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Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee 1956-

DIVAKARUNI, Chitra Banerjee 1956-


Born July 29, 1956, in Calcutta, India; daughter of R. K. and Tatini Banerjee; married S. Murthy Divakaruni, June 29, 1979; children: Abhay, Anand (sons). Education: Calcutta University, B.A., 1976; Wright State University, M.A., 1978; University of CaliforniaBerkeley, Ph.D., 1985.


Home Sunnydale, CA. Office Foothill College, English Department, 12345 El Monte Rd., Los Altos, CA 94022-4504.


Diablo Valley College, professor of creative writing, 1987-89; Foothill College, Los Altos, CA, professor of creative writing, 1989. Mid-Peninsula Support Network for Battered Women, 1990; President, MAITRI (help-line for South Asian women), 1991.

Awards, Honors

Memorial Award, Barbara Deming Foundation, 1989; Writing Award, Santa Clara County Arts Council, 1990; Writing Award, Gerbode Foundation, 1993; Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Fiction; PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize for Fiction; Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize and Pushcart Prize, both for Leaving Yuba City; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1996, for Arranged Marriage: Stories; California Arts Council Award, 1998; The Mistress of Spices was named a best book of 1997 by the Los Angeles Times and a best paperback of 1998 by the Seattle Times.



Neela, Victory Song ("Girls of Many Lands" series), illustrated by Troy Howell, American Girl (Middleton, WI), 2002.

The Conch Bearer (juvenile), Roaring Brook Press (Brookfield, CT), 2003.


Dark like the River (poems), Writers Workshop [India], 1987.

The Reason for Nasturtiums (poems), Berkeley Poets Press (Berkeley, CA), 1990.

Black Candle: Poems about Women from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, Calyx Books (Corvallis, OR), 1991.

(Editor) Multitude: Cross-cultural Readings for Writers, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1993.

Arranged Marriage: Stories, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1995.

The Mistress of Spices (novel), Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1997.

Leaving Yuba City: New and Selected Poems, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1997.

(Editor) We, Too, Sing America, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1998.

Sister of My Heart (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1999.

The Unknown Errors of Our Lives: Stories, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2001.

The Vine of Desire (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2002.

Queen of Dreams (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2004.

(Editor, with James Quay and William E. Justice) California Covered: Stories for the Twenty-first Century, Heyday Books (Berkeley, CA), 2004.

Contributor to periodicals, including Ms., Beloit Poetry Journal, Chicago Review, Zyzzyva, and Chelsea.


The Mistress of Spices was adapted as an audiobook.


Poet, novelist, and short-story writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is known for her portrayals of immigrant Indian women. When Divakaruni, who was born in India, immigrated to the United States in 1976, she re-evaluated the role of Indian women. She draws on her own experiences and those of other immigrant Indian women to write novels and verse, including the award-winning Leaving Yuba City: New and Selected Poems, Arranged Marriage, a collection of short stories, and The Mistress of Spices, a novel. Divakaruni has also published two works for middle-grade readers: Neela, Victory Song and The Conch Bearer.

The Mistress of Spices revolves around an Indian girl with magical powers. After Tilo survives a shipwreck and is trained by a mysterious figure, she is sent through transmigration to act as the Mistress of Spices in an Indian store in Oakland, California. When Tilo falls in love with an Indian American, she must choose between her magic and a more mundane life. The novel garnered glowing reviews for the author's lyrical style, its combination of fantasy and realism, and its portrayal of the immigrant experience that goes beyond the stereotypical. "Divakaruni has written an unusual, clever and often exquisite first novel that stirs magical realism into the new conventions of culinary fiction and the still-simmering caldron of Indian immigrant life in America," observed Shashi Tharoor in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Divakaruni's second novel, Sister of My Heart, is a realistic treatment of the relationship between two cousins, Sudha and Anju, who narrate alternating chapters of this modern drama that develops over decades. Divakaruni returns to the lives of Sudha and Anju in The Vine of Desire. In this sequel, Sudha comes to live with Anju after leaving her abusive husband. According to a Publishers Weekly critic, the author's "lyrical descriptions of the characters' inner and outer worlds bring a rich emotional chiaroscuro to an uplifting story about two women who learn to make peace with the difficult choices circumstances have forced upon them."

Neela, Victory Song, part of the "Girls of Many Lands" series, is set during the struggle for Indian independence, and centers on the adventures of a twelve-year-old girl whose father becomes involved in that struggle. When her father fails to return home after attending a protest march, Neela disguises herself as a boy, travels alone to Calcutta, and, with the help of an underground freedom fighter, hatches a plan to rescue her father from the government prison where he is being held. The author "turns a rare subject in children's literature into a well-paced, gripping story that captures universal emotions as well as the complexity of Neela's choices," observed Booklist contributor Gillian Engberg. Sarah Stone, reviewing the book on the Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color Web site, stated that "Victory Song not only educates young readers about India's culture and past but also manages to entertain brilliantly with a likeable main character and a suspenseful plot that keep young readers interested."

