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How can a country be truly independent until its women are allowed to flourish?’

Mar/07/2023 / by Team Seema
Chitra Banerjee

Author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni on her new book set during the time of India’s partition from Pakistan

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s new book, set during the birth of independent India, relives the horrors of partition that followed. Described through the eyes of three sisters, each with their own desires and flaws, it includes real incidents told to Divakaruni by her Gandhian mother and grandfather, who were involved in the freedom movement. The overarching theme of the book is the importance of women to be independent for any nation to flourish. 

Divakaruni talks to SEEMA about “Independence,” her latest book.

What inspired you to set the novel during the partition?

1947 – the birth of Independent India – is a crucial moment, both dramatic and painful, in world history. Almost a million people died in the process of India becoming free from British rule. This major event of decolonization had far-reaching effects across the world, and encouraged other countries to fight for their freedom, too. (In many ways, Gandhi, who inspired India’s freedom struggle, inspired Martin Luther King’s battle for equality here in the U.S.) 

I want people to know of these connections, and to feel the immensity of India’s struggle which, in its essence, is the quintessential human quest for independence. There are almost no novels in English set during the partition along India’s eastern border, where I was born. I wanted to document the turmoil and tragedies that took place in that time, that geography.

Chitra Banerjee

Were you or your family in any way touched by the horrors of partition?

My grandfather and mother were followers of Gandhi and took part in the freedom movement. They told me several powerful, harrowing and heroic stories of that time. My mother, as a woman, was particularly affected by the violence she saw all around her, much of it perpetrated upon women. I wanted to weave some of those incidents into the book before they were lost.

How would Indian Americans relate to the story and the book?

Indian Americans would be very interested in finding out more about this empowering event (decolonization) that granted freedom to their ancestors. It would give them a personal sense of learning (empathizing with the characters) how exactly it felt to live during those exciting but also terrifying times. I am hoping it will interest them in finding out more about their own family stories from that time. Additionally, I hope it will make them think about women’s conditions during those times, and how certain professions, such as that of a doctor, were considered taboo for women, and how women like Priya, one of my heroines, struggled hard and made it possible for women today to flourish in those professions. Also, there is a strong connection between the freedom movement in India and the one in the U.S. Both countries were struggling to shake off British rule. That, too, is something that Indian Americans can relate to. Finally, on the personal level, the story is very much the tale of a particular family in Bengal, and about three sisters looking for love and a life of independence. I’m hoping many would relate to that quest. I certainly did!

What lessons do the three sisters – Deepa, Jamini and Priya – teach that are relevant today?

A [big lesson] is about the importance of independence for women. How can a country be truly independent until its women are allowed to flourish? To be able to follow their passions in terms of careers, or art, or carving out a place of their own in the world, or even loving the person they want to love. Independence can take very different shapes. Ultimately, it is a very personal word. The other lesson is that, at the end of the day, family matters. In spite of differences, disagreements and other conflicts, the sisters realize they mean something very special to each other. Theirs is a unique bond, for the sake of which they are willing to even risk their lives.