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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni feature on Bold Type, Random House's online literary magazine

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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Readers' Group Companion

Sister of My Heart

Anchor/Doubleday hardcover, ISBN 0-385-48950-1, $23.95 US/$32.95 CAN

 
The Mistress of Spices

Anchor/Doubleday trade paperback, ISBN 0-385-48238-8, $12.00 US/$16.95 CAN

Anchor/Doubleday hardcover, ISBN 0-385-48237-X, $22.95 US/$31.95 CAN

 
Arranged Marriage

Anchor/Doubleday trade paperback, ISBN 0-385-48350-3, $11.00 US/$14.95 CAN

Anchor/Doubleday hardcover, ISBN 0-385-47558-6, $22.00 US/$29.95 CAN

 
Leaving Yuba City: Poems

Anchor/Doubleday trade paperback, ISBN 0-385-48854-4, $12.95 US/$17.95 CAN

 

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Readers' Group Companion © 1997, 1999 by Anchor Doubleday.


Contents:

1. The Author and Her Work
2. Questions for Discussion

3. Recommended Reading

 
The Author and Her Work

"My writing reflects my poetry....I am always conscious of rhythms."
-- Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni on her work

With her writing, whether in a novel, short story, or poem, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni casts a spell. Her words flow swiftly, sweeping readers along; at times they whisper softly, tempting, at others they thunder emphatically, daring. Throughout her work, Divakaruni uses her chameleon-like voice and mastery of rhythm to create unforgettable characters and weave stories that are both exotic and familiar, at once fresh and universal.

"There is a certain spirituality, not necessarily religious -- the essence of spirituality -- that is at the heart of the Indian psyche, that finds the divine in everything . . . . It was important for me to start writing about my own reality and that of my community."
-- The author on being Indian

Divakaruni, a devout Hindu, attended a convent school in India run by Irish nuns before she came to the United States in 1976. Most of Sister Of My Heart takes place in Calcutta, while in The Mistress of Spices and in her collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage, Chitra explores the immigrant experience through Indian women in American cities.

Whether set in India or America, Divakaruni's plots feature Indian-born women torn between old and new world values. She gives uses her laser-like insight and skilled use of story, plot, and lyrical description to give readers a many-layered look at her characters and their respective worlds, which are filled with fear, hope, and discovery. Whether in California, Chicago, or Calcutta, women learn to adapt to their new and changing culture and, as a result, discover their own sense of self amidst joy and heartbreak.

"I'll share a secret with you. It's always like hanging at the edge of a cliff."
-- The author on combining writing, teaching, marriage, and raising children

Divakaruni did not write fiction until she finished her doctoral studies in English at the University of California at Berkeley. In speaking of her path to fiction writing, she notes that academic writing didn't "...[T]ouch my heart. It had nothing to do with my real life as an immigrant woman in America."

Unlike many of her heroines in Arranged Marriage, she chose her own husband, and she praises his support for the work she does. They have two children.


About Sister of My Heart:

In Sister of My Heart, Divakaruni tells the moving story of two cousins, Sudha and Anju Chaterjee. Born twelve hours apart in the same house, the women consider themselves twins and from a very early age exact everything they need from life--love, respect, council, and friendship--from each other. Together they experience the joys, pains, mystical tales, and tiresome tasks that accompany growing up in a traditional Indian house in Calcutta. Their exceptional bond remains the core of the novel and throughout the work we are acutely aware of how strongly their affection for each other shapes their lives.

An intensely rich and complex novel, Sister of My Heart is a virtual tapestry of plots. The underlying tension between the desires of the mothers, who embrace traditional Indian culture, and those of the cousins, who are more enticed by Western philosophies, is central to the evolution of the work. But a greater darkness penetrates the Chaterjee household. The disturbing truth about the circumstances under which Sudha and Anju were born secretly tortures Sudha and weaves a menacing thread through the friendship. And, when the cousins fall in love and are physically separated by arranged marriages their uncommon bond faces its hardest test. As the novel evolves we follow the women through their lives, experiencing their jealousy, loss, depression, surprise and prolonged separation and find that these battles and triumphs hold a universal thread with which women of many cultures can easily identify. In the end, the strength of their friendship prevails and the novel culminates in an emotional reunion, one filled not only with intense joy but also with lingering uncertainty.

Just published, Sister of My Heart is already garnering praise from reviewers and readers.


