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Autobiography In Chitra Banerjees Works

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5529 words Published: 27th Apr 2017

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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is one of the worlds well known authors, a representative of the current Indo-Anglian fiction. Her new style of writing is different from the many other Indian writers, as it is much less conservative than Indian literature has been in the past. Born and brought up in Kolkata in a close-knit and upper middle class family, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni immigrated to the U.S.A. in 1976. The early years in the U.S. were possibly the most difficult years of her life since she witnessed herself as a sufferer of racial and cultural discrimination. Her various experiences in life find a sufficient place in her writings both fictions as well as non-fictions. She can expediently be described as a writer who has lived through several phases of life, first as an Indian, then as an immigrant and later as a citizen in the United States. Chitra Banerjee has successfully compounded together her several experiences, background, and life. The main shove area in her novels being a description of the condition of the Asian refugees in North America with the particular position of the change taking place in South Asian women in a new world. Even if her characters are conscious of the social cruelty and the violence imposed on the women characters yet they come out as survivors. They present themselves as they have successfully borne the brunt, both physical and emotional.

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Divakaruni recounts her stories from a wide variety of viewpoints. She concentrates upon the notion of self-identity within a larger society. She has a special eye on the characters that are explorers and adventurers, rather than refugees and outcasts. They are part and parcel of a new changing America – the land of migrants having a migrant culture. Thus, it is clear that Divakaruni’s themes center on the phenomenon of relocation, their sentiments of unfriendliness and alienation as immigrants. She also exposes the Indian woman sojourning abroad and her struggle for identity.

Divakaruni’s fictional world flourishes with the tangling complexities of life, especially the life within the social structure of a family. She writes with such an ease that English becomes another of the various regional languages of India. She uses such language with a characteristic grace to write about Indian lifestyle, tradition and the inner workings of the human psyche. She has not had any formal training in creative writing, apart from the fact that she constantly practiced in writing and read a lot.

From the very beginning Chitra used the delicate and complex web of family variance as her greatest theme. Her favorite theme is alienation, both psychological and physical. Her earlier novels are notable for their evocative understatement, well thought out melodrama, and the luminous combination of elegant prose. Her protagonists usually struggle to achieve their goals in an unsympathetic and complicated world. The fight of women to affirm their independence in the narrow limits of the Indian society is one of the chronic themes in her works.

Most of Divakaruni’s novels give us a sight of the tensions, which is experienced by the middle-class women due to their sense of alienation, their dissatisfaction, and their incapability to share feelings with the family. Her female protagonists generally pose themselves as “outsiders” and revolutionary against patriarchy oppression. As they effort to discover their own powers so as to live on their own terms, usually they are forced to face harsh results. Thus, the author writes out of pressure. She does not have any utopian vision that her novels can destroy evil and change the world. She is alerted of the black image that life offers, of what human nature is capable for. She knows that human beings can be cruel, impatient, and pugnacious. So, it means that she can produces a general consciousness among human beings and thus change them.

Divakaruni’s novels have remained as a riddle for a long time. Though there are no such written documents that can throw light on the underlying theories and personal feelings of her. Researchers, critics, students, and scholars have never stopped sensation at the supremacy of thoughts in her works. The enormous learning and massive talent with which Divakaruni deals with the ruminative mood and the existence of implicit realities in her novels have determinedly intrigued the minds of the discriminating readers. But in recent years the author has scaled down the gap between her readers and herself by taking part in discussions and interviews. Now she is putting across her thoughts in the articles and reviews, which appeared in scholarly journals, magazine and in the newspapers.

Scholars have quite deeply and widely explored Divakaruni’s fiction, with a frequent push on the cultural, social, physical, and psychological area. There are many scholarly easy and full-length works written about Divakaruni’s novels and her characters. The strength of characters, the small but significant turn of events, the fine details, the complicated web of relationships, the role of place in the creation of mental scene have all been examined by many researchers; it proves that the author has become a part of Indian writing in English in a new literary tradition.

