David Hall hosted the Indian-American author, Chitra Banerjee Divakruni, on Feb 12, 2013. She gave two readings from her works. The first from her retelling of the Mahabharata, The Palace of Illusions, speaks of the trembling in her heart as Draupadi goes to face the swayamvara, escorted by her twin brother, Dhristadyumna.
Chita Banaerjee Divakaruni, reading from 'The Palace of Illusions'
In the second reading from a recent novel, One Amazing Thing, Chitra Banerjee Divakruni deals with seven characters isolated in a building by an earthquake. The title has to do with the characters breaking the ice by narrating the one unbelievable event that has taken place in their lives that they’ve not told anyone about.
The audience for Chita Banaerjee Divakaruni's reading
Introducing the session was a mime by Bharatnatyam dancer Dr. Mini Vettickal. Her marvellous interpretation of a poem, The River, by Chitra Banerjee Divakruni was enacted with great spirit, exploiting all the resources of Abhinaya. We hope to see more of this fine dancer on the stage in Kochi.
Mini Vettickal 'performing' the poem 'The River'
Please click below to read more.
Fort Kochi received a visit and a reading at David Hall (DH) by author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (CBD). Her husband Murthy and friends were holding a reunion of their institute, The Regional Engineering College in Trichy, at a resort in Alapuzha. CBD was persuaded by Mathew Antony, her husband’s classmate, to read for a Kerala audience. Courtesy of Jose Dominic, CEO of CGH Earth, CBD was invited to give the reading at DH. His daughter, Mridula, VP of the company, made fine arrangements for the occasion in the gardens of DH, and the publicity attracted a fair crowd of interested readers.
Chitra Banerjee Divakruni and KumKum
Bharati Malani, visiting from Pune, in the backgound
Bharati Malani, visiting from Pune, in the backgound
To inaugurate the session the dancer, Dr. Mini Vettickal, mimed a performance of CBD’s poem River, in Bharatnatyam style. The poem appears in the collection Leaving Yuba City, and begins with these words:
I lie on the grass and listen
to the river inside me.
Bharatnatyam dancer Dr. Mini Vettickal who 'performed' the poem 'The River'
The dancer had read the poem and framed her own mental image of it. The symbolism of a woman waiting for her martial husband to return from war animated her interpretation; the woman awaits him by a window looking out of the house, and hears the sound of a chariot approaching, and prepares to welcome him. She performs an elaborate toilette and adorns herself with ornaments, but alas, it is a false alarm. The poem is her reaction to this event; it was acted and danced with great emphasis on Abhinaya. Her stunning eyes and wonderfully lithe body ‘spoke’ the words with greater urgency than the poem! The river is the river of emotions within us, explained CBD. The classical figurations brought life to the Shabdam, which was the poem itself recited in synchrony with the dance. The short recital won applause. It set the expectant mood for the rest of the event.
Mini Vettickal 'performing' the poem 'The River'
It was CBD’s first visit to Kerala, a great pleasure for her. She read from two of her books, The Palace of Illusions (POI), and One Amazing Thing (OAT).
The Palace of Illusions
POI is a retelling of the Mahabharata from the viewpoint of one woman, Draupadi; it is an attempt to project the story from the woman’s viewpoint, and emphasises the strong women in the story. CBD read from the swayamvara in which Draupadi (or Panchaali as she prefers to call herself to recognise her lineage from the kingdom of Panchal) is to select her husband by a test in which the great princes will take part.
Chita Banaerjee Divakaruni makes a point
She wonders if Karna, the great warrior will be there.. The Pandavas, she sees are not there. The reading began thus:
“Coiled on the silver tray like a white snake, the wedding garland was a thick as my forearm. I regarded it warily as though it might at any moment decide to strike. … The contest had begun.”
See the complete reading below.
Karna will be stopped and Panchaali's destined fate will take its course.
One Amazing Thing
This is the story of seven people who visit an office in India. An earthquake strikes and they are trapped within the office and soon discover that there is no way out of the collapsed building; they are uninjured. Confined in a limited space the people get on each other’s nerves and begin quarrelling. One of them has the leadership quality to sense that if things are left to chance it will get worse and they will destroy themselves. She proposes that each should tell one amazing thing that happened to them in life; for, surely each one has something they have not told anyone else, but is of great significance and wonder to themselves. The others think it’s a bad idea, but relent and so a session of story-telling starts, which has the remarkable effect of calming the seven victims and getting them to listen to each other and cooperate. They begin to learn; from being strangers, they are transformed into a community. CBD said, smiling, that they band together because of the stories.
