Culture And Tradition: Rudiments Of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Novels

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One of the major and dominant trends obvious in post-independence Indian English fiction is the portrayal of the vast and enduring culture of India. Culture is best expressed through the arts and writings of a country. The pluralistic heritage of Indian culture helped the Indian society to get exposed to a variety of cultural influences, and gifted the Indian cultural variety with its richness. Indian society has managed to absorb and assimilate the divergent traditions, customs and bodies of knowledge and art forms from its invaders and these in turn have combined into a cosmopolitan Indian culture of many religious practices, and a multitude of customs, beliefs, languages, art and architecture forms that we know and very easily identify with.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award winning author and poet. She has been published in over fifty magazines, including the Atlantic monthly and the New Yorkers, and her writing has been included in over fifty anthologies. Her books have been translated into 16 languages, including Dutch, Hebrew, Russian, and Japanese. She was born in India. She left Calcutta and came to in the nationally ranked creative writing serves on the board of MAITRI in the San Francisco. She has received several prestigious awards, such as the National Book Award and the PEN Faulkner Award.

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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novels are put up with themes like immigration, myth, culture and tradition along with magical realism. Culture is a particular society or civilization especially considered in relation to its beliefs, way of life and art. It consists of activities such as the arts and philosophy, which are considered to be important for the development of civilization and of people’s minds. Culture includes all the elements in man’s mature endowment that has acquired from his group by conscious learning or by a conditioning process-beliefs and patterned modes of conduct. As the food and culture is a key feature of diaspora a strong sense of connection to a homeland is maintained through cultural practices and ways of life.

India is a land of culture and has strong belief in superstitions. Preserving the culture is the prestige of all countries. Chitra Banerjee’s novels are an evidence to prove it. Her novels portray the scope for establishing a bicultural identity. Divakaruni’s portrayal to ethnic identity is dependent on the view of South Asian Diaspora that believes in the necessity of integrating the Indian heritage with its American experience. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni revives the long forgotten Indian myth, belief, tradition, culture and even dreams which are vital for existence, which in reality is only a mixture of all in fantasy or magic realism. However, as the novels progress, the fantasy element diminishes and the realistic element becomes prominent. She shares the memories which were shared by her mother by reading lot of Bengali books, with a growing audience. As cultural offshoots, the author loads her novels with rituals, customs and practices pertaining to food, dress, the language of her native place, along with the practices which evokes the sensibility of Indian readers, a feeling of intense nostalgia, for things past, etched in their memory as they incorporate themselves to a new immigrant culture.

Since Divakauni is a Bengali, her works are firmly rooted in Bengali soil. Not only Settings but also most of her characters are Bengali. The protagonists in Chitra Banerjee‘s novels reflect the culture of Bengal such as usage of Bengali words, dress, and food items. The most outstanding feature of the art of rural Bengal consists of life of the people and their seasonal and social festivals, their work and their play. The whole of life was conceived as worshipping the numerous deities, those from ancient Vedic times as well as those conjured up over time by the folk imagination, is part of the daily life of rural Bengal. Although the rituals, prayers, and offerings can vary from one deity to the next, some elements are common to all such occasions of worship. They reveal a fertile artistic imagination, springing from the tropical lushness of the region.

Weddings among Bengali Hindus are elaborate affairs, stretching over three days, with the preparatory rituals beginning even a week in advance. In a delta region whose rivers are fertile in fish, it is not surprising that Bengalis consider fish as a symbol of plenty and use it in their wedding rituals. In the novel Sister of My Heart, Chitra Banerjee has described about it in the wedding ceremonies of Anju anb Sudha. Traditionally, every village had a resident Padua, whose depiction of divine figures or scenes from myths, epics, and narrative poems often adorned the walls of huts, or substituted for images in the household slot reserved for worship. The illustrations were remarkable for their bold line drawings and vivid use of pure unmixed colours.

Parallel aesthetic visions are called up by the conjunction of food and art. There are direct depictions of food in art, in painting, literature, conversely, there is the artistry of preparing and presenting food. But all such convergence of food and art, however sublime, is about food as an object of consumption and sustenance, either in the immediate present, or savored as a memory, or anticipated as a future pleasure. But there is a third dimension, where food is the medium for depicting the emotional, ceremonial, and ritual universe of a people. Food, in that cultural mindset, was not only something to be consumed for survival, but also an artistic medium. It provided the raw material for painting and making offerings to the Gods. It enhanced personal experience when its shape, colour, and life became metaphors for human existence. It acquired symbolic meaning and enriched social customs with ceremonial value. And the creative force that was behind such transformations was a rurally derived folk imagination, and the cultivated, educated, sophisticated mindset of intellectuals.

Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee’s major novels such as The Mistress of Spices, Sister of My Heart, The Vine of Desire and Queen of Dreams clearly deal about women’s problem. The women characters in her novels though ready to play an active part in the new culture still peep alive their old tradition. One of the commonest problems faced by the immigrants is racial discrimination. One may find Banerjee’s protagonists attacked by the whites who resent the browned-skinned people who, the whites think, are over-crowding their land. Violence or verbal abuse turns out to be an intrinsic part of the life of the refugees.

Chitra Banerjee in her novel The Vine of Desire highlights the cultural adaptation of the characters. A few years after her settlement in America, the culture transforms Anju in her usage of peculiar words and interests. Her shrinking memories of India make Sudha realize that even their memories are isolated on separate islands. As Sunil, though outwardly understood, he could not tolerate Lalit’s intimacy either with Sudha or with Anju. His anger in turn targets a fight with a valet who comments over the Indians in the party, “Fucking Indians, showing off” (VD 167). The strange land seems to create the need of incorporation and transformation for the immigrants. But behavioral changes are hardly acceptable in accordance with the new culture for the characters.

Sudha realizes that she cannot go back to the old controlled ways of Indian life. She somehow feels secure for the frosty customs of America to start a new life. She thinks standing at the corner of a road, “I must be emanating some type of distress signal, because passerby stares at me strangely. If this were India, at least half of them would know me. They’d ask me a thousand questions, offer to help, give advice, may be even escort me back home”(VD 178). Not only Sudha but Anju and Sunil also trace new paths for them after deciding for a divorce. Anju begins her self-searching journey keeping distance with all closed ones. She shares room with one of her friends from writer’s club but as they belong to different countries they could not make a comfortable companionship between them. She always wants Sudha close to her to share and understand her completely. Anju feels like shivering in fingertips like pins and needles when any of her American friends criticizes about the heritage which she loves a lot. Even their everyday talks are so diverged that she feels lonely among them. She understands that, “…large chunks of herself will always be unintelligible to them: the joint family she grew up in, her arranged marriage, the way she fell in love with her husband, the tension in her household, that ménage a trios Indian style”(VD 98).

Tradition of a country claims its easy prey by women, which is clearly represented by the character Pishima, the sister of Anju’s father in the novel Sister of My Heart. She was widowed at an early age and even denied opportunity to continue studies, and always destined to the kitchen. She got a life of utter dependence. As a juxtapose, Gourima, the mother of Anju, is shown in contrast to the character of Pishima, who is bold and dominant in running the household after the death of her husband. She handles the book shop and even takes care of her two daughters, Sudha and Anju, their studies, and even the widows, Nalini and Pishima. She didn’t even takes care of her health, while struggling hard to take over the family without hurting the traditions of the Chatterjees. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s literature brings about the adaptation to the needs of rapidly changing circumstances, both in literature and in everyday life. Thus, it is seen that Indians even in an alien world are accustomed to the Indian culture despite their struggle between the old strict tradition and the challenge proved by their new life.

In Calcutta, it is the belief of the people that Bidhata Purush, the God of destiny will come to bless the new- born child and the demons will also accompany with him. The old tales depicts this also, in the wake of the Bidhata Purush come the demons, and for that is the world’s nature, good and evil mingled. That is why they leave an oil lamp burning. That is why they place the sacred tulsi leaf under the baby’s pillow for protection” (SH 15).

In The Mistress of Spices Daksha, an immigrant came to Tilo’s shop with white nurse’s uniform to buy some cracked wheat to make a dalia putting for her mother-in-law as the day was ekadasi on which day the widow would not take. This custom in India is still observed in some orthodox families. She said to Tilo “Aunty today is ekadasi you know, eleventh day of the moon, and my mother-in-law being a widow must not eat rice. So I thought maybe some cracked wheat to make a dalia pudding for her” (MS 82). Likewise the grandfather of Geeta also praised the Indian culture and scolded Geeta when she cut her hair in the American style and he praised about the simplicity of Indian women:

That girl, this Sunday she cut her hair short-short so that even her neck is showing. I am telling her, Geeta what did you do, your hair is the essence of your womanhood.… Or. That Geeta, how much makeup she is using all the time. Uff, in my days only the Englishwomen and prostitutes are doing that. Good Indian girls are not ashamed of the face God is giving them. You cannot think what all she is taking with her even to work … You must do what is best for her. Even from birth a girl‘s real home is with her future husband‘s family only. … Can you see me with a veil over my head sitting in a sweaty kitchen all day, a bunch of house keys tied to the end of my sari. (MS 89 - 91)

A common practice in India is that some families in India give importance to one’s own community and underestimate other low caste community. Chitra Banerjee has given undue importance to the various culinary practices of India, dishes and the recipe of some of the food items which represents a cultural expression, create identity and help the immigrants to feel at home. The elements of magic realism, myth and culture are merged together to present surprise, novelty and new technique to Chitra Banerjee’s novels which also help to bring out other themes such as identity crisis, nostalgia, demythification and remythification.

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Culture And Tradition: Rudiments Of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Novels. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from
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