Divakaruni penned another book aimed at young audiences the following year. The Conch Bearer is a fantasy in which twelve-year-old Anand must return a magical conch shell to the distant Himalayas from which it came. Accompanied by Abhaydatta, a mystic healer, and Nisha, a street sweeper, Anand undertakes the dangerous journey, all the while pursued by the villainous Surabhanu. "This quest adventure has an exotic flavor," wrote Kathleen Isaacs in School Library Journal, noting the "magical background from traditional Indian tales, and deliciously detailed description of Indian foods." According to Horn Book critic Susan P. Bloom, "at the end of their perilous adventures Anand is faced with a poignant decision that will both deeply sadden and cheer readers."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.


Amerasia Journal, Volume 22, 1996, pp. 249-250.

Black Issues in Higher Education, September 18, 1997, p. 26.

Bloomsbury Review, September, 1992, p. 19.

Book, January-February, 2002, Chris Barsanti, review of The Vine of Desire, p. 76.

Booklist, December 15, 1991, p. 745; July, 1995, pp. 1860, 1869; December 15, 1996, p. 692; August, 1997, p. 1871; November 15, 2002, Gillian Engberg, review of Neela, Victory Song, p. 597; September 15, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of The Conch Bearer, p. 236; April 1, 2004, Brian Wilson, review of The Conch Bearer (audiobook), p. 1392.

Childhood Education, mid-summer, 2004, Smita Guha, review of The Conch Bearer, p. 273.

English Journal, September, 1997, pp. 99-100.

Horn Book, January-February, 2004, Susan P. Bloom, review of The Conch Bearer, p. 81.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1995, p. 898; December 15, 1996, p. 1753; August 15, 2003, review of The Conch Bearer, p. 1071.

Kliatt, July, 1997, p. 49; September, 1997, p. 5.

Library Journal, June 15, 1995, p. 97; December, 1995, p. 192; February 1, 1997, p. 105; May 15, 1997, p. 118; July, 1997, p. 102; October 1, 1997, p. 86; January, 1999, p. 147; December, 2001, Robert E. Brown, review of The Vine of Desire, p. 170.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 9, 1997, p. 10; December 14, 1997, p. 5.

Ms., July, 1995, p. 77.

New York, June 23, 1997, p. 164.

New York Times Book Review, July 16, 1995, p. 53; April 13, 1997, p. 20; March 1, 1998, p. 32.

Publishers Weekly, June 5, 1995, p. 53; April 29, 1996, p. 69; January 13, 1997, pp. 51-52; August 25, 1997, p. 68; November 89, 1998, p. 55; May 14, 2001, Roxane Farmanfarmaian, "Writing from a Different Place," p. 46; November 26, 2001, review of The Vine of Desire, p. 38; August 18, 2003, review of The Conch Bearer, p. 80; December 15, 2003, review of The Conch Bearer (audiobook), p. 29; August 9, 2004, Bridget Kinsella, "Being American in Today's World," p. 229.

School Library Journal, December, 1995, p. 142; December, 2002, Alison Follos, review of Neela, Victory Song, p. 136; December, 2003, Kathleen Isaacs, review of The Conch Bearer, p. 149; May, 2004, Jane P. Fenn, review of The Conch Bearer (audiobook), p. 91.

Times Literary Supplement, March 21, 1997, p. 24.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), May 25, 1997, pp. 1, 9.

Washington Post Book World, December 15, 1996, p. 4.

Woman's Journal, February, 1997, p. 16.

World Literature Today, winter, 1998, p. 207; winter, 2002, Frederick Luis Aldama, review of The Unknown Errors of Our Lives, pp. 112-113.


About Women Writers Web site, (April 29, 2003), review of The Vine of Desire.

AsianWeek Online, (April 27, 2001), Neela Banerjee, "Mistress of Self"; (April 27, 2001) Grace Talusan, "Wherever You Go, There You Are."

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Home Page, (February 18, 2004).

Time Online, (April 29, 2003), "One Nation: America Remembers September 11, 2001: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni."

Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color, (April 29, 2003), "Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni"; Sarah Stone, review of Neela, Victory Song. *

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Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee

DIVAKARUNI, Chitra Banerjee

Nationality: Indian-American. Born: Chitra Banerjee in Calcutta, India, 29 July 1956. Education: Calcutta University, B.A. 1976; Wright State University, M.A. 1978; University of California, Berkeley, Ph.D. 1985. Family: Married S. Murthy Divakaruni in 1979; two children. Career: Professor of creative writing, Diablo Valley College, 1987-89; Foothill College, Los Altos, California, 1989. Awards: Memorial Award (Barbara Deming Foundation), 1989; Writing Award (Santa Clara County Arts Council), 1990; Writing Award (Gerbode Foundation), 1993; Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award; Bay Area Book Reviews Award for Fiction; PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize for Fiction; Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize; Pushcart Prize. Address: Foothill College, English Department, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos, California 94022-4504, U.S.A.



