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After reading Kamala Nair’s debut literary mystery, The Girl in the Garden, I was reminded of two classics, The Secret Gardenand my favorite, Jane Eyre, though more so of the former. The heart of Nair’s story was inspired by an image she had in a dream, when she visited India, of a tree that showered its petals on two girls. After the writer woke up she reflected on who they could be and why they were there. Perhaps that is why among the most lush passages in the book is the one about the garden. The young protagonist, Rakhee, who narrates the life-changing events of a summer vacation with her mother, says, “An Ashoka tree stood at one edge of the garden, as if on guard, near the door. A brief wind sent a cluster of red petals drifting down from its branches and settling on the ground at my feet. A flock of pale blue butterflies emerged from a bed of golden trumpet flowers and sailed up into the sky. In the center of this scene was a peach stucco cottage with green shutters and a thatched roof, quaint and idyllic as a dollhouse. A heavenly perfume drifted over the wall, intoxicating me—I wanted nothing more than to enter.”
The novel begins with a tormented Rakhee as she breaks off her engagement and returns to India to wrestle with the demons of her past. The reader is then plunged into the past, with Rakhee as a ten-year-old girl living in a prosperous part of Plainfield, Minnesota. She is a child of an unhappy marriage between a beautiful, troubled Malayali woman and an older Sikh doctor.
The unraveling of their lives begins with the arrival of an aerogramme addressed to Rakhee’s mother who is clearly disconcerted by the contents. Rakhee overhears the friction between her parents and wonders if they are headed towards divorce.
Much to her distress, her mother tells her they will both be spending the summer in India. To Rakhee, her mother is a puzzle, a person who was happiest while gardening. Nair makes us feel empathy for Rakhee, who is raised by a mother marred by the past and a father who is frustrated by unrequited love. Rakhee also suffers from being different: “I was shy about my dark skin, unruly hair, and thick glasses, which separated me from most of the other kids at Plainfield Elementary with their blue eyes, hardy frames, and Lutheran Church, whose vaulted ceiling soared above their golden heads every Sunday morning.” The reader feels the tension the girl must have absorbed in her young life.
That summer, Rakhee’s mother takes her to Malanad, a village in Kerala, to stay with her grandmother and maternal relatives. They have servants to wait on them, but no modern amenities. Rakhee misses her father, and is unable to talk to him because international calls are expensive and phone connections are bad. Nair recreates the joint family adroitly, and by choosing an old-fashioned place where superstitious myths abound, she deepens the mystery.
Rakhee not only makes friends with the three daughters of her aunt, but also befriends the girl in the garden. The girl in the garden is an interesting character because of her unusual upbringing. She has barely seen anyone except for her “teacher.” It’s in this respect that I am reminded of Jane Eyre, in which the mad wife is locked up and doesn’t come into contact with anyone except for the servant, the housekeeper, and her husband. The girl in the garden hasn’t ever seen herself in a mirror because whoever is caring for her has made sure she won’t get the chance to be horrified by her reflection—the girl has a birth defect. In fact until Rakhee befriends her, she remains blissfully happy in her ignorance, though her caretaker has educated her and inculcated in her a love for books.
Nair’s premise of a girl untouched by the world raises fascinating questions in the reader’s mind about isolation and I wonder if she has delved into any research about children for whom social contact has been minimal.
The mystery in the book revolves around the identity of the girl, but much of the charm of the pages lies in the cultural details. Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things, first placed Kerala on the literary map, but it was mainly a Christian community she recreated whereas Nair’s characters are Hindu. Though Kerala has its share of chauvinistic males and though it is the privilege of a writer to choose what she wants to communicate, I was a bit disappointed that some of the power women enjoyed in what was once a matrilineal society hadn’t been imparted in the tale. However, I could identify with a few of the experiences Rakhee had as an Indian-American plunged into life in a joint family in a Kerala village, because I, too, found myself displaced from the American culture I was exposed to and relocated to Kerala, as a young girl.
Like the children’s literary classic, The Secret Garden, The Girl in the Gardenpresents the act of gardening as a healing force and its desecration as ominous and ruinous for the soul. Yet in one fundamental way they are different; the boy in The Secret Garden benefits from the ties of friendship, but the world of the hidden girl in The Girl in the Garden is shattered after she encounters another child.
Nair has an impressive debut with The Girl in the Garden. Her message is simple and clear—unless we makes peace with the past there can be little happiness. Life is complicated and worrisome unless one can be in almost total isolation like the girl in the garden.
However what happens to the girl in the garden demonstrates the perils of such an upbringing. The Secret Garden and The Girl in the Garden make us see the truth that whether in the city or in the village, no matter which country we live in, we depend on nature to heal and nourish us.
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her fiction, poetry, and book reviews have been published in many magazines.