This study is an attempt to probe the traits of autobiography in Chitra Divakaruni’s works. There is a quality of autobiography in the works of Chitra Banerjee. Not only most of her stories are set in the Bay area of California, but she also deals with the immigrant experience, which is an important theme in today’s world, where the immigrant’s voice is rarely heard. It’s very much true that her works are not completely autobiographical but she skillfully expresses the knowledge of South Asians in America. She got an inspiration for writing through her own experiences. She says that her books are partly based on experience, partly on “social observation”. But Divakaruni strives to weave such observations with “the element of myth, magic and ancient culture alongside contemporary culture. I try to bring those things together – a sense of ancient culture and the daily realities of immigrant life” 1.

Autobiographical elements have always been seen in fictional works by writers from all cultures, but it is primarily in discussions of non-whites that critics say that fiction can be part of an autobiography. Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior and Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street for example. Storytelling is a part of many immigrant cultures in ways that it is not in Euro-American. Antje Lindenmeyer in her “The Rewriting of Home: Autobiography by Daughters of Immigrants” argues that immigrant women’s autobiographies are a distinct genre.

When we talked about the origin of autobiography, we will find that this word was first used wryly by William Taylor in 1797. He suggested it in the English periodical the monthly review as a hybrid but destined it as pedantic. The word autobiography is derived from the Greek word meaning “self”, “life”, and “write”, thus it is a style of writing that has been around almost as long as history has been recorded. Yet autobiography was not categorized as a term till the late eighteenth century. It is next logged use was in its current sense by Robert Southey in 1809. He coined the term for describing the work of a Provencal poet.

The main features of autobiography are the identity of the self, the grammatical perspective of the work, and self-reflection or introspection. If we talked about the grammatical perspective, autobiography is mostly written in the first person singular. It is believed that it is generally a story one tells about oneself, that’s why it is not certainly followed that the writer would recount or narrate her or his past from a third and second person perspective. Jean Quigley confirms this point in her book The Grammar of Autobiography (2000) by saying that, “As soon as we are asked about ourselves, to tell our autobiography, we start to tell stories. We tell what happened, what we said, what we did” 2.

Biographers generally relate to a wide variety of documents or viewpoints and on the other side autobiography may be based completely on the writer’s memory. One of the first great autobiographies of the Renaissance is that of the sculptor and goldsmith Benevento Cellini (1500-1571). He declares at the start,

No matter what sort he is, everyone who has to his credit what are or really seem great achievements, if he cares for truth and goodness, ought to write the story of his own life in his own hand; but no one should venture on such a splendid undertaking before he is over forty. 3

Thus, the protagonist, the author, and the narrator must share a common identity for the work to be acknowledged as an autobiography. This common identity could be equivalent, but is not equal. The personality that the author creates becomes a character within the story that may not be an entirely factual image of the author’s actual past. Notable 18th century in English includes those of Benjamin Franklin and Edward Gibbon, following the tendency of Romanticism, which greatly highlighted the role and the nature of the individual, and in the paths of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1782-1789). It is a more affectionate form of autobiography exploring the subject’s emotions. An English example is William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris (1823), a painful analysis of the writer’s love life. With the rising of education, modern concepts of celebrity and name began to develop, economy newspapers and cheap printing, and the recipients of this were not slow to cash in on this by producing autobiographies. Thus, autobiographical works are by nature subjective. Some sociologists and psychologist have noted that autobiography offers the author’s ability to recreate history.

Further, the term “fictional autobiography” has been invented to define novels about a fictional character written as though the character were writing their own biography. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1721) and Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850) are early examples of fictional autobiography. The term may also apply to the works of fiction claiming to be autobiographies of actual characters, e.g. Robert Nye’s Memoirs of Lord Byron (1994). In the autobiography, time and history at first glance, seem supreme. On balance, autobiography is the account of the things that have happened in a person’s life. The experiences of his life were selected and made ready for public utilization and usually written in the first person. It habitually seems that while truth may be divined from one’s own story, sometimes it is not one’s own truth but the truth of a nation, a culture, and a generation.

An autobiographical novel is a method which is using auto fiction techniques or the assimilation of fiction and autobiographical elements. Therefore, the literary technique is differentiated from memoir and an autobiography by the condition of being fiction. Because an autobiographical novel is partially fiction, the author does not ask the reader to expect the text to fulfill the “autobiographical pact”.