The Mistress of Spices. New York, Anchor Books, 1997.

Sister of My Heart. New York, Doubleday, 1999.

Short Stories

Arranged Marriage: Stories. New York, Anchor Books, 1995.


Dark Like the River. 1987.

The Reason for Nasturtiums. Berkeley Poets Press, 1990.

Black Candle: Poems about Women from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Corvallis, Oregon, Calyx Books, 1991.

Leaving Yuba City: New and Selected Poems. New York, AnchorBooks, 1997.


Editor, Multitude: Cross-Cultural Readings for Writers. Boston, McGraw-Hill, 1993.

Editor, We, Too, Sing America: A Reader for Writers. Boston, McGraw-Hill, 1998.

* * *

Indian-American author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has recently published poems, short stories, and novels, all of which generally focus on similar themes: the roles of women in India and America; the struggle to adapt to new ways of life when one's cultural traditions are in conflict with new cultural expectations; and the complexities of love between family members, lovers, and spouses. Divakaruni's work is often considered to be quasi-autobiographical as most of her stories are set in California near where she lives, confront the immigrant experiencespecifically, of Indians who settle in the U.S.and evaluate the treatment of Indian-American women both in India and America. Divakaruni is also an editor of two anthologies, Multitude: Cross-Cultural Readings for Writers and We, Too, Sing America: A Reader for Writers, that include stories concerned with similar issues.

Divakaruni's volumes of poetry, Dark Like the River, The Reason for Nasturtiums, Black Candle, and Leaving Yuba City, each uniquely address images of India, the Indian-American experience, and the condition of children and women in a patriarchal society. Also exploring the relationship between art forms, Divakaruni writes poetry inspired by paintings, photographs, and films. And, as in her novels, she focuses intently in her poetry on the experiences of women pursuing identities for themselves.

Arranged Marriage, Divakaruni's collection of short stories that focus on Indian and Indian-American women caught between two conflicting cultures, seems to have developed from her poem "Arranged Marriage" in Black Candle. Both the poem and the stories are concerned with the emotions of women whose lives are affected by the Indian tradition of arranged marriages, though Arranged Marriage explores a broader scope of issues, including divorce, abortion, racism, and economic inequality. Relying heavily on techniques such as doubling and pairing, the stories expose the adverse conditions of women living in India, though the collection also suggests that life in America is as difficult as in India, and indeed perhaps more so because of the contradictory feelings immigrant women often experience as they are torn between Indian cultural expectations and American life. Arranged Marriage considers both cultures equally, critiquing and praising particular aspects of each.

The themes Divakaruni explores in her poems and short stories are developed in her novels, The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart. Stylistically experimental, The Mistress of Spices combines poetic language with prose in order to, as Divakaruni suggests, "collaps[e] the divisions between the realistic world of twentieth century America and the timeless one of myth and magic in [an] attempt to create a modern fable." Tilo, Mistress 's main character, is a young woman from a distant time and place whose training in the ancient craft of spices and initiation in the rite of fire allow her to become immortal and powerful. Traveling across time and space, Tilo comes to live in Oakland, California, in the form of an aged woman and establishes herself as a healer who prescribes spices as remedies for her customers. Although the novel appears to diverge thematically from the concerns in her poetry and short stories, Mistress does address similar issues, and as Tilo becomes involved in a romance that ultimately requires her to choose between two lifestylesa supernatural immortal life and a more typical modern lifeDivakaruni's themes of love, struggle, and opposing cultures become apparent.

Divakaruni's most recent novel, Sister of My Heart, is an expansion of and a variation on the short story "The Ultrasound" in Arranged Marriage. In the novel, two cousins, Anju and Sudah, who feel as though their lives are inextricably tied together, rely on each other for love, approval, and companionship. The women grow up together in the same house in Calcutta and have many similar experiences that bind them together, which leads them to feel as though they are sisters of the heart. However, when secrets regarding their births are revealed and the cousins are later physically separated because of arranged marriages, their unique relationship is tested, and the women struggle in the face of doubt and suspicion. Although one woman remains in India and the other moves to America, they experience similar traumas involving pregnancy and marriage and so come to rely on each other again for strength and support.

Stephannie Gearhart

Cite this article
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"Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee." Contemporary Novelists. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee." Contemporary Novelists. . (December 17, 2017).

"Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from