Talitha, & Lieselotte Stiegler, who recited 'Im Schattend' at KRG
The poet, Tom Duddy, who recited 'To His Coy Mistress' by Andrew Marvell
Here's how the reading from Chapter 1 begins:
“A rumble rose through the floor. … The giant took the building in both his arms and crushed it … .” For the complete reading, see below.
Questions & Answers
When someone asked what is her one amazing thing, CBD gave a short account of a trip to Amarnath in J&K on a pilgrimage to the Shiv lingam cave. On the way back a heavy rain washed out the path and caused a crevasse to appear; she despaired how to get across when a senior man who looked like a fakir asked why she was crying. He said he might be able to help. With his long staff he leapt across the dangerous crevasse and held out the staff to her, so she too could follow and get across. When she was safe on the other side, she asked where the man lived and he replied it was just round the mountain on the other side. Next morning when she told her mother about it, it was clear they had to go and make an offering to the kind man who had helped CBD. But when they went around the mountain to look, they could find no one, no tent, no dwelling!
Daughter, Rachel, and grandson, Gael, in the gardens of David Hall
CBD invited questions but asked that they be kept simple so she could provide brilliant answers. Mathew got up and said he would moderate the remainder of the session, and pointing to his ample girth, demonstrated his moderation in everything.
KumKum asked if The Conch Bearer (Shanka Bahak in Bengali) was meant for young adults, as it was a tale of magical happenings. Yes, said CBD. She wanted to propagate the tales of India to young people abroad. KumKum further asked what is the purpose of this tale. CBD answered that that the purpose is to convey to the young that we live in a wonderful magical environment, if only we observe, listen and let our imagination go. We are all close to the magical world and don’t realise it.
Zakia and KumKum of KRG with two neighbours of Zakia's
Women are important in CBD’s novels, and she searches for the strong elements in a story that involves women. To a question whether there is an autobiographical element in her novels, CBD answered that she tries to keep herself out of the novels she writes. It’s fiction.
Joe referred to a quote by the sage Vyasa in which he tells Panchaali, “You will be loved, though you will not always recognise who loves you.” Isn’t that a tragedy, he asked? CBD elaborated that yes, indeed, as the story unfolds Panchaali does not realise until the end of her life who loved her the most. It’s Karna, but she and he are righteous and will not swerve from the path of their duties, however strong the allure.
Mini Vettickal 'performing' the poem 'The River'
Mathew commented that POI is a book of values; it is the love story of Draupadi (Panchaali) and Karna. CBD noted that as in the case of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata too has different versions in different regions of India, and it was in the version of Kashi Ram Das in Bengali that she found the attraction between these two characters brought out. How they feel about each other is there, below the surface. Perhaps in modern times Panchaali would have surrendered to this illicit attraction, but this is the Mahabharata and she is a heroine, so the emotion is sublimated into something more refined.
To Talitha’s question about the motivation for writing the POI, and what influenced her, CBD replied that she was always intrigued by the women’s portrayals in epics; they left her unsatisfied. “It wasn’t as though the epic didn’t have powerful, complex women characters who affected the action in major ways, … Kunti, … Gandhari, … and most of all, Panchaali. … But in some way they remained shadowy figures, … their roles subservient to the roles of their fathers or husbands, brothers or sons.”
She remembers thinking that she would “place the women in the forefront of the action” and “uncover the story that lay invisible between the lines of the men’s exploits.” In the traditional epic there is no real depiction of Panchaali’s feelings when she is disrobed, or at the end, when all her children are murdered. The immense cost of war to women is not there, and even after 5,000 years there is still no end of war. Perhaps, it is true as Mr. Obama expressed in his Nobel "Peace" Prize speech that "War is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings."
CBD went on to say she was greatly influenced by Rabindranath Tagore in this regard, for he had an intuitive understanding of women, and they figure prominently in his short stories, and in novels such as Ghare Bhaire. Writers in America who have influenced her include, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Anita Desai, Bharati Mukherjee and others. To another question about how readers react, CBD expressed her gratitude to the mass of intelligent and thoughtful readers who have supported her writing.
