organizations that help survivors of domestic violence, such as Maitri in the San Francisco area and Daya in Houston, where I now live. I have been on the board of Pratham in Houston, and continue to support this organization that educates and provides job training to underprivileged children and youth in India.

Vinita Kinra:  What was the inspiration behind your debut collection of poetry, Black Candle?

Chitra B. Divakaruni: In this collection, I write not only about women’s issues, but also the culture of South Asia; its beauties and complexities are the subjects of the poems here.

Vinita Kinra:  What was your publishing journey like?

Chitra B. Divakaruni: Like many authors, at first I sent out my work and received many rejection notes! But slowly, as I joined a writers group and edited my work, I got better. My poems and stories began to be accepted in magazines. My big break came when a writing teacher sent my work to my agent, Sandra Dijkstra. She was able to sell my books, Arranged Marriage, Sister of my Heart, and Mistress of Spices, to major publishers.

Vinita Kinra:  Which is that one incident you can’t forget from your native Kolkata?

Chitra B. Divakaruni: There are so many! One of my favorites was going with my grandfather to the used bookshops in New Market. He used to buy me illustrated classics from there. Those were my favorite presents. I think my love of reading goes back to that time.

Vinita Kinra:  Give us a taste of your writing. Our readers would like to sample an excerpt from Oleander Girl

Chitra B. Divakaruni: This is from the first chapter of the novel, and it is in the heroine, Korobi’s voice.

As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I know at once that someone is in the room. My heart flails around. It’s impossible. I always lock the door before going to sleep, and the window is barred. But there it is, in the armchair in the corner of the bedroom: a still female form, black against the darkness of the room, looking toward me.

“Mother?” I whisper, my fear replaced by a yearning that’s as old and illogical as anything I can remember.

I know so little about my mother, only that she died eighteen years ago, giving birth to me—a few months after my father, an ambitious law student, had passed away in a car accident. Perhaps she died of a broken heart. I never knew for sure because no one would speak to me of them.

My grandparents had to put aside their own broken hearts to care for me, and I’m grateful: they did it well. Still, all through my years growing up, I longed for a visitation from my mother. The girls in my boarding school whispered stories about such occurrences, deceased parents appearing to save their offspring from calamity. I prayed for it in secret and, when that didn’t work, tried to put myself in calamity’s way, figuring either my mother or father might appear. But I only ended up with bruises, sprains, a case of the whooping cough, and, finally, a broken ankle. My adventures led to detentions, confiscation of pocket money, and a somewhat exaggerated reputation as a daredevil. They also resulted in numerous tongue-lashings from our harried principal, which didn’t matter to me and, finally, a long-distance phone call from my grandfather, which did.

“Korobi,” Grandfather said in that stern, grainy voice that I had adored from babyhood, “I’m too old for this. Besides, why would a smart girl like you do a stupid thing like walking on the upstairs window-ledge?”

The canny old rascal. He knew me well enough to appeal to my three major weaknesses: my vanity, my guilt, and, most of all, my love for him. He was, to me, father and mother rolled into one, and the thought that I had distressed and disappointed him made me burst into tears. Thus ended my attempts at forcing my parents into making an appearance.


Now, years after I had armored my heart and accepted that my mother was gone from my life, here she is. How can I be sure it is her? There are some things we know, in our breath, in our bones. It makes a certain sense that she should visit me now. Tomorrow I am to take my first real step into adulthood: I will be engaged to Rajat and thus begin the journey away from this family into another one. Perhaps my mother has come to say good-bye, to give me her blessing? Is she concerned? A strange tension seems to emanate from her. Perhaps she can’t go to her final rest until she’s certain that I am loved.


Chitra B. Divakaruni can be reached via Twitter: @cdivakaruni, Facebook: FB Fan Page and her websitewww.chitradivakaruni.com

Vinita Kinra is a Toronto-based author, editor, speaker and activist, best known for her short story collection, Pavitra in Paris, launched to critical acclaim in 2013. 

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