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Podcast | 'Women Deserve Credit for India's Independence': Chitra Divakaruni

Powerful but complex characters are her forte who fight for their freedom – in their homes and personal lives.

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If there is one thing author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is known for, it is her ability to scout through timelines and transport her readers to another world with ease and poignancy. If The Palace of Illusions and The Forest of Enchantment enabled Draupadi and Sita to break out of their moulds, with her novel Independence, she has charted a territory that marks, perhaps, yet another milestone in India's Partition writings by women.

"The stories of Partition are far too many but mostly from Punjab and Haryana. Ironically, very few have made it from Bengal which is witness to the horrors of the Direct Action Day in 1946," Divakaruni tells The Quint.

The trauma of Partition still lingers fresh among those who suffered it. As for Divakaruni, her mother's family which hailed from East Bengal bore a first-hand experience to the Calcutta riots, the stories of which fuelled her foray into one of the defining periods in Indian history.

"The men would be killed but women were violated, and therefore, it becomes even more critical to narrate the ordeals and the tragic saga of the event from their point of view," says Divakaruni. This made her trace back and essay powerful but complex characters who fight for their freedom – in their homes and personal lives – as the nation gets divided over calls made by a bunch of erstwhile statesmen.

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Partition History Has Forgotten Women 

Based out of the United States, India has long featured in Divakaruni's books as themes woven around immigration of the diaspora. But her fascination with history and historical characters implored her to delve deep and resurrect stories that are often left out of textbooks or from modern literature.

While her The Last Queen on Maharani Jindan Kaur paints a rueful picture of colonial India in the 1800s when Punjab was annexed, Independence sets the stage for an India prepared for autonomy from the British but equally plagued by chaos, confusion, and pandemonium that characterise the trajectory of the three sisters – her protagonists.

"Very conveniently though, freedom fighters like Sarojini Naidu, Matangini Hazra have phased out from public memory and to recollect their immense contribution towards Independence was only integral to the novel I was writing," Divakaruni adds.

'Everyone Loves a Good Wife'

Even as she dabbled with historical fiction, mythology remains Chitra's specialisation. Her heroines are often naysayers to the hard rules set by patriarchy – taking charge of their own story and who simply refuse to "play good" all the time.

But is this makeover only possible in a retelling? Her research suggests otherwise.

She had discovered many of these characters were written powerfully as having a great deal of command in their respective periods but were simply lost in translation.
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"While Draupadi is known to be controversy's favourite child and received enormous flak for inciting the 'Kurukshetra' war, Sita was a revelation to me who was relegated merely to a submissive spot when she stood up even against her husband," Divakaruni says.

She adds that the "Agnipariksha" episode in Ramayana was fashioned to cater to society's obsession with sanitised and obedient women.

Creative Liberty vs Exploitation

Can a Ramayana or a Mahabharata be adapted today without religious colour or political leaning or without it being reduced to popcorn entertainment? There is no one answer.

For instance, the Adipurush controversy in recent times may have antagonised a section of the populace but have renewed conversations around freethinking and creative freedom of artists and storytellers to experiment with ideas.

"There is a fine line between having creative liberty and putting someone down. As in my own process, I have drawn inspiration from the ancient texts and extracted the best versions without jeopardising the integrity of the main character," Chitra said while deliberating on her recipe behind preventing a major backlash.

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Men Need To Condemn Crimes Against Women

From our Independence struggle to the contemporary times, what has painfully remained unchanged is how women's vulnerability is exploited, making them easy targets of hate and violence. The recent spate of events in the country serve a disturbing reminder to India's gory history where women's bodies are where Partition's darkest stories have been scripted.

As a writer who deals with female subjects intimately and intricately, Divakaruni emphasises the power of sisterhood and collective solidarity of women – young and old – to bring about systemic change.

"Mobilisation is the key and it wouldn't be possible without the support of our men. There is truely strength in numbers and India needs to come together as one nation to fight this social evil," she says.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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