Anjali Kurien wanted to know if like herself, CBD who left Kolkata, still yearns for that city. CBD said very much so; she wrote in order to remember, and not forget her time growing up in Kolkata. It was in the 1970s she moved to America. “Imagination made me into a writer,” she said. CBD believes woman is Shakti; given a little support, it will blossom.
Priya asked a question about cultural intolerance, much in evidence in India of late. CBD said writers are creators, each with their vision. They should be allowed the space to create. If they are not given that space to allow their interpretations to be shared, society will be poorer, and literature will be impoverished. It is a two-way street, for it is only when the reader reacts in the mental dialogue with the author while reading, that something is created in the mind.
Resina Verghese asked if there is symbolism in CBD’s work. Very much so, was the answer. There is a story on one level, and it stands for something on another level. Authors are seldom didactic; the message they seek to give, if there be one, is not necessarily found in the mouths of the characters, but by standing back and looking at what they stand for. The sensitive reader will perceive and appreciate that.
Prakash asked how important it is in her historical fiction to stay close to the original facts. CBD said it was obligatory on the part of an author who is writing a fictional story set in a distant period to undertake a lot of research in libraries. By talking to people who specialise in the history of a period, it is possible to understand the era, and make the period come alive.
For example, her young readers’ book Neela: Victory Song narrates a period in India’s Independence struggle that is set in the 1930s. Children played a large part, and it is forgotten now. The language should go along with the epoch that is being recounted. The language should be contemporary, but on the other hand slang that is obviously modern would jar in a novel set a hundred years ago or more.
I lie on the grass and listen
to the river inside me. It
pulses and churns, surges up
against the clenched rock
of my heart
until finally it spurts from my head
in a dark jet. Behind,
the clouds swoop and dive
on paper wings, the palace walls
grow taller, brick by brick, till they rise beyond
the painting's edge. The river
is deep now and still, an opaque lake
filled with blue fish. But look,
the ground tilts, the green touch-me-not plants
angle away from my body. I am falling.
The lake cups its liquid fingers for me,
the fish glint like light on ice. Evening. The river pebbles
are newborn pearls. The water rises.
I am disappearing, my body
rippling into circles. Legs, waist,
armpits. My hair floats upward, a skein
of melting silk. I give
my face to the river, the lines
of my forehead, my palms. When the last cell
has dissolved, the last cry
of the lake-birds, I will, once more,
hear the river inside.
The Palace of Illusions — Reading from the Swayamvara chapter
Coiled on the silver tray like a white snake, the wedding garland was as thick as my forearm. I regarded it warily as though it might, at any moment, decide to strike. –
“What's wrong now?” Dhai Ma said. “Why is your face like a blackened pot?”
“It’s too heavy,” I said. I imagined placing it around a ncek. I could clearly see the corded, straining muscles, though the rest of the face was frustratingly blank.
“Ridiculous!” Dhai Ma said. “If he's a true hero, he’ll be able to bear its weight.
“And yours, too,” she added with a wink.
Attendants buzzed around me. A little more lotus pollen to burnish the bride's cheeks; the end of the wedding sari, white and gold, arranged cleverly to accentuate the swell of her breast while creating a virginal effect. An old woman rubbed paste of sandalwood on my navel with a sly smile. Bangles, waistband, anklets, a jewelled nose ring so massive it had to be held up by a chain attached to my hairdo.
“I feel like I'm in battle armor," l told Dhai Ma.
“You are,” she said. Enough dillydallying, now! Your royal brother’s about to wear out the corridor with his pacing.”
Dhri was waiting outside my rooms to walk me to the wedding hall. where the kings had already gathered. He looked severe I his ceremonial silks. I noticed the scabbard on his hip, carved with ceremonial beasts.
“Why the sword?” I asked
Dhai Ma said, “What a question! Don’t you know it’s the brother’s sacred duty to protect his sister’s virtue? He’ll have hsihands full today, with all those dirty old men drooling over you.”
“Your vulgarity never ceases to amaze me,” Dhri told her. She laughed and gave him a cuff on the ears, and then hurried off to bully her way inot the best seat in the royal attendants’ area.
But I knew the real reason for the sword. He expected trouble.