About The Mistress of Spices:

In The Mistress of Spices, Divakaruni tells the story of Tilo, named for the sun-burnished sesame seed, the spice of nourishment. A headstrong young woman, Tilo is initiated into the sacred rites of the spices by the First Mother on the Island of Spice after living as a seer and a pirate queen, and turning away from the chance to be a snake maiden. Once fully initiated as a mistress of spices, Tilo is sent to the location of her choosing -- Oakland, California, in the present day -- in the guise of an old woman. Her mission: to open a spice shop from which she administers spices as curatives to the local Indian community.

Although it is her duty to remain emotionally uninvolved -- "not too far nor too near, in calm kindness poised" -- Tilo breaks the rules of the spices, and is drawn into the lives of the customers in her shop, helping them through their spirals of trouble - abusive husbands, racism, generational conflicts, drug abuse. Along the way, she finds herself mysteriously drawn to a lonely American man named Raven, whose secrets she cannot decipher.

The Mistress of Spices was shortlisted for the Orange Prize (England) and chosen by the Los Angeles Times as one of the best books of 1997.


About Arranged Marriage:

Divakaruni's equisitely wrought debut collection of stories chronicles the accommodation--and the rebellion--Indian-born girls and women in America undergo as they balance old treasured beliefs and surprising new desires. Each story is complete in itself; together they create a tapestry as colorful, as delicate, and as enduring as the finest silk sari.

Arranged Marriage was awarded the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize for Fiction, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Fiction, and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.


About Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's poetry:

In addition to her novels and short stories, Divakaruni has published four other volumes of poetry, including Leaving Yuba City, which is available from Anchor Books.

Deeply affecting and accessible, Leaving Yuba City is a collection of poems touched with the same magic and universal appeal as Chitra's other work. Here, the trials and tribulations of growing up and immigration are also considered, as is the experience of women and their struggle to find identities for themselves.

Parts of Leaving Yuba City won a Pushcart Prize and an Allen Ginsberg Prize.


 
Questions for Discussion
 
For those who have read Sister Of My Heart:

1. Discuss the relationship between the older generation in India, who live in a world full of mystical tales and magical occurrences, and Anju and Sudha's generation which is more drawn to Western ideals. Why are both cousins, especially Anju, skeptical of their own culture and interested in America? How do they incorporate each world into their lives?

2. How are Sudha and Anju different? How do these differences affect their relationship?

3. Discuss how money and position in society affects the way the Chatterjee women act. Notice how much the expectations of the Indian society affect the characters' lives. Are their any inconsistencies between what society expects and what it actually does?

4. The mothers tell the girls that loving someone too much is dangerous. Do you agree?

5. Discuss the ruby and what it symbolizes. What is the significance of Anju and Sudha being so "unlucky" in the circumstances under which they were born?

6. There is a large battle between what is the proper thing to do and what is the fun, exciting thing to do. How does this play itself out in the novel?

7. Why does Anju's mother welcome Sudha and her mother as part of the family even though she knows the truth about Sudha's father? Why is Sudha's mother so harsh and seemingly ungrateful? Does she belong in the house?

8. The mothers often tell stories and gossip. What role do these stories play in their lives?

9. Do the girls really live up to Bidhata Purush's predictions? (Anju is supposed to be brave and clever, fight injustice, marry a fine man and travel the world. Sudha is supposed to have a life of sorrow.) If not, how would you characterize each?

10. How did having a man enter each of their lives affect the friendship? How would the friendship have evolved differently had they not married? Are men portrayed positively or negatively in this book?

11. How do you feel about the mothers forcing Sudha to marry against her will?

12. Discuss the jealousy that exists between the two cousins. Do they successfully rise above it?

13. Discuss the change in Anju after she comes to America. Notice how her way of expressing herself changes. What does this say about her move from India? Has she become stronger and gained more freedom? Is America all she hoped for?

14. Discuss the significance of Sudha leaving her husband and raising the child on her own. How does it affect Sudha's deep connection to the Indian culture that does not accept her situation? How does the author feel about what Sudha did?

15. Compare how excited Anju and Sudha are about the arrival of their babies to how scared and even distraught the mothers were about the birth of their own children. Why such different responses?

16. Discuss the issue of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies in the novel. Why are so many secrets kept? Is it better to keep some secrets and to tell some lies or to always share the truth?

17. Discuss your reaction to finding out who Singhji really is. How would you have responded if you were Sudha?

18. Should Sudha have gone with Ashok? Throughout the novel, does Sudha give up too much for Anju? Discuss whether or not you think her sacrifices are required of a true friend.


