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chitra banerjee divakaruni   Dissolving Boundaries  
 
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  It was Memorial Day, 1994. I waved good-bye to my two year old son and his grandma as my husband pulled our car out of the driveway, tires squealing. "I'll be back in a few days," I called out to my son, "with a brand new baby brother for you." As our car sped onto the freeway, I tried to reassure my nervous husband, telling him the pains weren't too bad, and that everyone said the second time around was much easier. I had no premonitions at all.

I didn't know that a normal delivery would not be possible for me. That the ensuing Caesarean surgery would go wrong in every way. That I would end up having to remain in the hospital for over a month, unable to take care of my newborn. I didn't know that I would balance precariously for weeks on the frail and perilous boundary between living and dying.

That encounter with death affected me deeply, though not in the ways one might expect. I went through no dark tunnel, saw no bright lights. I did not rise out of my body and see it lying below. Mostly I stumbled through a grey fog of pain, made foggier by medication. I alternated between anger (why should I have to suffer like this) and worry (what would happen to my children). But at times I would feel a strange, lightheaded sense of peace, of emptiness, in the way Buddhists use the term. I felt as though I floated between states of life and death, and that it didn't matter which side I landed on. Because the boundary we humans had drawn between these two states was not as important, nor as irrevocable, as we believed.

I mused a lot about boundaries as I lay in bed recovering over the next few months, learning to live again. And it seemed to me, in some wordless way, that the art of dissolving boundaries is what living is all about. I ached to give this discovery a voice and a form. But I didn't know how until Tilo, my heroine, the Mistress of Spices, came to me.

I wrote the book urgently--almost breathlessly. Having been so close to death, I could no longer take even a single day for granted. Stylistically the book was completely different from my last work of fiction, Arranged Marriage, for the first separation I felt I needed to remove was that between poetry and prose. I had to give Tilo the lyricism she demanded. It was a book full of risks for me. I ventured into paths I hadn't traveled before, breaking ethnic barriers, showing people of different races at war and in love. I dipped into the language and imagery of my childhood, the tales I grew up on, and alternated them with slang from Oakland's inner-city streets. And I wrote in a spirit of play, collapsing the divisions between the realistic world of twentieth century America and the timeless one of myth and magic in my attempt to create a modern fable.

For me, Tilo became the quintessential dissolver of boundaries, moving between different ages and worlds and the communities that people them, passing through a trial by water, then a trial by fire, and finally the trial of earth-burial to emerge transformed, each time with a new name and a new identity. Reading passages aloud, as I often do when I am revising, I was surprised to find--how much I identified with her. But looking back I see that it is not so surprising after all. I too have lived in the diametrically opposed worlds of India and America. I too have taken on a new identity in a new land. And I too, in my quiet way, have visited that emptiness, at once vast and minute, that shimmers between life and death.

 
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Copyright © 1997 Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.