In an autobiographical novel name and locations are often changed and events are reconstructed to make them more dramatic but the story still stands a close similarity to that of the author’s life. At the same time as incidents of the author’s life are recounted, there is no pretense of precise truth. Events may be altered or overstated for artistic or thematic reason. As a result the term autobiography novel is difficult to define. Novels which have the portray settings or situations with which the author is familiar are not necessarily autobiographical. Neither are novels that comprise aspects drawn from the author’s life as slight plot details. To be measured an autobiographical by most standards, there should be a protagonist modeled after the author and a central plotline that reflects events in his or her life. Many novels about private experiences, intense are also written as autobiographical novel.

Thus, usually the novelist douses in thoughtful introspection first to find out herself and then to aesthetically broadcast reality to the readers thereby succeeding in creating and defining expressively captivating personages. Even more appealing is the sequence of her women from one stage of development to the other depicting them as cheerful and brave characters. By the way, different autobiographical semblances between the novelists and her creations can always be observed.

It is not easy to turn away from the autobiographical elements so impressively and graphically present in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s writing. She could not enclose within her the strong advise to write about her own struggle with identity first as an emigrant from India, and finally as a citizen in the United States. She writes her works with the various stages of her life as her characters are close projections of herself. In brief her writings symbolize her intelligence of what it means to be a woman writer of Bengali-Indian origin who has lived in America. Divakaruni found it complicated to bind herself as a pioneer of new territories, practices, and literature.

Chitra Banerjee believed that high-quality fiction focuses on the intellectual emotional and physical responses of a group of characters when they are placed in a circumstance not habit to them. She sensed that spiritual violent behaviour left a stronger impact on the mind rather than physical violence on the body. For that reason, her women protagonists are interested in their psychological studies. There is an incessant support in her woman to build up their disjointed life and to express their confirmation to life. True enough, while they try to do so, they come out abnormal in their behaviour but this is only in a proposal to live life on their own conditions. Thus, Divakaruni has skillfully made use of her experiences both in the East as well as the West, united with personal encounters to examine and to portray the life of the women characters objectively.

The hunt for the position in which the self is at home has been one of the most important projects of the modern literature all over the world. A number of books make an effort to map the narratives of ‘home’ in South Asian literature from the move ahead of modernity on the subcontinent of the present day. Their plan is to understand more than the domestic into representations of the home, to look at not only the geographical, but also the psychological and material shades of home. The foremost objective is to disband the perception of home in all its embodiments – as stability, myth, confinement, security, and as desire. Chitra Banerjee’s literary works both challenges or focuses home and her experiences in different situations. It examines that how the awareness of home changes its significations when uttered from different locations, by different subjects and in different languages, paying exacting concentration to ideological determinates such as class and gender.

So, the loss of or the separation to one’s native culture can cause sorrow in a migrant’s life. The psychological alteration is essential to integrate and adopt into a new culture, call into question the idea of a ‘pure identity’. Furthermore the mixture position of a migrant may pretense a risk to one’s identity by questioning the relationship between the ‘place’ and the ‘self’. Run with the challenges of living in two or more cultures encourage the migrant writers to imitate their homeland with their new surroundings and an effort to adapt a new soil. Thus, Divakaruni’s work is a mixture of autobiography and fiction; her stories represent the diverse and mixed perspectives of a migrant’s feelings and thoughts.

Divakaruni develops her own interpretation of Indian customs and history. She portrays a picture of an ambiguous legendary homeland. In her attempt to relate her story, she reveals to the reader the insight of her detachment. The hyphenated status of her identity, Asian-Indian or American prompts her to look into her last part of the hyphen.

Like Divakaruni, many Postcolonial writers are paying attention in challenging the fixed view of the world and its emblazoned meanings. Therefore, truth and authenticity are matched, as a result the migrant writers support multiplicity against the fixity of meaning. They value the freedom to form their own meanings through texts. Originality is viewed by many postmodern writers as an act of authorizing one’s identity. As a consequence, Chitra Banerjee appears closer to her own lost motherland in her short-stories and novels. In her stories she illustrates the separation of incorporated westerners; in her work it can be construed as the renderings of her own perception of India particularly in Calcutta.

