There is a twinkle in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s eyes as she mulls the question for a moment. "Hmm, that’s a tough one to answer," she says, with a smile, then after a moment’s pause adds, "Often, you love your newborn the most because it’s the newest. So, from among all my books, I guess I have a special love for The Last Queen."
I am on a video call with the India-born, US-based bestselling author whose latest historical novel is zooming up the bestseller charts. (It has also been optioned for a Bollywood movie and an A-list actress could be essaying the lead role, but more about that later.)
Set in the early 19th century, The Last Queen revolves around Jindan Kaur, a Punjabi village girl and daughter of the royal kennel keeper who goes on to become Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s favourite queen and – spoiler alert – regent when her infant son unexpectedly inherits the throne.
Chitra admits that while researching the book during the pandemic was a major challenge, "living" with the character for close to two years and during these trying times is perhaps another reason she has a special love for The Last Queen. "But to answer your question about my favourite from all of my books, it has to be The Forest of Enchantments," says the 60-something author.
Published two years ago, it is a retelling of the Indian epic Ramayana with Sita as the protagonist – a departure from the traditional and more popular versions of the hallowed epic where the hero is her husband Rama. Written in first person, the novel highlights Sita’s joys and sorrows, agonies and ecstasies, strengths and weaknesses while underscoring her definition of love.
"I learnt the most as a human being while examining her story and writing Sita in her own voice," says Chitra, explaining why it is her favourite book. "She taught me that though we can’t always control what happens to us, we can control our reactions. We can choose to live courageously, without compromise."
The multiple award-winning author is convinced that for long has Sita been portrayed as someone who is "meek and mild… someone who just puts up with what happens to her". While Sita has been popularly portrayed as a pleasant but passive character, in truth she was much more than that, Chitra believes. "I began to see her indomitable, quiet strength. Sita is indomitable in a way that we often miss because she’s so quiet about it."
An instant bestseller, the 2019 book elicited rave comments; one reviewer said, "The novel doesn’t only retell Sita’s story but also gives space and time to other women characters the tradition has chosen to overlook."
‘I wanted to become a teacher’
A Professor of Writing at the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program, Chitra, who has some 18 bestselling novels, four collections of poetry and three anthologies to her credit, did not set out to be a writer, wanting instead to follow in the footsteps of her mother, a teacher.
"I have talented students in my class who tell me that from the time they were able to hold a pen, they knew they wanted to be a writer," she says. "But that wasn’t the case with me when I was growing up in India. For the first 20 years of my life, I never wrote anything. I never thought I’d be a writer."
Uncle Sam can perhaps take some credit for triggering in her the desire to write. Barely a few weeks after arriving in the US to study literature, the reality of being an immigrant in an alien country began to overwhelm the Kolkata native. Cut off from her family and friends back in India, she struggled to remain in touch with her loved ones: "It was the ‘70s and there was no internet as such. Phone calls were very expensive and aerogrammes were the only option."
To help come to terms with her state, she began to put down her thoughts on paper – initially, by writing a diary of sorts on what she missed about her home country and what she learnt while growing up there. "Living an immigrant’s life was an extremely powerful and transformative experience for me and I wanted to explore that through writing," she explains.
But it was news of her grandfather’s death that would become a turning point in her life: Devastated that she couldn’t attend his funeral because it was mid-semester "and also I had barely enough money to manage my expenses", she gave vent to her emotions and wrote a poem about him. "And that really started me off," she says.
Soon, more poems flowed from her pen.
If her initial literary attempts may have been in verse, Chitra quickly switched to prose – "I felt it was a better medium" – to give voice to her thoughts and to chronicle and explore the lives of people, and the effect events and circumstance had on individuals’ growth.
The more she wrote, the better she felt accepting the events and changes in her life, so after her formal education, keen to hone her writing skills, she enrolled at a community college – a move that would set her on course to becoming a celebrated author.
A teacher there, delighted by a piece she had written, encouraged Chitra to explore her talent further and offered to put her in touch with a literary agent. The aspiring author agreed and showed her book to the agent, who recognising he had a bestseller on his hands, rushed it to a publisher. The rest, as they say, is history.
Titled Arranged Marriage, the collection of short stories focused on immigrants, particularly women from India, caught between two worlds, and was published to commercial and critical acclaim in 1995, bagging Chitra the American Book Award, a PEN Josephine Miles award, and a Bay Area Book Reviewers’ Award. "That pushed me into a professional writing track," says the author with a smile, gently flicking a few strands of hair away from her face.
More books followed at roughly two-year intervals – The Mistress of Spices (1997), Sister of My Heart (1999), the Unknown Errors of our Lives (2001)…
How did being an immigrant impact her work and style? I ask.
"It was an advantage," says the mother of two. "You see things as an outsider. And when you see things as an outsider, you don’t take anything for granted. You question everything. So I approached life around me in that observant and questioning way."
‘Women have to be extra perfect’
A series of short stories on immigrant lives later, Chitra, set on exploring new literary fields, began thinking about "what I was fascinated by since I was a child". Again, the first image that came to her mind was of her grandfather, an amazing raconteur of tales from the Indian epics. "While growing up in Kolkata, my cousins and I would spend most vacation evenings listening to his stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana," she recalls.
The love for epics and legends endured and while rereading them as a grown-up she discovered that although they were populated by amazing women characters, they were all pushed to the edges of the narrative. "We see what happens to them, sometimes hear a few words from them, [but] never get to know their minds. They are always the ‘victims’ of circumstance," she says, using her index and second fingers to draw quote marks in the air.
