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Dreams and dislocation

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has kept a low profile so far in this part of the world. This is strange, given how quick Calcutta usually is to claim ownership of anyone who has even a remote connection with the city. Here is a Bengali woman writing best-selling novels in the US, and somehow, she has managed to sidestep the limelight.

But that is likely to change very soon. With Chitra's first novel The Mistress of Spices being made into a film starring Aishwarya Rai, produced by Gurinder Chadha and directed by husband Paul Mayeda Berges, we will be seeing much more of the writer who grew up in New Alipore.

For now, Queen of Dreams, her latest novel, was launched in the city on Saturday. Set in the Bay area of California, the story, like Chitra's earlier works, explores the immigrant experience in the US. She strikes a rare balance between eastern mysticism and contemporary American culture.

'Not a lot has been written on immigrant life till recently. It is interesting to see how people lose touch or continue to keep in touch with their own cultures,' explains Chitra. For the student of Loreto House and Presidency College who shifted base to Ohio at the age of 20, this was both familiar and relevant ground.

The film ' currently being shot in California ' on the other hand, is uncharted territory. 'Gurinder got hold of the book and wrote to me some years ago,' she recalls.

Though the Bend It Like Beckham and Bride & Prejudice director didn't have enough money at the time, she really wanted to make the film. After the runaway success of her other projects, finances were no longer an obstacle.

Chitra, for her part, was more than happy giving Gurinder the rights to her book ('I like her work, and she is interested in similar themes'). Immigrant communities and women's identities within them are recurring ideas explored by both.

The author was not interested in influencing the film-maker's creative process, which deserves, she feels, its independence. Aishwarya's character, for instance, is supposed to be an old woman, which is crucial to the text.

'I am not sure how old she will be in the film, but Gurinder was planning white hair and coloured contacts!' she smiles.

The mother of two was disappointed, however, that she couldn't be on the sets as this two-week India trip had been planned well in advance and coincides with the US schedule. However, her own schedule permits no liberties with time.

Chitra also teaches creative writing at the Ph.D. programme at the University of Houston, one of the best in the country.

She co-founded Maitri, an organisation that works with immigrant women victims of domestic abuse.

She has a children's book on the way next year, titled Mirror of Fire and Dreaming, and another tale in the works, 'an ambitious project' that revisits the Mahabharata from the perspective of its women characters.

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