. . .
I heard it under the bluster and the music, the announcement of the newly arrived: neighs, trumpetings, the clink of weaponry.
Dhri said, “The kings have brought their warriors. They’re lined up outside. But don’t worry. The entire Panchal army, too, is armed and ready.
“Thank you for letting them know,” I said. “Now I feel completely calm.”
“Did anyone ever inform you,” he said, “that sarcasm is unbecoming in brides?”
When I stepped inot the wedding hall there was complete, immediate silence. As though I were a sword that had severed each vocal chord simultaneously. Behind my veil I smiled grimly. Savor this moment of power, I told myself. It may be your only one.
. . .
First Dhri showed me the kings who had only come to watch, the ones I didn’t have to fear.
There he was, my friend, my exasperation, conversing with his brother as though he were at a country fair. The jaunty peacock feather on his crown dipped as he raised his hand in a gesture that could be a benediction or a careless hello.
Across the hall the spectators were grouped according to caste. The vaishya sector was marked by a banner depicted with a merchant ship. The sudra banner depicted farmers harvesting wheat. The brahmins had the best seats, up front, with fat tasselled bolsters to lean on. Their banner, a priest making a ﬁre offering, was made of white silk.
Now Dhri pointed out the important suitors. I tried to match them to their portraits, but they seemed older, heavier, their features ﬂattened by age and perhaps anxiety. To lose in front of this great assembly—even though all but one of them must — would be such a public dishonor. Its sourness would ﬂood the mouth for years. By my brother’s rust-edged tone, I knew the ones who were most dangerous — not because they might win, but because fo what they might do when they lost.
“Ariun?" I ﬁnally asked.
I marveled at how he’d learned to make his voice expression-less. He went on to name other names. When he stopped, “ls that all?"
He understood the question beneath the question. His eyes showed his displeasure. “Karna has come.”
Dhri didn't ' point him out but l found him. Next to Duryodhan, half hidden behind a marble pillar. My heart beat so hard I was sure Dhri would hear. l longed to look into Karna’s face, to see if those eyes were indeed as sad as the artist had portrayed, but even I how improper that would be. I focused instead on his hands, the wrists disdainfully bare of ornaments, the powerful, battered knuckles. If my brother had known how badly I wanted to touch them, he would have been furious. Duryodhan made a comment — probably about me — and his companions slapped their knees and guffawed. Karna alone (I noted with gratitude) sat still as a flame. Only the slightest thinning of his lips indicated his disapproval, but it was enough to silence Duryodhan.
Dhri was calling me to the dais, his voice so sharp that his attendants stared in surprise. I went but all the way loyalty and desire duelled inside me. If Arjun wasn’t here, what right did Krishna and Dhri have to insist that I not choose Karna?
A trumpet sounded. The contest had begun.
One Amazing Thing — Reading from Chapter 1
The phone gave a small burp against her ear. But before she could check if it was working, the rumble rose through the floor. This time there was no mistaking its intention. It was as though a giant had placed his mouth against the building’s foundations and roared. The floor buckled, throwing Uma to the ground. The giant took the building in both his hands and shook it. A chair flew across the room at Uma. She raised her left arm to shield herself. The chair crashed into her wrist and a pain worse than anything she had known surged through her arm. People were screaming. Feet ran by her, then ran back again. She tried to
wedge herself beneath one of the chairs, as she had been taught long ago in grade school, but only her head and shoulders would fit. The cell-phone was still in her other hand, pressed against her ear. Was that Ramon’s voice asking her to leave a message, or was it just her need to hear him?
Above her the ceiling collapsed in an explosion of plaster. Beams broke apart with the sound of gigantic bones snapping. A light fixture shattered. For a moment, before the electricity failed, she saw the glowing filaments of the naked bulb. Rubble fell through the blackness, burying her legs. Her arm was on fire. She cradled it against her chest. (A useless gesture, when she would probably die in the next minutes.) Was that the sound of running water? Was the basement they were in flooding? She thought she heard a beep, the machine ready to record her voice. Ramon, she cried, her mouth full of dust. She thought of his long, meticulous fingers, how they could fix anything she broke. She thought of the small red moles on his chest, just above the left nipple. She wanted to say something important and consoling, something for him remember her by. But she could think of nothing, and then her phone went dead.