The women characters in your books are desperate, wonderful, lyrical, memorable and even magical. Do you think all these characteristics are equally important in a woman in order have healthy relationships?
There are many kinds of women, and therefore many kinds of healthy relationships. But yes, I think it is important to have all these sides to our personalities. when what is allowed to women is too narrow, it will create all kinds of subterfuge, leading to repression,which is not healthy for a society overall.
You have stayed in India as well as United States. Do you see a change in ways a women’s sexuality is perceived in different regions?
Yes, absolutely. There are many changes depending on how urban the environment is, in both India and the US. However, in highly urban locations in India, I am seeing much more acceptance about women's autonomy in relationships – and that's the same in the US. In both places, though,there is a large cross-section of attitudes, and that is inevitable, I think, and to an extent, healthy. I find a wide range of attitudes to be acceptable, as long as they don't promote violence against women or repression of women. The biggest problem in this regard is when society decides that if a woman wears a certain kind of clothing or goes to a certain part of the city, or is out of the home at night, it is okay if bad things happen to her. (The mentality of "she brought this trouble down on herself; she should not have worn that kind of clothing; she was asking for it.") and even in urban areas, there are problems – we saw that clearly in the Nirbhaya case...
In your book The Palace of Illusions (where Draupadi or Panchaali is the central character), you have decorously described Panchaali’s desire for love and her inner desires. Would you say that every woman desires that kind of elevated love? Quote few examples.
I think women are very different – they want love of different kinds. At first in her marriage, Draupadi wants Arjun to love her. but he has several wives, so she does not get the exclusive kind of love she longs for. Draupadi's love for Karna is of a nobler kind because duty is very important to her. She decides right up front that she is not going to be unfaithful to her marriage vows. Not all women would be like that. In my new novel, Before We Visit the Goddess, the three main women characters– a grandmother, a mother, and a daughter – all approach love in different ways. Some want the mental satisfaction of relating to a man on the heart level. To some, a relationship needs to have a physical component as well. I would like to say that none of them can be considered wrong – we are all different kinds of individuals with different needs.
Many relationships and marriages do not culminate into perfect love and that craving for the perfect love makes us long for the prohibited love (just as you have described the love Panchaali feels for Karna in your book The Palace of Illusions.) How far should this desire be curbed or allowed to bloom?
My personal feelings are that once you are married, you have made a commitment. If you are really unhappy with the marriage, it is better to get out of it. That is the courageous and right thing to do. Or else you need to make a decision that you are going to make the best of it because of other considerations such as the welfare of children. Getting into a clandestine affair can only lead to more problems and ultimately more stress. And in any case, is there anything called the perfect love outside of romantic movies? A successful relationship is built on compromise and mutual respect more than romance.
You do a lot of work in the community with women who have been abused or suffered domestic violence. Is sex a major manner in which women are abused? Give two examples.
Yes, many times, women in domestic violence situations are subjected to sex when they don't want it. If they refuse, the man gets angry and can turn physically/sexually violent or emotionally abusive. But there are other related problems as well. One case I knew, the man was so suspicious that when he left the house he would lock up all the woman's clothes, so she would not be able to go out of the house. Ultimately, it was a control related issue. Please remember, though,domestic violence takes many forms. Psychological abuse can be as harmful as physical or sexual. I've written about such tragic relationships in my novel, The Mistress of Spices.
Many of your women characters seem to have a rebellious streak and seem to be longing for empowerment. Do you notice all man-woman relationships to be fundamentally complicated? Please give two examples.
No, not all man-woman relationships are complicated. Some are simple and happy, but those don't make the best stories! Therefore, in my stories women often find themselves in a complicated world, in a complicated relationship, and with complicated feelings and desires about what they want out of life. Sometimes a man gets in the way of this desire. But in some of the stories, the man reports their empowerment.This is particularly so in Before We Visit the Goddess, where all three generations of women are searching for the answer to what makes a successful woman. Along the way they certainly have complicated relationships with men, though not all these relationships are sexual. That's something I wanted to point to – a man and a woman can have an important and valuable friendship relationship. It doesn't always have to be sexual. This is something I strongly believe.
Do you feel that there has been a change in the gender dynamics with reference to relationships and marriage over the last few decades? Give two examples (for example the marriage of today’s youth compared to their parents’).
There have been many changes. Again, more in the urban areas than in the rural areas, and more in families where the woman is educated, or has financial independence. In such cases, the field is much more level, and women have more of a say in what happens in the family.
In my novel Before We Visit the Goddess, the grandmother, Sabitri, marries a man who falls in love with her, but she is certainly the financially dependent one in that relationship, and that affects the dynamics in her marriage. The granddaughter, Tara, growing up in the US in current times, chooses to live with a man without getting married to him. In terms of power dynamics, it is a whole other kind of relationship. However, as the book demonstrates, that kind of relationship can also have its problems, particularly with commitment.
The bottom line: relationships are like Dilli ka laddu. You long for them when you don't have them, and hopefully you enjoy them when you get them, at least some of the time, but there are always drawbacks and compromises, too!
(To be continued...)