Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is known for voicing the stories of the forgotten characters, with a unique lens of feminism. Whether it is her famous retelling of the Mahabharata in the Palace of Illusions or the Ramayana in the Forest of Enchantments, or the beauty of womanhood that she reveals in The Last Queen and Independence, Chitra Banerjee layers each of her books with powerful characters, armed with the spirit of being a woman. Her stories expose us to the uniformity of the world; whether it is divine characters or three sisters, there is a thread that runs through us all, adjoining us and making us one. Therefore, the distinctness of her work lies not in the stories she tells, but in the realness of what we read; every reader tends to find fragments of themselves hidden deep inside her pages.
An Uncommon Love, her newest book, narrates the early life of Sudha Murthy and Narayan Murthy. “I feel that their story, starting with their humble beginnings and many obstacles which they overcame, would inspire readers too — especially those with dreams of their own,” she says. Exploring the intricate nuances of her latest book, we are in conversation with her to learn about her storytelling process.
Each story you tell is from the point of view of the female. Perhaps it is the story less told, or the point of view we never got to hear. What informed this narratorial choice?
When I was in graduate school, I started volunteering at the Women’s Centre at the University of California at Berkeley. I became aware and worked with women from many backgrounds with many issues. Often, partner vio- lence was a problem, and many women (even though they were educated) felt disempowered and afraid. I went on to volunteer with the Support Network in the California Bay Area and worked more closely with women in need of help. Then, I helped to found Maitri, the first organization of its kind in the Bay Area, helping South Asian and South Asian American women who found themselves in situations of distress and family violence. All these experiences made me determined to focus on women’s issues in my writing and portray strong women who might serve as role models for my female readers and might make my male readers more aware of these issues.
How has your writing process changed over the years, from say, The Palace of Illusions to An Uncommon Love?
In many ways, it is the same: character-focused and scene-focused. I am very character-centric. I feel the person I am writing about, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, needs to come alive. For this reason, I make use of description, character analysis and scene creation to focus on dramatic moments that have changed the character’s life. Of course, when writing non-fiction, I must stay with the facts of the person’s life, but I can still select what I believe are the more dramatic moments.
What prompted you to write An Uncommon Love?
I am very inspired by the story of the Murthys, whom I have known for the last 40 years Moreover, the relationship between Sudha and Murthy is quite charming, especially in the early days when they fall in love and must overcome family objections. There are some hilarious scenes where the love-struck Murthy breaks the rules to be with Sudha, and he figures out a way to get her into her hostel after curfew. Also, tragic, and heartbreaking moments in their lives, such as when Sudha is forced to leave her newborn daughter with her mother in a different city. I wanted to show the human side of these two icons—because that is thought-provoking in its way.
The book strikes a balance between focusing on the Murthys’ love story and simultaneously narrating the inception of Infosys. How did you establish a balance between the both?
It was a challenge to keep the balance. But it was possible because Infosys was Murthy’s dream, goal, and pas- sion. He lived and breathed it—and thus, so did Sudha, who was his main supporter and advisor. His story is also the story of the challenges of entrepreneurs during the license raj and I wanted to detail the many hurdles he had to overcome. On the other hand, Murthy’s devotion to Infosys influenced their relationship (particularly when he told Sudha that she could not join Infosys). The fact that, because of all the effort needed to set up Infosys, he was often not there for his family affected Sudha and the children (Rohan and Akshata) deeply and led Rohan to ask him who did he love more, the children or Infosys! So, as you can see, the two stories are deeply intertwined.
What was the research process like, for this book and other ones?
My fiction research is centred around books, articles, current affairs, and visuals (photos, paintings). But for An Uncommon Love, once the initial biographical research was over, I depended heavily on interviews with the Murthys and their extended family. We did this over email and Zoom, but the best part was when I went to Bangalore and spent numerous days with them. They grew very comfortable with me and shared with me stories they had never told anyone.
What is the significance of the title?
An Uncommon Love relates to 2 things. First is that this is not a common romantic, Bollywood-style love story. Yes, it has many fun moments, however, it is built on the foundation of trust, respect, patience and partnership, and hence requires much sacrifice. Simultaneously, it is the story of their love and how it coexisted with their careers—Murthy with Infosys, and Sudha—first with Telco, then with teaching, and later with writing and philanthropy. That story, too, has its triumphs and heartbreaks.
Lastly, are you working on anything for the future?
I am changing gears and have started a fantasy adventure based partly on Bengali legends/folk tales! And yes, the main character is a woman!
Words Muskan Kaur