The first book I ever read of Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee was The Mistress of Spices, much before it was made into a movie. I came across it at the local library and the title had intrigued me immediately. If The Mistress of Spices started my journey into her works, the one that captivated me was The Palace of Illusions, her take on The Mahabharata and of course, in it, the character of Draupadi.
Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 was to have the launch/release of The Forest of Enchantments, her latest offering. DDS was trying to get her hands on a copy of that. My OCD has so far prevented me from procuring it. I had met the author earlier though, when she had come to Bangalore for one of the literature festivals. She had held her audience (me among them) captive that day, and she repeated that at JLF2019 too.
Our interaction with her after the book launch was good. Others were waiting to interact with her too, so we kind of rushed it slightly, but the author answered our queries crisply and without hesitation. We asked her about her thoughts on the strength of women, on writing from the POV of famous women from the epics, on the mystical elements in her books, and on the challenges of redefining epics. The interaction, as transcripted by the bookish twin, is below:
On the Strength of Women:
Women can be strong in many ways. For instance, Sita in The Forest of Enchantments has a quiet strength that adapts to the situation around her. She doesn’t fight unnecessarily or go headlong at her problems, but she works a way around them. I think that’s a good quality for women to have when they want to be strong and effective in the world.
On writing from the POV of the most famous women of the epics:
I feel compelled to write about women like Sita and Draupadi because I feel that they have been misunderstood and misrepresented in the talks about the epics down the age. Not in the epics themselves, but the popular retellings show them as either too meek or too aggressive. What I feel they are is that they are strong and they are themselves. They give so many opportunities for women today to also be strong.
On the Mystical Elements in her books:
I have always believed that this world has a whole mysterious level to it. Mysterious / Mystical /Magical… and I am attracted stories that bring that out. So, be it ‘Queen of Dreams’ or ‘Mistress of Spices’ or the retellings of the great epics in ‘Palace of Illusions’ and ‘The Forest of Enchantments’, I am very interested in being enchanted.
On challenges of redefining epics & Bringing the Surreal elements in modern scenarios:
Each one is challenging in a whole different way. When I am creating a whole new story of my own, I have to think about the plot and I have to think about how the magic is going to come into that world. When I retelling the epics, I am delighting because I already have a story and I know the magical elements in it. The challenge there is telling it in a new way; in a way appropriate for our age and our readers right now.
It was a wonderful experience interviewing one of our favorite authors together. I hope to procure The Forest of Enchantments soon and read that too. Thanks again to JLF and Teamwork Arts for the opportunity!