Divakaruni’s works are not applicable in the approved definition of autobiography but there are characteristics of it. To understand the traits of autobiography we have to judge her works through the various points of view. We can easily find out the qualities that who she used her personal practices in her works. In order to find out the results we have started from the personal history and later it will carry on with the other points in the course of to prove autobiographical characters in her works like- sense of dislocation, image of immigrant, the issue of 9/11, her concept of India, the impact of her grandfather’s influence, attitude towards religion, the characters in Divakaruni’s works, etc.

The Concept of India-

Even after three decades of assimilation and adaptation, Divakaruni maintains liking for her cultural background. We can easily sense the image of India in her works. During her past 19 years in India she learned a lot about the culture, language, traditions, and rituals of this country. She is very much inspired by all her experiences of her motherland, which we can judge in her writing also. There are so many spots where it is proved that the author wishes to share her knowledge about India with her readers. Her works are not completely autobiographical but there is a depiction of her personal practices. In her works especially Arrange Marriage (1995), Sister of my Heart (1999), Vine of Desire (2002), Mistress of Spices (1997), The Conch Bearer (2003), and The Palace of Illusions (2008); the story line is based on the illustration of India.

Divakaruni was born in a traditional middle class family in Calcutta, India. Growing up in a number of places in India, the author feels a strong acquaintance to the landscape and persons of the subcontinent. Her mother also lived there till she was alive. Divakaruni sees the ethnicities and stories of Bengal as being center to her personality as a writer. Her writing is made more complimentary by the fact that she is exploring the experience of being Indian as well as the citizen of the U.S. In her novel The Sister of my Heart (1999), she presented the picture of a traditional Chatterjee’s family of Calcutta. The novel carries the theme of capturing the dilemmas and opportunities confronting women with one foot in the modern world and the other in traditional Indian society. This novel tells us the story of Anju and Sudha, two young girls raised as sisters in an old conventional family. The story continues between these two sisters in her another novel The Vine of Desire (2002).

Thus, in her few novels she represents the social and cultural changes that the India has undergone. She centers on the incredible power of society or family plus the relations between family members and paying close awareness to the examinations of women covered up by the Indian society.

Born on the same day into a traditional family circle, they have shared a powerful emotional bond since birth. At the center of the book lies the girl’s upper-class and wealthy Indian family, strong-minded to follow time privileged rules of modesty. But as they come of age, their relationship is tested by family secrets, romance, arranged marriage, and finally immigration to America. That’s a subject about which Divakaruni, who was born in Calcutta, writes from her personal experiences. The author says about her work,

The background out of Calcutta comes out of my experience – all of the concerns with the challenges that women face both in India and in America are of course, very close to me. Other than that, the rest of the story is imagined. 4

The book is separated into two divides named after stories the girls used to tell each other, one is “The Princess in the Palace of Snakes” and another is “The Queen of Swords”. Over and over again the events of the book parallel the deeds in these stories. As well mixed in with, these tales are Bengali stories and myths of the God in the Hindu custom. Many of the expectations the Sudha and Anju face in so far as marriage and education are traditional. There are set regulations they must either accept or to take risks for gaining a status. Religious belief, celebrations, and dress are very much a part of Indian tradition and this was explained in detail by the author. She tried to give her readers an actual image of India especially her home town Calcutta. She described about the custom of mansions over there-

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It is every evening on our terrace, its bricks overgrown with moss. A time when the sun hangs low on the horizon, half hidden by the pipal trees which line our compound walls all the way down the long driveway to the bolted wrought-iron gates. Our great grandfather had them planted 100 years ago to keep the women safe from the gaze of strangers. 5

Divakaruni also talked about the duties of daughters, “Good daughters are bright lamps, lighting their mother’s name; wicked daughters are firebrands, scorching their family’s fame” 6. Calcutta is famous for few things like Howrah station, public’s enthusiasm towards movie theaters, and their devotion for Ma Kali (durga puja). Divakaruni touched all these things very well in her storyline. We can sense the excitement on the releasing of a new film,

