As we mentioned in a previous post with a review of Arranged Marriage, we have been re-discovering the books written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and for Team ThinkerViews I had a chance to spend a few hours this weekend on reading one of her complex stories set in the conflicting world of early 21st century. Named after the beautiful and yet poisonous flower of Oleander (Karabi in Bengali, Kaner in Hindi, Karen in Gujarati), this is a story of a child becoming a woman, as the world around her changes in a blink of an eye…
|Book Title||:||Oleander Girl|
|Author||:||Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni|
Penguin (23 March 2014)
Simon & Schuster (19 March 2013)
|# of Pages||:||
304 (Paperback / Hardcover)
857 KB 320 (Kindle EBook)
|# of Chapters||:|
The copy we read was a paperback published by Simon & Schuster Paperbacks in 2014. The cover page featured a young woman in the field of oleanders. On its own, the cover page was not very different from hundreds of books you see in the fiction genre of bookstores and library shelves, and we thought it could use a bit of re-designing.
And as you can see below, the design team must have felt the same in the period in between and have now come up with this elegantly beautiful cover design which we found very appealing to readers. After all, the book cover is your first impression of the book and it can make the difference between picking it up or not in a book store 🙂
The first couple of pages are filled with positive reviews this book received from various critics and readers. It certainly does give you some idea of the popularity of the book.
Even before you start the journey, you know it is a story of love as you open the book and read the following lines by Yeats…
Oh love is a crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away,
And the shadows eaten the moon;
And somehow, there never seems to be enough time in this world for lovers, before the world closes in…
Named after her mother’s favourite flower – Korobi Roy – is about to embark on a journey that promises love and marriage with a man of her dreams – Rajat. We meet Korobi on the morning of her engagement as she wakes from a dream of Rajat to find a vision of her dead mother. The vision seems to be indicating to Korobi of a possible journey across the ocean to find a great love that she has lost somehow.
But soon the noises and festivities of a household preparing for engagement float in. Her adoring grandparents have organised for the ceremony to take place in the ancestral temple that is part of the big house on the Tarak Prasad Roy Road, named after Korobi’s great grandfather. Korobi’s grandmother Sarojini prepares her for the ceremony with silk and gold and the day brightens up with her loving in-laws enfolding her in their embrace. Although Rajat and Korobi had decided to wait for a year after the engagement, her grandfather Bimal Roy declares that he would like Korobi to get married in three months’ time.
Korobi’s resentment starts with this announcement and gets worse as Bimal disapproves of her dress for the big engagement party that the Boses – Rajat’s family – has organised that night. Korobi and Bimal argue before she leaves for the party. The party is a success until Korobi is dragged out of it with the news that Bimal has had a heart attack and is in hospital. He dies soon after Rajat and Korobi arrive in the hospital, asking for forgiveness from Korobi with his last breath.
Korobi’s grief is too immense to see anyone else around her and it doesn’t seem to lessen with passing weeks. Not until a secret jolts her out of it – Bimal Roy – the man she has idolised through her life never told her about her father. Korobi has always been told that her father died in a car crash and a few months later her mother Anu died in childbirth. And hence Bimal and Sarojini raised her. But now she finds out that her father was an American named Rob, whom Anu met while studying at Berkley, that Bimal never approved of this match.
Against all advice, Korobi decides to tell Rajat’s family of this and her wish to search for her father.
Rajat on the other hand, has had troubled love life in past and is holding on to secrets of his own. For him, Korobi is everything that represents old Bengal, Khandani, history, roots. And suddenly, if this is not true anymore, will he still want her?
The Boses have been on a financial downslide for a while and things are only getting worse for them. Their only potential ally is a politician named Bhattachraya, but if Korobi’s mixed race origins come out, this alliance will not take place and there is no hope for the revival of the business as it is.
In spite of all this, Korobi travels to America to search for a father she doesn’t even know the last name of, with not much money and no experience of dealing with the world.
And so the book weaves in stories of all these characters in the backdrop of post 9-11 America and post Godhra India with its heavy religious tension. Within a short span of a few weeks, all the lives that were looking to a promising day of engagement at the start of the book go through a roller-coaster of temptation, mistrust, betrayal, courage, fear and crisis after crisis.
Love, after all, is such a fragile thing…and so is a young and inexperienced girl with her heart on the line… Does she have any toughness that her mother intended her to inherit from her namesake – the oleander?
Right from the start the story grips you in, and you start caring for these people. You sense the disaster looming ahead and you wish for things to go right for them. It is a classic combination of beautiful, poetic tale that is also a real page turner. There are layers and layers of secrets that spill one after another as we know a little bit more about each character. Each time your heart breaks a little and then picks up a little as they try to find their way ahead.
