Oleander Girl, the latest offering from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, begins with the most classic of Indian themes: a wedding. On of the eve of her engagement, Korobi, named for the Bengali word for “oleander” – a beautiful, but tough flower, as her father will tell her later – is dreaming about swimming with her fiancé, Rajat. She wakes up suddenly, reaching for her husband-to-be, only to see a shadow in the corner. It’s her mother, unable to speak, pointing out the window to an image of the ocean. The problem is that her mother has been dead for 18 years.
Thus begins the elegant and highly evocative new novel from Divakaruni, who has in the last two decades, become a powerhouse of South Asian American fiction, a genre that straddles the line between the American and Indian experiences, blending the two, but also allowing the reader to savor traditional Indian culture and the drama that goes with not just being Indian, but exporting the culture across the seas.
This book offers up much of the content that makes this genre so likable and readable. Korobi Roy is the granddaughter of a famous lawyer, Bimal Prasad Roy, and along with his wife, Sarojini, have raised Korobi after the death of her mother, Anu, in childbirth. She is told from a young age that her father also died in an accident, so she is an orphan. However, after her engagement to Rajat Bose, the dashing Bengali James Dean, the myth of her childhood is shattered when she learns that her father may still be alive, living in America.
The two main families – the Boses and the Roys – represent upper-class and middle-class India, but not in the way that many previous authors have addressed the topic, or in the way that Indian cinema tends to do a disservice to such a complex issue. Divakaruni embraces the complexity of social class and allows the reader into a multi-layered world of money, status, education and the choices one makes as you climb the social ladder. Other issues make an appearance – religion, politics, immigration, ancestry and race – but the focus of Oleander Girl is very much on class.
Divakaruni’s writing is gorgeous and calls to mind a different time, a different era when indeed life seemed simpler. You fell in love with the person who was chosen for you. Indeed my paternal grandparents have said so on more than one occasion – that the notion of falling in love was so Western, so American; rather they believed in falling in love over time.
Recalling her wedding night, Sarojini says to herself, “Bimal, do you remember the way you took my hand that night, in our flower-carpeted bed, the younger cousins giggling and eavesdropping outside our door, the way you touched my face? We learned each other one limb at a time. There was so much rain that night, the courtyard was flooded; the old woman said it was a good sign, our life to overflow with happiness.”
Divakaruni writes well about the fear and trepidation that go with marriage and relationships. Her gift is the ability to convey the uncertainty with such clarity that readers will feel like Divakaruni spent time in their own heads, because the thoughts are so real. In one particularly poignant moment, for example, the author describes a kiss where through just physical contact, Korobi is able to read her lover’s mind:
“As though it were a signal, Rajat begins kissing me. I give myself over to the pleasure of those kisses – I’m not sure for how long. Those rash pina coladas have skewed my sense of time. But slowly I begin to feel that something’s different. Rajat is more aggressive; his tongue parts my lips expertly and explores my mouth. His hand caresses my breast, and it’s as if I were driving fast along a road that has suddenly, sharply dropped out of sight. Even as my body responds, I’m disconcerted. Something has changed between us.”
Very early in the novel, Divakaruni introduces Asif Ali, the Muslim driver for the very Hindu Bose family, and also mentions in passing the 2002 Godhra riots in India sparked by Muslims allegedly attacking a train full of Hindu pilgrims and the subsequent state-sponsored pogrom against Muslims. In a post-Godhra India, it would have been easy enough for Divakaruni to make Hindu-Muslim tension the centerpiece of this book – a strategy that many Indian authors have employed in the last decade to push for their own agenda. Refreshingly, Divakaruni does not adopt this path; rather, the riots and subsequent tension across India are visited occasionally to make the events between the Bose and Roy families appear to be more realistic.
Hindu-Muslim tension is nothing new in India and the generational conflict on the subject, embodied by the grandfather, is very real. When he gets going on the subject, my own grandfather gears up just like Bimal Prasad Roy: “You think I’m prejudiced, don’t you? You’re too young, you haven’t seen what I saw – the Partition riots, right here in Kolkata, men chopped to pieces on the streets …”
Honestly, the only problem I had with this book was the revelation of just who Korobi’s father was – don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin it for anyone – because it seemed so… Bollywood. When the revelation does occur, in a rushed phone conversation between Korobi and her grandmother, I was just, well, annoyed because it seemed so obvious. After this point, the novel slowly starts to slip into what can only be described as the “Nicholas Sparks format”, but thankfully, Divakaruni, rescues us just in time and alludes the predictable for the surprising.
Explaining India to non-Indians is never easy, but this book may achieve that goal by illustrating not just the chaos, but the simple truth that for all of its bedlam, it is still a place of resolute, obdurate tradition. It may change slightly, but it never really goes away. On the other hand, this novel is an exasperated read for someone like me because it illustrates just how non-communal India really is. While everyone claims to do what is in the best interest of their community, what Divakaruni describes is actually a society predicated on self-interest, a culture built on subterfuge, gossip, one-upmanship, caste and opinion. It was exasperating because it was so real.
And in the end, this is the highest praise I can bestow on Divakaruni – she makes me yearn for India, the sights, sounds and smells, but innocuously reminds the reader over and over again that to really love India, to even live there, you must accept the good with the bad, the old and the new, the modern and the outdated. Only then can you really be Indian.