The new film had taken Calcutta by storm. Everywhere there were billboards, larger and brighter than life, depicting the hero and heroine. She in her exquisite gold-worked dancing skirt and dupatta, the innocent virgin in the midst of a corrupt court.Or weeping in the clutches of the evil nabab as her prince rushes on horseback to her rescue. At school the girls couldn’t stop whispering about how romantic it was, the lovers singing of eternal passion as they sail on a moonlit river.7

The author also quoted a few lines from the popular songs which every paan shop in the city used to play, ‘Chalo dil daar chalo’ and ‘Saari raat chalet chalte’. There is a portrayal of the pleasure when both the girls went to the theater by bunking their classes. Somehow they were frightened but also enjoyed their new experience because that time parents did not allow girls to go the cinema hall. There is a description of an old Indian cinema hall in the story.

The cold-drink vendors with their carts filled with bright-orange Fantas and pale-yellow Juslas, the slabs of ice sweating under jute sacking, have gone home, having sold out everything. But the cold darkness of the cinema is a magic country, no less wonderful than the images glimmering bright as jewels on the screen. Air-conditioned breezes wash over us like a blessing, and the slow whoosh of the ceiling fans is as comforting as a whispered lullaby. 8

If we talk through the autobiographical point of view we can find out that the few characteristics of Anju are very much similar to the writer herself. Anju is fond of books especially in English literature and she wants to study further. She was excited to go to America because she already knew that there she can get a right guidance for her higher studies in English Literature. In the novel Anju says, “It finally seems real that in less than three months – as soon as the summer holidays is over – I’ll start in the English honours program at Lady Brabourne College” 9. She was attracted towards the writing of Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Somehow that’s the same story of Divakaruni’s life also. That’s true that Anju’s life is not as same as Divakaruni’s but through this character we can get a glance or image of Divakaruni’s past life. There is a point of an autobiographical element in the character of Anju because of her habits, desires, and her way of looking towards the things. In her teenage years Anju read books like Anna Karenina, Sons and Lovers, A Room of One’s Own, and Beowulf. She was glad that she did and wants to be a writer. Books are very much close to her. She expresses her views,

Books! I’ll send away for books that are hard to find in this country. Books by writers the nuns mention disapprovingly. Kate Chopin. Sylvia Plath. Books where women do all kinds of crazy, brave, marvelous things. I want the latest novels, to give me a taste of London and New York and Amsterdam. I want books that will spirit me into the cafes and nightclubs of Paris, the plantations of Louisiana, the rain forests of the Amazon and the Australian outback. 10

Except all this, the author mentioned her own awareness of color and taste of India. India is well known for its colorful cloths and variety of food. “Salwaar-Kameezes soft as a bady’s skin, coloured like dawn. Saris made of the finest translucent silk, the kind that can be pulled through a ring. Scarves shimmering like a peacock’s throat” 11. Divakaruni presented a real taste of India in the novel The Mistress of Spices (1997), in which she highlights the heterogeneity of Indian cooking by naming each chapter of the novel after a different spice, e.g. turmeric, cinnamon, fenugreek, fennel, ginger, peppercorn, kalojire, neem, etc.

Divakaruni novel mingles religious superstitions, ancient Hindu mythology, and traditional Ayurvedic medical knowledge with American socio-cultural anxieties of the 1990s. As she explained in an interview, the novel “deal with a past that is set in a mythical India, but the present is very much set in Oakland, California” (Rasiah, 148) 12. The symbolic fantasy and fable represents the magical powers of a spiritualist woman of Indian heritage. Tilottama (Tilo), named after sesame seeds, the spice of nourishment, who runs an Indian grocery store, “Spice Bazaar”, in Oakland. Divakaruni has written about the features of sesame seeds in her novel,

Til is the sesame seed, under the sway of planet Venus, gold-brown as through just touched by flame. The flower of which is so small and straight and pointed that mothers pray for their girl children to have noses shaped like it. Til which ground into paste with sandal wood cures diseases of heart and liver, til which fried in its own oil restores luster when one has lost interest in life. 13

Divakaruni has spiritual skills which help to treat her multi-generational and multiracial shoppers’ emotional, physical, and spiritual illnesses. Her strong point lies in her rhythms and reminiscent descriptions of the magical power of spices and the island culture. She believes that every spice has particular powers and they may help us to come out of different troubles. The author wonderfully described the uses of every spice and its spirituality. Such as,

Turmeric which is also named hauld, meaning yellow, colour of daybreak and conch-shell sound. Turmeric the preserver, keeping foods safe in a land of heat and hunger. Turmeric the auspicious spice, placed on the heads of newborns for luck, sprinkled over coconuts at pujas, rubbed into the borders of wedding saris.