The layers also include the world around them. Like most Indian cities, Kolkata is too complicated for even people who grew up in this city and understand it, difficult to explain it to strangers:
I’ve never looked down upon Kolkata from up high, so I had no idea how far the city sprawled, which shape it took. On the ground, I knew its contradictions: lavish wedding halls behind which beggars waited for leftovers; red-bannered, slogan – shouting protesters marching by a house where a musician practiced classical flute. But Kolkata’s spirit, at once vibrant and desperate – I had no words to describe it to someone who has never lived there.
And as the book starts right on the day when the train coach carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire in Godhra, the Kolkata of this book is simmering with Hindu – Muslim tension. The city with its mercurial moods and communist sentiments becomes an unknown entity in these days where long term loyalties are questioned and suspected, where religious hatred has a chance to win over bonds of culture and friendship. While the older generation of Bimal Roy remembers the riots of partition, Rajat and his family find it difficult to deal with.
And the New York that Korobi travels to, with too little money and no worldly knowledge – is recovering from 9/11 attack.
When I’d seen the disaster on Indian TV, sitting beside Grandfather in our living room in Kolkata, I’d felt only a minor sorrow. They had been icons of another world, tiny and distant and beheaded already. But in New York their absence saturates the air I breathe…
Businesses with exotic names are bust, and there is mistrust in air for anyone brown skinned and looking out of place. The neighbourhoods are suddenly populated with people wanting to stick to their own kind rather than the typical cosmopolitan culture of this city.
Most Americans she meets treat her with suspicion. And it is here that she also must find her courage, and how far she is willing to go in this quest. She recognises attraction for another man, finds friendship in this strange land and at the end of her quest faces the most difficult choice of her life. While trying to discover who her parents were, she also discovers herself. It is the story of her becoming her own woman, not a child of the Roys of Kolkata with generations of tradition backing her, defining her, outlining her birth – marriage – death – her whole life.
You could say that most fiction is centered on the search for self – “Who Am I?“, and this is so true for Korobi. But where you come from – your parentage – is it more important than who you are? Especially, in a multi-faceted culture like India where mixed-race relationships are heavily frowned upon – and some races and colours more so than others – is it your parents who define and seal your fate when they create you or do you create your own future with your choices. And what do you do when you think you don’t have any choices left.
All the characters in the story – Bimal, Sarojini, Rajat’s sister Pia, Rajat’s parents Shanto and Jayashree, their driver Asif Ali, servants of the Roy household Bahadur and the Cook, politician Bhattacharya, Rajats’ ex-girlfriend Sonia, Korobi’s father Robin, the Mitras with whom she stays in New York, detective Desai and his nephew Vic – have been penned with lot of detailing. It is very easy to notice them in and around us. Especially Sarojini – you will recognise in her the Indian women who keep their households together, who live for their husbands, pine and love and worry over their children and grandchildren, who keep the lamps burning in the temples, and sell their jewellery when in need, and are a rock of a support to their families and friends in need. Her unconditional love for Korobi and everyone else that comes in their lives is what sustains her household.
And then there are the men: Bimal, Shanto, Rajat, Vic and Robin – all different from each other and yet strong in their own way – wanting to look after the women in their lives the best way they can and trying to shoulder the burden of their responsibilities as they face the world around them and try to create a safe place for their families. It is just as much Rajat’s journey as it is Korobi’s, as their newborn relationship matures through this time of trial, how their thoughts keep reflecting these changes, e.g., when Korobi leaves for New York:
I think how people are full of contradictions. Rajat loves me, I have no doubt of that, and I love him. But here I am, hurting him, maybe even jeopardising our relationship by going off in this crazy hunt. And he – he’s done everything for me to succeed in my search, but deep down I suspect he’d rather I failed so that things could go back to how they were…
And the distance, the time difference and the phone conversations appear bent to put their relationship in even more jeopardy as days go by. One of my favourite passages from the book describes it so succinctly:
Even best relationships withered if people were separated too soon? Did early love, which grew out of the body’s needs, require the body’s presence to nurture it? Without those wordless glances that made the heart race, without the touch of lips that sent electricity through the body, without a shoulder to lay the dispirited head on and arms to shore us up against the world’s cruelties, even the most affectionate words weren’t enough. But the cruel words – paradoxically those gained power as they flew across the miles to stab at listener’s heart.
There really is no way to keep your loves ones to yourself:
He who binds to himself a Joy
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the Joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s Sunrise.
A beautiful story that also is a good mystery / thriller that we’re sure you’ll enjoy reading….
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