Chitra Divakaruni's Top Ten List

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Chitra Divakaruni

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (born 1956) is an Indian-American author whose novels, stories and poems often use elements of fantasy and magic realism in portraying the experiences of South Asian immigrants. She published two books of poems, The Reason for Nasturtiums (1990) and Black Candle (1991) before bringing out her first story collection, Arranged Marriage (1995, American Book Award) and her first novel, The Mistress of Spices (1997). Her other novels include The Vine of Desire (2002), Queen of Dreams (2004) and The Palace of Illusions (2006), Oleander Girl (2013), Before We Visit the Goddess (2016) and The Forest of Enchantments (2019). She has also written a series a spiritual fantasy series for young adults, The Brotherhood of the Conch, which includes The Conch Bearer (2003), The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming (2005) and Shadowland (2009). 

1. Bhagavadgita (fifth century b.c.e.). An eighteen-chapter section of the Mahabharata, this “Song of God” is a dialogue between Prince Arjuna, a warrior on the battlefield, and the Supreme Lord Krishna, who appears as a charioteer. The two discuss the true self that is not destroyed in death and states of release from the human realm of suffering. As a cornerstone of Hindu faith and yogic philosophy, the Bhagavadgita has had a profound impact on philosophical and religious traditions in both the East and West.

2. Mahabharata (fifth century b.c.e.). Said to be the second-longest epic poem in the world (behind Tibet’s Epic of King Gesar), the Mahabarata is also, along with the Ramayana, one of the two defining books of Hindu culture. Its core narrative relates the clashes between two groups of royal Indian cousins —one descended from gods, the other from demons. War, disguises, asceticism, drunken brawls, and the god Dharma as a dog swirl through this magical panorama of ancient India, which also includes the famous sermon Bhagavadgita, the Hindu equivalent to the New Testament.

3. Galpo Guccho by Rabindranath Tagore (1912). These beautifully structured stories are vast in range, moving from supernatural tales to historical stories of love. Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, is especially good at portraying the little moments of daily life and creating vivid characters —often the poor and dispossessed in his native India —that continue to haunt us.

4. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna’s adulterous love affair with Count Vronsky —which follows an inevitable, devastating road from their dizzyingly erotic first encounter at a ball to Anna’s exile from society and her famous, fearful end —is a masterwork of tragic love. What makes the novel so deeply satisfying, though, is how Tolstoy balances the story of Anna’s passion with a second semiautobiographical story of Levin’s spirituality and domesticity. Levin commits his life to simple human values: his marriage to Kitty, his faith in God, and his farming. Tolstoy enchants us with Anna’s sin, then proceeds to educate us with Levin’s virtue.

5. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (1954–56). An Oxford medievalist, Tolkien drew on his vast knowledge of mythology, theology, and linguistics to imagine this epic trilogy. The books chronicle the hobbit Frodo’s attempt to destroy the magical ring of Sauron, Lord of Darkness. “The Fellowship of the Ring” introduces the men, dwarves, and elves summoned by the wizard Gandalf to protect Frodo. In “The Two Towers,” Frodo and his companion Sam continue their quest toward Mount Doom, while the rest of the fellowship is brought into the battle detailed in “The Return of the King.”

6. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (1995–2000). This epic trilogy, comprised of Northern Lights (a.k.a., The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, reconceives Paradise Lost as an adventure/fantasy from an atheist, humanist perspective. Like Adam and Eve, Lyra and Will embrace knowledge. But for them it is the path to liberation, not damnation. In thrilling quests across magic universes filled with demons, angels, and talking animals, they battle “the Authority” that demands faith while repressing freedom.

7. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967). Widely considered the most popular work in Spanish since Don Quixote, this novel —part fantasy, part social history of Colombia — sparked fiction’s “Latin boom” and the popularization of magic realism. Over a century that seems to move backward and forward simultaneously, the forgotten and offhandedly magical village of Macondo — home to a Faulknerian plethora of incest, floods, massacres, civil wars, dreamers, prudes, and prostitutes — loses its Edenic innocence as it is increasingly exposed to civilization.

8. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1986). Atwood offers another piercing fiction about humankind’s place in nature and women’s place in society in this chilling futuristic novel in which widespread sterility has led to totalitarian control of procreation. Offred has been forced into service as a Handmaid and will become a surrogate mother if the Commander manages to impregnate her before his embittered wife harms her. Garbed in a red habit and living like a slave, Offred covertly records her harrowing story, finding freedom in preserving her observations and in expressing her mordant wit and unnerving wisdom.

9. The Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda (1970). Neruda’s biography is an impressive one, maybe even a heroic one: poet, ambassador, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. But his poetry is human-size stuff, packed with concrete images and honest emotion. The Chilean-born Neruda, who merged his leftist politics with Whitmanesque exuberance, took the objects and experiences around us and turned them into something bigger through stunningly immediate language.

10. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle (1997). Beginning with his own spiritual crisis at age twenty-nine, Tolle describes how he achieved enlightenment by learning to live “present, fully, and intensely, in the Now.” Drawing on a variety of traditional teachings and techniques, Tolle urges readers to shed their attachments to the past, the future, and “the myriad forms of life that are subject to birth and death argues,” showing them how to tap into “consciousness in its pure state prior to identification with form.”