Kalojire, spice of the dark planet Ketu, protector against the evil eye. Spice that is blue, black and glistering like the forest Sundarban where it was first found. Kalojire shaped like a teardrop, smelling raw and wild like tigers, to cover over what fate has written.

Coriander seed, sphere-shaped like the earth, for clearing your sight. When you soak it and drink, the water purges you of old guilts. 14

She was able to deal wonderfully with this kind of description only because of her past skills. She got the sense from her ancestors, her grandmother, and her knowledge towards the Hindu legends where allopathic treatment was not at all approachable only Ayurvedic medical was in practice. They used to believe that every spice has a special power and something magical is there behind all this. Thus, somehow all these are her personal familiarities which she wants to share with her readers. She also gave us the sense of Hindu festivals and nakshatra, when one of a customer of Tilo explains her significance of ekadasi, “Aunty today is ekadasi you know, eleventh day of the moon, and my mother-in-law being a widow must not eat rice”15.

Divakaruni also used a lot of Hindi words in her novel The Mistress of Spices, especially the name of spices and food like – adhrak, dhania, raita, pakoras, gulab-jamuns, akhrot, chandan, ajwain, atta, rawa, papad, chapattis, sabji, kheer, amchur, pulao, rasmalai, tulsi, etc. Except this we can also examine few words which we normally use in our native language (Hindi) such as sindur, bajara, janwaar, keramat, chhodomainu, shikara, sarpakanya, paanparaag, shehnai, khuda-hafiz, and the rest. It shows that how the author is connected towards her own root and she wants to keep these memories safe in her personal as well as professional life. It marks her writing close to autobiography.

Divakaruni upholds the warmth for her cultural milieu, visiting India fairly regularly. Her husband is of South Indian descent and they have two young sons Anand and Adhay.

She says in one of her interviews, “It’s important to maintain a sense of cultural identity. Everyone makes choices of what in their culture is important to them. I do wear Indian clothes, especially when I do formal events, and even when I teach. We go to Chinmaya mission, a big Hindu organization for spiritual values, and our boys go to Sunday school there”. She further says, “The way I grew up, there was a lot of things for them were a lot of respect for people in the family – parents, grandparents. We did a lot for them, and they did a lot for us. I want my boys to grow up with that, not thinking you just take care of yourself and that’s it. It’s a question of balancing what the individual wants and what’s good for the family”. 16

Divakaruni’s few novels are for children as Neela: Victory Song (2006), The Conch Bearer (2005), and The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming (2005). She is turning her awareness to help South Asian American children like her own young boys, to understand about their background or roots. She thinks that South Asian children have very few books that are based on their culture. Thus, it’s so essential for children to see themselves reflected in their literature in a significant way. She wants to give them characters like Neela and Anand, who are brave and strong. One of her characters Anand is on the name of her own child. Through her stories she gave them the sense of freedom fighters’ life during the fight for the freedom of India, the scene of Howrah station, and Himalaya region. She successfully depicted the picture of India in her stories after all she is also a part of it. She says in one of her interviews,

I think I am going back to a very old tradition of literature or art that is supposed to bring out our better selves. Literature therefore becomes an instrument of opening up our spirituality. That is why the ancient epics in India continue to be read, studied, recited, and venerated, in the hope that they will make us into better people. This is generally not the goal of what is being written in contemporary literature. In a strange way, by going back to this very ancient ideal of literature and using it in our writing, we may become very radical. 17

Image of Immigrant-

As a long term denizen of America and also an heir of a Bengali emigrant famil


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