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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni 

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In person: Divakaruni speaks Feb. 25 in Santa Rosa and Feb 26 in Sonoma.

Divakaruni's fiction spans two worlds

By Patrick Sullivan

MOVING TO the United States really made me renegotiate my boundaries and, in some ways, even reinvent myself as a woman," says Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. "For many, many immigrant women, it's the same."

Speaking by phone from New York City, the best-selling Indian-American author is explaining in her warm, rich voice the important role personal experience plays in her fiction. Divakaruni is a published poet and the author of Arranged Marriage, a collection of short stories that captured the American Book Award in 1996. But she is best known for her breakthrough 1997 novel, Mistress of Spices, a story of passion and magic that became a surprise bestseller. Both books draw heavily on the author's own experiences as an immigrant.

Now the newly released Sister of My Heart (Doubleday; $23.95) carries on the theme, capturing the dilemmas and opportunities confronting women with one foot in traditional Indian society and the other in the modern world.

The novel tells the story of Sudha and Anju, two young women raised as sisters in an old-money family in Calcutta. Born on the same day into a traditional household, both deprived of their fathers by tragedy, they've shared a powerful emotional bond since birth. But as they come of age, their relationship is tested by romance, arranged marriage, family secrets, and emigration to America.

At the center of the book lies the girls' traditional Indian family, upper-caste and wealthy, determined to follow time-honored rules of decorum. That's a subject about which Divakaruni, who was born in Calcutta, writes from personal experience.

"I come from a very traditional family, but we weren't rich enough to own one of those mansions," she says. "But many of our friends did live in places like that."

When she was 19, Divakaruni and her brother were permitted to come to the United States by her father when he took a job here. After graduate school, she settled down in the Bay Area and began her writing career, also finding time to start a family and organize a telephone help line for immigrant Asian women.

Divakaruni, now 42, has clearly struck a chord with her work. Her fiction has won a bevy of awards, and The Mistress of Spices is being made into a movie that may hit the theaters as early as next year. She credits her success, in part, to a growing recognition by publishing companies of the value of diversity.

"Fiction should portray a multitudinous American world, because that's the reality," she says. "There's been a real effort on the part of publishing companies to make a variety of ethnic voices available to readers, and I think that enriches American literature."

Some have criticized Divakaruni for her portrayal of women, arguing that she perpetuates negative stereotypes about Indian society. But the author says she's just telling it like it is.

"In my years of working with women who were in great distress, I've seen many of these problems, and I think they needed to be written about," Divakaruni says. "Hopefully the intelligent reader will see that while this is in the Indian context, it's really about women in a larger sense. The oppression of women is going on in all communities."

Still, Divakaruni also recognizes the positive aspects of traditional culture and the value it places on family and community. Her life, like her fiction, walks a careful line between the two worlds. Six months ago, she moved with her husband and two young from the Bay Area to Texas, where she now teaches at the University of Houston. Like the characters in her book, she sometimes finds herself struggling to balance the demands of family and career, tradition and modernity. The key, she says, is to combine the best parts of both. Of course, that isn't always easy.

"It's really a juggling act. Some days, it's clear what the best aspects are, and some days it's not," Divakaruni says with a warm chuckle. "And, of course, my children have their own ideas about that."

Divakaruni will make two local appearances. First she speaks at 7 p.m. on Feb. 25 at Copperfield's Books, 2316 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa (578-8938). Then she appears at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 26 at Readers' Books, 130 E. Napa St., Sonoma (939-1779).

From the February 18-24, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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