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May 5, 2017

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: What My Mother Said

Posted by tom

We kick off this year’s Mother’s Day Author Blog series with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the author of more than a dozen books, including one of Carol Fitzgerald’s favorites, ONE AMAZING THING (a Bets On pick). Here, Chitra talks about her mother’s influence on her writing. And after reading this beautiful piece, readers will appreciate all the more that the grandmother in BEFORE WE VISIT THE GODDESS (which is now available in paperback) is modeled, in part, on her mother. This was the first book that Chitra wrote after her mother passed away.

This Mother’s Day, like many of you, I’m thinking of my mother, who passed away about five years ago.

They say that sometimes we don’t know the full value of a treasure until we lose it. That certainly was the case with myself and my mother, with whom I had a close but often stormy relationship. Perhaps it’s because we were alike in so many ways, with our stubborn pride and fiery tempers.

My mother grew up in India in the 1940s, soon after the country gained its independence from the British. It would take a while, though, for women in India to be independent and make their own life-choices. It was rare at that time for a woman from a middle-class background like my mother’s to get a college degree, which is what my mother wanted more than anything else. She struggled very hard to achieve it, living as a poor, unwanted relative in the home of richer cousins. But it was too difficult. Finally she gave in, dropped out of college, got married and had her children.

She regretted this decision all her life --- especially when, later, she had to bring myself and my two younger brothers up as a single parent. This was a particularly difficult role for her to take on, both financially and emotionally, because India was, at that time, a very traditional society. A household without a male to lead it was considered an anomaly. Sometimes at night, during those hard times, she would whisper to me so as to not wake my brothers (we all shared a bed), “I want you not to suffer like this, ever. I want you to be a successful woman. I know you can!” She said it so often, I got tired of hearing it. Sometimes I dreamed the words in my sleep and woke up feeling angry and stressed.

I often complained to my mother about the pressures she put on me while I was growing up. I never told her how important she was as a role model, a support, someone who I knew I could turn to if ever anything went wrong. Isn’t that often true with the people we are closest to, this awkward silence? Instead, I wrote over and over about strong women in difficult situations. Women who struggled hard to make it. Women who took care of their dependents. Women who were successful --- and sometimes paid the price for it. These books were my silent homage to my mother, and after each one was published, I sent her a copy in India.

I never saw those copies when I went to visit her. We didn’t discuss my books or the prizes they’d won, or the times they got on the bestseller list. That was deeply disappointing. I so wanted her to be proud of me. But perhaps it was a good thing, too. If she had expressed disapproval about my sometimes edgy themes or characters, or told me she didn’t like my stories, it might have blocked me from writing. Perhaps she knew that.

When my mother grew seriously ill, I traveled to India to be with her at the end. After she passed away, I had to go through her things, a heartrending task. She had so little, compared to all the stuff I’d collected over the years.

Then I found, in a trunk under her bed, all of my books. Their dog-eared pages indicated that she’d read them many times. The neem leaves with which she had layered the trunk to keep away insects indicated that she treasured them.

I brought the books back with me when I returned to the United States. I keep them on the shelf near my writing desk. When the writing isn’t going well, when I’m stuck or disheartened, when I think I might never again be able to write anything worthwhile, I look at them. I hear my mother saying, “I know you can,” and I pick up my pen.