 
For those who have read The Mistress of Spices:

1. The New York Times Book Review states that The Mistress of Spices "...[B]ecomes a novel about choosing between a life of special powers and one of ordinary love and compassion." Were you satisfied with Tilo's choice? Would you have chosen the same way?

2. Talk about the spices as a character in the novel.

3. Tilo only speaks her name out loud to one person in the novel. What is the role of names in the novel?

4. What do the spices take from Tilo? What do they give her? Is it a fair exchange?

5. Tilo left her shop for the first time to look at Haroun's cab early in the novel. But she is drawn farther out by Raven, later. Was her course already set at that point? Would she have left again even without Raven's pull?

6. Tilo speaks of "Anger whose other name is regret..." Discuss the dual nature of objects and feelings in the novel.

7. Raven is one reason Tilo gives up her powers, but he also serves as a window through which she can see how deeply she will grieve that loss. Talk about this and other roles he has in the novel.

8. Divakaruni is also a poet. Point to passages in the novel that approach poetry in their precision, lyricism, and rhythm.

9. In what ways is punishment seen as a natural force? How is punishment and retribution tied to balance? Do you see retribution in a different light after reading this novel?

10. At one point in the novel, in regard to Geeta and her grandfather, Tilo says, "Better hate spoken than hate silent." Do you agree? Why or why not?

11. The author uses first person present tense in this novel, a choice not often used in fiction. What does this choice add to the novel?

12. What role does physical beauty play in this story? In Tilo's feelings about her body? About Raven? About the bougainvillea girls?

13. Look at Raven's story (pp. 161-171). How does its appearance on the page differ from Tilo's story of her past at the points where she tells it? Does this say anything about differences between women and men, between Indians and Americans?

14. In return for Raven's story, Tilo tells him her name. A fair exchange?

15. Talk about the ways physical acts of violence (earthquake, beatings, guns) are foreshadowed in the novel.

16. Look closely at the structure of the novel. How does the author make use of the spices as chapter titles?

 
For those who have read Arranged Marriage:

1. How do the physical and psychological landscapes of India and America differ in these stories?

2. "The Word Love" is written in second person. What does this unusual choice add to the meaning and impact of the story?

3. The mother-daughter relationship is a central theme in many of these stories. Is the author making a general comment about this relationship? Is the relationship similar to your own with your mother and/or daughter?

4. Most of the stories in this collection focus on women who are in serious danger, be it physical, emotional, or both. Do the stories leave you reason to be hopeful for these women? How?

5. Making choices is a recurring theme in this collection. Do the women in these stories view themselves as having choices? Do you think they have choices?

 
For those who have read the novels and the stories:

1. What do the characters in Divakaruni's novel and stories lose and gain as they become more "American"?

2. In the story "Affair," Abha says, "It's not wrong to be happy, is it? To want more out of life than fulfilling duties you took on before you knew what they truly meant?" How is this idea further developed in The Mistress of Spices?

3. In Divakaruni's stories, women are wives and mothers, but the men are portrayed primarily as husbands, not fathers. Talk about men's roles in The Mistress of Spices. How are they similar to or different from those in the stories?

4. How does the Indian immigrant experience, as you read it in Divakaruni's work, compare to your experience or your family's?

5. In "The Maid Servant's Story," the narrator speaks of "...[T]he highest point on a wheel...the moment of balance when everything was as perfect as it can be in this flawed world. Perhaps, by its very nature, such a time cannot last but must topple into darkness as the wheel continues to turn." Point to those moments of balance in the stories or the novel. Have you experienced such moments in your own life? Do you agree they can't last?

 
Recommended Reading

Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart
Chandra, Vikram, Love and Longing in Bombay
Chang, Pang-Me Natasha, Bound Feet and Western Dress
Cisneros, Sandra, The House on Mango Street
Desai, Anita, In Custody
Erdrich, Louise, Tracks
Esquivel, Laura, Like Water for Chocolate
Forster, E.M., A Passage to India
Garcia Marquez, Gabriel, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Hong Kingston, Maxine, The Woman Warrior
Morrison, Toni, Beloved
Mukherjee, Bharati, Jasmine
Naipaul, V.S., A Wounded Civilization
Narayan, R.K., The World of Nagaraj
Roy, Arundhati, The God of Small Things
Shigekuni, Julie, A Bridge Between Us
Walker, Alice, The Color Purple