Q: In THE VINE OF DESIRE, Sudha and Anju, the India-born heroines of your second novel, SISTER OF MY HEART, are reunited in San Francisco. American society offers opportunity as well as confusion and pain to both women, and soon the foundation of their long-standing friendship is shaken in complex and perhaps irreversible ways. Is their experience a parable for the pitfalls and promise inherent in the immigrant experience for Indian women?
A: It is and it isn’t. What happens to the two cousins is individual to their particular situation, of course, and influenced by their pasts, their personalities, and the tension in their household, where Anju’s husband is secretly in love with Sudha. But the ways in which they experience America—Anju finding a space for growth through returning to college and Sudha feeling frustrated because the opportunities of America seem out of her reach—are certainly similar to the experience of many immigrants.
Q: What was it like to revisit the story of Anju and Sudha? Did you find writing a sequel different from writing a “stand alone” novel?
A: Because I came back to it after some years, I found The Vine of Desire a very different story. I had changed—and so had the characters. We’d all been influenced by what had happened in our lives! So this is a very different kind of book, I feel, in texture and tone. For one thing, the narrative technique is different. There are two male narrators here; part of the book is formed out of the college assignments Anju is writing. Part is dictated onto a cassette by her husband Sunil. Sudha’s voice has changed, too—grown at once more fragmented and more introspective, as a result of the traumas she has undergone. There is also an omniscient narrative voice. Much of the challenge in writing this novel was to make it a complete whole in itself as well as a continuation of an earlier story.
Q: Many of your readers have asked if you will write another book about Tilo, the beloved heroine of THE MISTRESS OF SPICES. Will you write about her again?
A: I do love Tilo! Who knows? Maybe she’ll come back to me again, and we’ll have another adventure together!
Q: You’ve lived in the United States for more than twenty years. What parts of your Indian heritage do you actively preserve? Are there traditions that you've purposefully discarded? What effect, if any, do the kept and lost customs have on your writing process?
A: The Indian notion of the importance of family has grown more dear to me as I’ve lived in America—perhaps because here I have to make a greater effort to stay in touch with family and interact with them in meaningful ways. But it has also made me realize that I have many families, not just my biological/marital one. The volunteers I work with at Maitri, the hotline for South Asian women in distress, form one of my families. The members of the Chinmaya Mission, the spiritual/cultural organization I also volunteer with, are a significant and loving family for me. I have a family of close women friends. I think living in America has given me this expanded notion of family. On the other hand, I’ve given up a lot of traditional notions about the place of the woman in the home, and what is not okay for her to do. I really believe in women making their own choices, standing up for their own beliefs, fighting for them when they have to. And this has certainly influenced my writing.
Q: You’ve mentioned influences on your work as diverse as Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Raymond Carver, and contemporaries Bharati Mukherjee and Anita Desai. If someone were to take THE VINE OF DESIRE on vacation to read and wanted a book to read immediately afterward as a “companion piece,” what book would you suggest and why?
A: I think a good companion piece would be Cristina García’s The Agüero Sisters. It’s a very different book, but also about sisterhood, desire, and balancing passion with virtue. It’s a wonderfully written book, magical in nature, one of my favorites.
Q: What are you working on now? Eager readers want to know!
A: I’m working on two book ideas side by side, a novel and a nonfiction book. I don’t want to say too much—that dissipates the energy that needs to go into the writing. But I do want to say that I’m very excited about both of them. Some of the themes they deal with are memory, magic, and dreams.