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Cross-cultural understanding spiced with the Indian Diaspora – author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and her book ‘The Mistress of Spices’

Dr. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni laughs gently as she talks about the success of her first novel, The Mistress of Spices.

An English and creative-writing instructor at Foothill College near
San Jose, Calif., she is better known in academic circles as editor of
the popular Multitudes anthology. But with her new book, she is
carrying the message of cross-cultural understanding beyond the ivied
towers of academia.

“I am a listener, a facilitator, a connector to people,” she says.
“To me, the art of dissolving boundaries is what living is all about.”

That desire to listen and connect also drives Tilo, the heroine of The Mistress of Spices ($22.95, Anchor, 1997).

Described by The New Yorker as “a quirky fairy,” Tilo dispenses
spices – not only for kofta and curry, but also for the homesickness
and alienation that plagues the Indian immigrants that patronize her
dusty shop.

Tim novel is set in the San Francisco Bay area, home to a quarter of
America’s 1.25 million Indian immigrants. For Divakaruni, Tilo is the
quintessential immigrant – she must decide which parts of her heritage
she will keep and which parts she will leave behind. But the novel has
a wide range of fans, not just those of Indian descent.

“The audiences have been very multicultural when I do a reading, and
people of all ages come,” Divakaruni says. “A lot of people are
connecting to Tilo’s story because most of us can relate to the
immigrant experience – we know how it is to leave familiar things, even
if it’s just moving to a new neighborhood.”

Divakaruni’s poems and short stories are part of a publishing
phenomenon – members of the Indian diaspora writing in English. In
honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence, The New
Yorker devoted a recent issue to the trend. The issue included
Divakaruni’s poem titled “The Maimed Dancing Men.”

Divakaruni, forty-nine, resides in Sunnyvale, Calif., with her
husband and two young sons. Her own immigrant experience began in 1976
when she came to the United States from Calcutta, a city so crowded
that she felt no one would miss her. She lived briefly in Chicago and
Ohio, and finally settled in California in 1979. She eventually earned
a doctorate in English from the University of California-Berkeley.

Leaving India caused Divakaruni to reevaluate her homeland’s
culture, and specifically its treatment of women. Most of India’s 450
million women live as their grandmothers did – in rural areas,
receiving little or no formal education, and gaining status only
through marriage and bearing sons.

“At Berkeley, I volunteered at the women’s center,” she says. “As I
got more involved, I became interested in helping battered women –
violence against women crosses cultural borders and educational levels.
Then, slowly, I focused on women in my community.”

In 1991, with a group of friends, she founded a help-line to provide
services to Indian American women. The most important things the
help-line volunteers do is listen and be an empathetic presence.
Inspired by the life stories of these women, Divakaruni published a
short story collection, Arranged Marriages, which told of their abuse –
and their courage.

It was as an educator that Divakaruni first began emphasizing communications between cultures.

“I’ve been teaching for about ten years now,” she says. “It’s a big
part of my life, and I’ve liked teaching from a multicultural
perspective even before it became a big thing.”

As a pioneer in the field, Divakaruni had to create her own
textbooks, including the anthology Multitudes (McGraw Hill, now in its
second edition) which she uses for her freshman composition classes.

“I didn’t want to sacrifice quality, and [the stories] focus on problem solving, not just how terrible things are,” she says.

Some topics covered in the anthology include sensitivity to
communications styles across cultures, expectations of friendships, the
Los Angeles riots, and how one gay male overcame prejudice in a small
American town.

Divakaruni also includes writing by her students, saying, “I think the student essays are the most moving.”

Scott Lankford, who teaches English composition and Gay-Lesbian
literature at Foothill College, started with the first edition of
Multitudes and is upgrading to the second.

Books such as Multitudes “are not that unusual anymore – it is the
best presenting a varied and complex series of voices,” he says. “It
looks like the students in my class.

“What I think is unique about this book is that the writers speak to
all sides of the human condition – not only oppression but success and
survival. It’s about finding a place in a complex world.”

Lankford also appreciates Divakaruni’s other works and says that
“Chitra has changed the way I look at the world through her stories and
poetry. The Mistress of Spices opened my eyes to parts of American
culture that I had been blind to.”

Feeling intimidated because she is a thirty-year-old returning
student and a single mother, Lisa Pamphilon found encouragement in
Divakaruni’s creative writing class.

“At first I felt really old, but Dr. Divakaruni made me feel okay
because she’s really down to earth and she’s got a sense of humor,”
Pamphilon says. “Knowing she was a mom, too, helped. I look at her as a
role model and mentor, inspiring me to follow my dream” of transferring
to Stanford University.

“I’m very drawn to different cultures,” says Pamphilon, who is
White. “My daughter’s father is Japanese, so being in the class helped
me to absorb some of my daughter’s heritage.”

The success of The Mistress of Spices has kept Divakaruni
hop-scotching across the country, as well as to England and back to her
native India, to promote the book. Movie rights have been optioned and
the book is being translated for European readers.

Despite the hectic pace, Divakaruni remains gracious and calm, and
she has even started work on a second novel – this one about how
marriage changes the lives of two female friends, one who comes to
California and the other who stays behind in India.

“Marriage in the United States is about finding the ‘right mate,’ an
attractive person to fulfill one’s fantasies,” Divakaruni says.
“However, in India, people marry to perpetuate the culture and
strengthen family ties.

“Women in particular respond to my work because I’m writing about
them – women in love, in difficulties, women in relationships,” she
says. “I want people to relate to my characters, to feel their joy and
pain, because it will be harder to [be] prejudiced when they meet them
in real life.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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