Q&A with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The day I would finally meet one of my favorite authors in person was finally here. Now if only CA-101 would let me reach the place! Bumper to bumper traffic on a Thursday evening, and my toddler wasn’t exactly being co-operative. She was just being her usual toddler self. Cursing under my breath, I drove about 20 miles in 70 minutes, because ‘Before We Visit the Goddess’, we have to go through some hellish traffic 🙂

 But the Gods must have been smiling, because we reached just about the same time as Chitra arrived. She looked elegant in a teal saree with a gold border and as she stood next to a shelf stacked with copies of her latest book, obliging her fans with photos, I noticed her saree matched the book cover. Clever branding, I thought to myself. One of the first questions to be asked was about this coincidence (or was it?). But before Q&A, here’s a little blurb about her latest book – 
‘Before We Visit the Goddess’ is about three generations of mothers and daughters. Sabitri is the daughter of a confectioner born in rural Bengal. She yearns for an education and when a wealthy woman from an influential family in Kolkata takes her under her wing, she is thrilled to be going to college. But one misstep proves costly for Sabitri. After being insulted and thrown out of her benefactor’s house, her life takes an unexpected turn. Intermingled with her life is her daughter, Bela’s. Sabitri eventually goes on to run a highly successful dessert shop in Kolkata. Bela elopes from India to America to marry her boyfriend. She faces a different set of problems while settling in an America which turns out very different from what she had imagined. Bela’s daughter, Tara, who grows up in the US, turns out to be a rebellious, almost agnostic girl who is marred by her parents’ divorce. The author takes us on a riveting spiritual journey through Sabitri, Bela and Tara, across India and America, spanning over 50 years. 
As she read excerpts from her book, cunningly stopping at delicious junctures, we were transported to different places and times within a span of minutes. The imagery she has created with this book is spellbinding. Be it Sabitri’s tryst with destiny in Kolkata, or Tara’s experience with a stuffed raccoon (it’s brilliant, trust me!) or Bela’s experience with a disappearing magician, they’re all equally fascinating.
I tried to note down a few questions and answers from the Q&A session that followed. On second thoughts, I should have just recorded the whole thing. No idea why I didn’t think of it, but I have a few interesting ones. Here we go!
Q1. What came first? The book cover or the saree?
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – The saree! It came 12 years before the book. Coincidentally from the same temple which is mentioned in the book, the Meenakshi temple in Houston. I had it in my closet for years and when my publisher sent me my first copy, I was pleasantly surprised by the coincidence. So I decided to wear it for my book tour. 
Q2. What is your creative process like? Are you a planner or do you work better with a deadline looming ahead?
CBD  – I set some time apart for writing every day. I just show up at my desk at that time and write. 
Q3 –  Do places you have lived in play an important role in your books?
CBD – Yes, I am most comfortable writing about the places I have lived in. The places where you come of age always have a special place in your heart. I grew up in Kolkata and studied and lived in the US. So these places figure in most of my books.
Q4. How did you research for ‘Before We Visit the Goddess’?
CBD – I know my way in and around Kolkata but for Sabitri, I had to research Kolkata from a different time period. Also, Tara works at a thrift store so I spent a lot of time visiting thrift stores. One part needed me to write about the Kolkata nightlife. I visited a lot of “discs” with my cousin, much to my husband’s surprise.
Q5. You have an international audience. How do you stay away from stereotypes when you write?
CBD – When I’m writing, I concentrate on the story more than the audience. I try to stay true to the characters and the story. When I started writing this book, I knew it would be centered around three generations. I usually don’t set borders around the story. The message has to organically develop out of the lives portrayed.
Q6. What was your worst writer’s block like? And how did you overcome it?
CBD – I have writer’s block with every book. Chocolate helps 🙂 I have three methods to overcome my block. First I try to figure out why there is a block. Is it due to a lack of motivation, do I need to reassess the central conflict or do I need more research? I try different scenarios in my notebook. I also tend to think too much at times. I try to go away from the problem to some of the books I love. I also have a shelf of the worst books I’ve come across. I read a bit from one of them and think “If this writer can finish it, I can too!”
It was such a pleasure to meet Chitra. For a bestselling author, she’s incredibly humble! And here’s my prized possession –
My very own signed copy! It’s addressed to my mother and me, because she’s going to (I’m going to make her) read this after me 🙂
Head over to Chitra’s Blog for more about her latest book and some delicious recipes from ‘Before We Visit the Goddess’.

12 thoughts on “Q&A with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

    1. mixedbag Post author

      I remember reading your review of 'The Palace of Illusions'. I'm still reading 'Before we visit the Goddess", but so far it's beautifully written.


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