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I Am Legend: The latest from Chitra Divakaruni ('The Mistress of Spices') is a retelling of the Indian epic the Mahabharata.

Supernatural Storytelling

Chitra Divakaruni, mistress of sumptuous narratives, delves into India's past in 'The Palace of Illusions.'

By Michelle Camerlingo

Before Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, award-winning author and poet, emigrated from Calcutta, she never gave writing a second thought. At just 17 years old, Divakaruni came to America to pursue her graduate studies in 1976 and was blown away by all the changes.

"It was a transition," Divakaruni recalls. "I had to learn to live on my own. Everything was different, and I was very homesick. I wanted to write about India and about my impressions of America."

And nothing proves more compelling than the immigrant experience. Since then, Divakaruni has been published in many magazines, including the New Yorker. Two of her books, The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart, have been made into movies. Now, in her latest novel, The Palace of Illusions (Doubleday Anchor; 384 pages; $14.95 paperback), Divakaruni turns her gaze homeward in a retelling of the Mahabharata, the Indian epic written in Sanskrit some 3,000 years ago.

At its core, the Mahabharata is a story of rivalry between two branches of a single dynasty, but Divakaruni reorients the tale in her novel by putting the female characters at the forefront. Spanning decades, The Palace of Illusions is filled with the deities of ancient Indian mythology and revolves around Panchaali, a princess with a fiery voice who is forced by fate to marry five men. For Divakaruni, it was natural to explore the feminine side of a story she'd long known.

"My grandfather told me the story as a child, so it was always in the back of my mind to retell it. He was a great storyteller. The women characters always attracted me," she said. "I'm interested in women doing interesting things--breaking boundaries and doing other than the norm."

Because the story is so close to Divakaruni's heart and heritage, it took her double the time it usually takes to write a novel. She spent countless hours researching ancient India. Yet even though the story takes place so long ago, it is still very relevant to today's war-torn and gender-unbalanced world.

"An important aspect of the story is war and the cost of war. Everybody loses in war--which is very relevant all over the world today," Divakaruni says. "And the women in the story are trying to take control of their lives, their decisions and be taken seriously--all things women deal with today."

Divakaruni earned her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and it was there that women's rights and issues became a conscious part of her life. She began volunteering at the women's center and later started Maitri, an organization that helps South Asian women who find themselves in abusive or domestic violence situations in the Bay Area.

"I started doing things with the women's center sort of by chance, really. But working there got me really thinking about my role in the world," she says.

Even though Divakaruni now lives in Texas, she spent most of her life in Northern California, which she often writes about. "I miss the Bay Area; a lot of my friends are there. I always enjoy coming to Santa Cruz because of the atmosphere and great feel of the place," she says.

Currently, Divakaruni teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Houston and lives with her husband and her two sons, Anand and Abhay, whose names she has used in her children's novels. Although it is hard to balance the twin careers of writing and teaching, Divakaruni somehow manages.

"I love teaching. It helps me to be a better writer. I get to constantly read the works of younger voices, which always gives a fresh perspective."

CHITRA DIVAKARUNI will speak on Friday, March 6, at 7:30pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free. (831.423.0900)

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