The author of 10 books for adults (including The Mistress of Spices, soon to be a motion picture), Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni talks about why she wanted to write for children. Her first book for young people, The Conch Bearer (Roaring Brook/Porter, 2003), followed 12-year-old Anand, who befriends a beggar man at a tea stall in India, and kicks off a chain of events that lead him to a community of master healers in the Himalayas. Its sequel is The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming.
What prompted you to make the switch to children’s books, with The Conch Bearer?
I think there were a number of reasons for it. After September 11, 2001, I was feeling like I really wanted more understanding between cultures. It seemed to me that so much of what happened on September 11 was because people didn’t understand each other and were suspicious of each other. First it led to the terrible acts of terrorism, and then it led to a very sad aftermath, where there were hate crimes against anyone who seemed different—but who were Americans, too. My own community was affected by that. I felt a strong need to do something.
I was already writing books about my culture and hoped to convey what a wonderful and challenging thing it is to be an immigrant. But I realized that only a certain kind of person would even pick up my books. By the time we’re adults, our ideas have solidified. So I wanted to write for a younger audience, who would perhaps love heroes from other cultures.
I think part of [the reason I wanted to write for children] was also that I have two boys. I wanted them to see themselves in literature, and for other children to see children like [my sons] in books.
I want children to be able to say, “I can relate to this; my name is like this, my parents come from a different country, like these kids’ [parents].” Especially kids from South Asian cultures, there’s not much written about them. When authors are writing from inside the culture, you get a different perspective.
Did you know when you started The Conch Bearer that you would have more to say about Anand?
No. Maybe halfway through I thought, “There’s more in this, I want to be with these characters longer.” I didn’t know that much about the stories, but I knew that Conch Bearer would be contemporary, the second goes into the past, and the third will go into the future.
The sights, smells and sounds of India are so palpable in these books. Did those details come easily to you?
I’m a very senses-oriented person, and I want to bring readers in on the level of the senses, so they can experience another culture and another place. I want them to feel what these characters are feeling, to walk in their shoes. In order for that to happen, India has to become a real place for them—one that I hope comes across in its complexity.
I wanted to create the contrast, how life would be in Kolkata—in the slums—and life in the countryside. I was a city child, but my grandfather lived in the country, so I always got a sense, when I went to see my grandfather, of moving from the restrictedness [of the city] to the openness [of the countryside]. The idea of the magical valley [the Silver Valley where the master healers study] comes out of many old stories in Indian folklore.
The spiritual tenets expressed in the book are also crucial to the plotting. Can you talk a bit about the spiritual underpinnings of the two books?
A lot of these ideas are just about living in the world as a caring and compassionate human being. These are universal, but they came to me first through Indian culture, through my exposure to our ancient scriptural stories. I wanted to make that part of Anand’s and Nisha’s story. It’s at once a great adventure but also a spiritual adventure, where they will learn things, be tested, make decisions—some of which are difficult.
How did you arrive at the ending of Conch Bearer which, in many ways, is a spiritual decision for Anand?
My children helped me with that. I found corroboration of one of my beliefs: children are very intuitive and have a great deal of spirituality, which is often lost when we become adults. They know a lot about kindness and many other virtues that, as adults, we have made ourselves lose sight of. So when Anand has to make his decision, I didn’t know what he would do, so I talked to my children—they felt that the right thing for [Anand] to do was to stay in the valley.
To achieve important things, we have to sacrifice what’s important to us. That’s an idea that’s very central to Indian thinking.