Strong, nuanced, flawed, magical and shattering stereotypes. These words can be equally used to describe Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and the women protagonists she has given the world through her literary works. For women of South Asian origin, especially Indian women, accessing the image of powerful, inspiring women in fiction has been a long and difficult journey. We have had authors and poets like Mahashweta Devi, Amrita Pritam and Jhumpa Lahiri for sure. But Divakarunis use of magic realism and robust historical narratives have given us a rare but necessary glimpse into women characters spread across space and timeresulting in fictional yet historical women we can relate to and admire simultaneously.This is true for Tilottama, Divakarunis protagonist in The Mistress of Spices, Draupadi in The Palace of Illusions, Sita in The Forest of Enchantments, and Maharani Jindan in The Last Queen. Keeping up with this streak, the Indian-American author and poet has now launched her new book, Independence, with not one but three women protagonists. Set against the backdrop of the Partition and Indias independence, this novel delves into the lives of three Bengali sisters, Deepa, Jamini and Priya. The book may be uncharted waters for many Indian readers, simply because it deals with the impacts of the Partition on the lives of ordinary citizens in Bengal instead of Punjab, the land where most works of Partition-related fiction are set.In conversation with Her Circle, Divakaruni talked about her new book, her literary choices, and why more women storytellers need to take up the pen (or any other medium, for that matter). Heres what she had to say.The Memory Of Partition WomenI have been thinking about the stories behind Partition and independence for a long time, Divakaruni says. My grandfather and my mother were both involved in the freedom struggle, and I was told many tales of resistance against the British. After writing The Last Queen, in which Maharani Jindan, my heroine, fought valiantly against the British but failed to retain her kingdom, I wanted to focus on the end of colonisation, when the British were finally forced to leave India.Like for all her works, Divakaruni did a lot of research to convey the authenticity any work around the Partition absolutely needs to have. Apart from reading old newspapers, photographs and works of fiction, she read prominent non-fictional works by women like Nayantara Sahgal, Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, among others. Sarojini Naidu is an important figure in this novel, she explains. I researched her life and writings, and especially her speeches. The legendary Amrita Pritams poems had a huge impact on Divakaruni, so much so that she used one of her quotes as the epigraph for Independence: There are many stories which are not on paper; they are written on the minds and bodies of women.A Voice For Women, In Every Possible WayWhen asked why, as an author, she chooses to portray such a rare perspective on women through her works, Divakaruni replies that its all based on the inspiration she has drawn from personal life. I always thought it was important for women to have a voice. My mother was a strong woman. She battled many difficult circumstances in her life to bring up her children. I saw many other quiet but heroic women around me when I was growing up, she says. But it seemed to me that their courage and spirit was rarely noticed or appreciated. Instead, we were expected to be good girls and not make waves. I guess I wanted to fix that imbalance, at least a little bit.What many may not know is that Divakarunis attempt at giving women a voice expands way beyond her literary ventures. A group of my friends and I founded Maitri in the San Francisco Bay area to help women who were in situations of violence, domestic abuse, etc. It is so lonely and overwhelming when you are in that kind of situation, in a strange country, far from your support system, she says. Maitri (and Daya, on whose advisory board I am now) helps such women in many waysfrom listening and helping them get to safety, to assisting them with legal and financial issues. I think it is so important that all women have a safe place to live, from which they (and often, their children) can start over and grow.Handling Critique With The Right PerspectiveCriticism is something that any creative person has to live with, but how does an award-winning author like Divakaruni take it? It always hurts a little when people criticize my books or my point of view, especially about women, she explains. And sometimes critics will not pay as much serious attention to historical works by women, or be dismissive. But I have realised that I cannot let myself be disheartened by such things. I examine what people are saying to see if theres something I can learn from it. If not, I trust in myself and move forward to the next project. She also adds that as many readers and critics have responded to her work with positive feedback, it does give her a lot of encouragement.And this is true even for her historical and mythological books, though those tend to be sensitive issues where critics of all types come out of the woodwork, especially on certain social media platforms. Divakaruni attributes this to three major reasons. First, she treats all her characters, irrespective of gender, with the same amount of sympathy and respect. For instance, in The Forest of Enchantments, I focus on the character of Sita who is brave, honest and loving, though when necessary she can also be strong, stubborn and uncompromising. But while I want my readers to relate to her, feel for her and admire her, I don't need them to hate anyone else. So I have tried to portray Ram, too, as complex and nuanced. Sita's greatness does not depend on depicting Ram negatively, she says.Second, she lays her work on the strongest possible foundation by doing the research well. This way, people cannot complain that I just made up things. For instance, for my two historical novels, The Last Queen, which is set in the 1800s, and Independence, set in the 1940s, I did a huge amount of research. I spent the better part of the year reading critical texts as well as books from those times. I researched historical photographs, paintings, songs, religious books, everything I could find. I have tried to be truthful and accurate about the times and the historical characters depicted. So people cannot say I made it all up because I have some kind of an agenda, she explains.Her third reason is based on the very reason why she writes these books. I want my readers to be inspired by tales of nobility and courage, to be aware of what happened in history and learn from it so that we don't repeat the same tragic mistakes. To stand up against injustice as my heroines have done. I hope that is an endeavour that will resonate with most Indians, she adds.About Stories Yet To Be ToldSo, while the world is now all set to dive into Divakarunis latest, whose story does she plan on telling next? Independence took a lot out of me, she says. I will need to clear my head and be silent for a while and see who speaks to me next! I am always surprised by the ideas that appear, often serendipitously, out of nowhere. We may not know yet what our next Divakaruni favourite will be, but the author does believe there needs to be a greater feminine presence in the literary world. Not everyone is a storyteller, but yes, storytelling is certainly important in our culture, she explains. I was lucky to spend my school holidays when I was young in a Bengal village with my grandfather. There were wonderful women storytellers all around me. They shared folk tales, fairy tales, and family stories with me. So yes, I think there are many women storytellers among us who can flourish if given the right exposure and training.