Deep inside, though, Chitra was sure the female characters were strong, powerful and complex, and wondered about the invisible stories of the women in epics. "I was fascinated first of Draupadi," she says, with a smile before quickly clarifying, ‘no, actually I was fascinated by Sita even earlier, but was too afraid to handle her story. I was like ‘wow, I don’t think I’m ready for that’."
Once she decided on Draupadi, Chitra immersed herself into the epics discovering there was the opportunity to "learn from the silent and invisible lives of the women". The result would be two bestselling novels – Palace of Illusions and Forest of Enchantments.
"The story we have been given of these women are largely patriarchal and that’s not the truth," says the author, her voice soft but firm. "There are versions of the Ramayana where Sita plays a more active role but they are not popular."
Chitra’s enterprise was to bring back the less popular version of the story in all its complexities, to show the power of women complete with their humanness, pain and frailties. "The wonderful magic of the Indian way is that we have multiple and complex stories [and versions]. So when we say there is only one truth or version, we are actually shortchanging ourselves."
Was it easy to write about popular characters, warts and all?
Characters in the epics and in history, like regular people, have strengths and weaknesses, frailties and robustness, says Chitra, adding, there is an extra burden placed on women. "Women have to be extra perfect if they are to be admired. Their frailties are pointed to more severely and are punished for them. [But] why should women be expected to be beyond human? From characters like Draupadi to Maharani Jindan, all have admirable qualities and frailties, and it’s okay for us to be imperfect. Humans are."
The Last Queen’s quality
So, what according to her was Maharani Jindan’s one quality that helped her gain such immense power and position at the time?
"She would never give up," says the author, whose earlier work was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. "And truly that is what led her through her entire life.
"Imagine, she started her life as a daughter of a kennel keeper but falls in love with Maharaja Ranjit Singh. She also does not hesitate to open her heart to tell him how much she loves him – proof she is truly amazing and different."
Chitra mentions another instance to underscore Jindan’s never-say-die attitude: "Even when she is imprisoned in a highly guarded fort, she refuses to quit saying instead ‘I’m going to get out from here or die trying’. I truly admire that quality of hers."
Working on The Last Queen was a challenge, particularly because of the pandemic, she admits.
‘[Narrative history] was a new field for me, so it was at once challenging and exciting. I had to do a lot of research as I wanted the novel to be as authentic as I could make it." While she acquired all the research material she needed before the lockdown kicked in in the US, she also spent long hours on the internet researching the places – Lahore, Kolkata, Nepal and London – that were important in the queen’s life. "Since travel was impossible, I examined in detail paintings and photographs that were available on the internet, including portraits of Maharani Jindan and the people who touched her life."
Part of her research also included reading up on Sikh history, watching movies such as The Black Prince (about Maharaja Dalip Singh in England) to get a feel of the times and the lifestyle, and studying maps of India and the plan of Lahore Qila.
I point out that quite like a few of her previous books, The Last Queen too is told in first person. Is that her favourite form of narrative?
"Yes," she admits, her eyes lighting up. "If there is a very strong woman protagonist, I’m inclined towards first person so I can explore the psyche of that character."
A passionate advocate for the rights of women, particularly those who are marginalized, Chitra stresses that she is interested in capturing "the nuance of voices, particularly voices of women who have traditionally been pushed to the edges or even forgotten. I want to explore their thoughts and motives and develop their characters by giving them their own voice."
From fiction to mythology, fantasy to history, Chitra has produced bestsellers in all these genres. Is it easy to shift from one genre to the other?
"Oh no," she says, with a smile. "It is quite challenging. Each requires a unique style." She explains how she had to rewrite the first few chapters of The Last Queen several times to capture the ambience of the Lahore Court, the Sikh culture and the tone of Jindan’s voice. "But having done it once, I’m eager to write another historical novel. It is very exciting, especially when I am able to bring to the reader’s attention the important facts that have been forgotten."
With The Last Queen having been optioned for a movie, who would she prefer to essay the lead role?
"I’m really very open to the director’s choice of heroine, though I think Deepika Padukone would make a strong Maharani Jindan."
Not one to rest between books, Chitra is already busy with her next novel that is set around India’s independence. "It seems the right follow-up to The Last Queen. In The Last Queen, Maharani Jindan’s kingdom is taken away from her, tragically and unfairly, by the British. In my next novel, Indians will fight the British, make huge sacrifices, and get their country back."
Partisan politics is what led to the downfall of the Punjab kings/queens. Do you think there is a lesson here for us today? I ask the noted author.
"Absolutely," says Chitra. "The lesson is: if Indians cannot forget their religious, ideological and political differences and come together as a country, their strength will be undermined, and there is a very good chance that outside forces will take advantage of it. It happened during the British occupation, over and over. I pray it will not happen again."
As we come to the end of the interview, I ask her if she has visited the UAE.
"No, not yet," she says, "but I’m looking forward to visiting the UAE. I’ve heard of the huge mix of different nationalities who live together in peace there and I think that is the best thing. Imagine a world where all of us will be able to live like this – in peace and in friendship, learning from each other. Not that we have to agree with each about everything, but we have to coexist happily and respectfully."
Like John Lennon’s song? I ask.
"Oh yes," she says, breaking out into a smile. "Imagine… that’s my favourite."