Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Cross-Cultural Understanding Spiced with the Indian Diaspora

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Cross-Cultural Understanding Spiced with the Indian Diaspora

Article excerpt

Dr. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni laughs gently as she talks about the success of her first novel, The Mistress of Spices.

An English and creative-writing instructor at Foothill College near San Jose, Calif., she is better known in academic circles as editor of the popular Multitudes anthology. But with her new book, she is carrying the message of cross-cultural understanding beyond the ivied towers of academia.

"I am a listener, a facilitator, a connector to people," she says. "To me, the art of dissolving boundaries is what living is all about."

That desire to listen and connect also drives Tilo, the heroine of The Mistress of Spices ($22.95, Anchor, 1997).

Described by The New Yorker as "a quirky fairy," Tilo dispenses spices - not only for kofta and curry, but also for the homesickness and alienation that plagues the Indian immigrants that patronize her dusty shop.

Tim novel is set in the San Francisco Bay area, home to a quarter of America's 1.25 million Indian immigrants. For Divakaruni, Tilo is the quintessential immigrant - she must decide which parts of her heritage she will keep and which parts she will leave behind. But the novel has a wide range of fans, not just those of Indian descent.

"The audiences have been very multicultural when I do a reading, and people of all ages come," Divakaruni says. "A lot of people are connecting to Tilo's story because most of us can relate to the immigrant experience - we know how it is to leave familiar things, even if it's just moving to a new neighborhood."

Divakaruni's poems and short stories are part of a publishing phenomenon - members of the Indian diaspora writing in English. In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence, The New Yorker devoted a recent issue to the trend. The issue included Divakaruni's poem titled "The Maimed Dancing Men."

Divakaruni, forty-nine, resides in Sunnyvale, Calif., with her husband and two young sons. Her own immigrant experience began in 1976 when she came to the United States from Calcutta, a city so crowded that she felt no one would miss her. She lived briefly in Chicago and Ohio, and finally settled in California in 1979. She eventually earned a doctorate in English from the University of California-Berkeley.

Leaving India caused Divakaruni to reevaluate her homeland's culture, and specifically its treatment of women. Most of India's 450 million women live as their grandmothers did - in rural areas, receiving little or no formal education, and gaining status only through marriage and bearing sons.

"At Berkeley, I volunteered at the women's center," she says. "As I got more involved, I became interested in helping battered women - violence against women crosses cultural borders and educational levels. Then, slowly, I focused on women in my community."

In 1991, with a group of friends, she founded a help-line to provide services to Indian American women. The most important things the help-line volunteers do is listen and be an empathetic presence. Inspired by the life stories of these women, Divakaruni published a short story collection, Arranged Marriages, which told of their abuse - and their courage.

It was as an educator that Divakaruni first began emphasizing communications between cultures.

"I've been teaching for about ten years now," she says. …

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