Author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has become known for stories set in both India, where she was born…and the United States, where she's been living for the past three decades. She's explored the force of tradition in her native country, as well as the challenges faced by immigrants in her adopted one. With her new novel, Queen of Dreams, she has written for the first time about a second generation Indian American.
“We're a much older and more established community," says Ms. Divakaruni, who is currently teaching at the University of Houston. “Now it's the second generation growing up and trying to negotiate their relationship with a country which for many of them they've never lived in.”
The heroine of Queen of Dreams is a young single mother named Rakhi, who lives in the hip university town of Berkeley, California. She runs a teashop and paints pictures of an India she has not experienced first hand. “Another thing I really wanted to show in this book is Indian Americans are going into all kinds of non-traditional professions,” notes Ms. Divakaruni. “Where before there were a huge number of computer scientists and engineers and doctors, now people are going into the arts. They're owning teashops. And Sonny, Rakhi's ex-husband, is a DJ and a very successful one, in a night club."
But Rakhi's mother, who also tells parts of the story, has a calling rooted in India's past. She is a dream teller, who can share and interpret peoples' dreams. "I've been interested in dreams myself for a long time," Ms. Divakaruni says, "and it's a big part of the Indian tradition, especially where I was brought up in Calcutta in my family, which is quite traditional. In Western dream interpretation, it's often connected to psychotherapy and looking at the personality and what's going on in your life. In Eastern dream telling, many times there's this idea of a special gift. And without this gift you could study and study, but you'd never really become an effective dream teller."
Rakhi's mother will not discuss dream telling with her daughter, who has not inherited her gift. Chitra Divakaruni says she wanted to create an atypical Indian American family. "In many immigrant families the parents are just talking and talking about the home country," she says, "until the children are like, 'Oh, don't tell us any more.' And in Rakhi's case it's just the opposite. She's created this picture of India in her head and yearns to feel more Indian."
In Queen of Dreams, Rakhi recalls those yearnings:
"My mother always slept alone. Until I was about 8 years old I didn't give it much thought. It was merely a part of my nightly routine, where she would tuck me in and sit on the edge of my bed for a while, smoothing my hair with light fingers in the half dark, humming. The next part of our bedtime ritual consisted of storytelling. It was I who made up the stories. I would have preferred the stories to have come from my mother, and to have been set India, where she grew up, a land that seemed to me to be shaded with unending mystery. But my mother told me she didn't know any good stories and that India wasn't all that mysterious. It was just another place, not so different in its essentials from California."
But after a family tragedy, Rakhi finds journals her mother had written about her life as a dream teller. With her father acting as translator, Rakhi comes to know her mother through the journals and finds new ways to resolve other problems in her life: a difficult relationship with her former husband, a teashop that's failing with the arrival of a chic new coffee house nearby, and then the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001. Chitra Divakaruni says the attacks took place while she was writing the first chapters of her novel. "What made it additionally terrible," she says, "was that there was a whole slew of hate crimes across the nation towards communities that looked, quote unquote, 'like terrorists.' And the Indian American community also suffered from this. People were afraid to go out of their houses. And I wanted people to know how it felt."
Ms. Divakaruni says the attacks also added another dimension to one of the central concerns of her story -- the way dreams can explain reality. "With 9-11 it was kind of the opposite," she says, "where you felt like what was reality had turned into this surreal nightmare. And so it was the dark side of the dream, as it were."
Researching novels like Queen of Dreams has helped Chitra Divakaruni stay in touch with her Indian heritage. "With this," she says, "I interviewed a lot of people in India, and I asked my mother to send me a lot of Bengali books on the tradition of dream interpretation. It's a real way for me to remember how people think about things in my culture."
Chitra Divakaruni is sharing those memories with a growing audience. Her first novel, The Mistress of Spices, is being made into a movie. She's also writing the second in a trilogy of children's books about India. She hopes they will fill what she sees as a gap in American children's literature by giving Indian American children a better sense of their heritage and giving children of other backgrounds a new understanding of the nation's growing South Asian community.