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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s new novel, Oleander Girl, could have been a charming tale of sweet-girl-gets-engaged-to-wealthy-boy-but-needs-to-find-herself-first. However, it’s not. It is, in fact, a showcase for the best-selling author’s ability to maintain her signature, beautifully-crafted prose while creating a complex set of deceptions, ruses, and lies, exposing the dark side of human nature. Twists and turns, suspense and revelations are plentiful, resulting in a novel that cautions the reader to expect the unexpected, for the easy road is never the one taken.Seventeen year old Korobi Roy is the title character who, despite her sheltered life, makes this a novel of strength, will, and love. Orphaned at birth but much-loved and raised by long-respected, traditional grandparents, she aches to know everything—anything—about her parents. Her grandfather long ago had instructed her never to bring up the subject of her mother and told her that her father, too, was dead. When she accidentally finds an unfinished love letter written by her mother, Korobi is no longer the only evidence of their existence, and she keeps this clue to herself.
Engaged to marry Rajat Bose, the son of a wealthy businessman and a high-end art gallery owner, Korobi’s life and sense of self completely change when her beloved grandfather suddenly dies. Family secrets surround her like thick fog. A long-concealed financial crisis is uncovered. A dream of her mother pointing across the ocean disturbs Korobi and compels her, five months after 9/11 and against the will of her family, to begin a solo journey to America in search of answers and resolution.
While in America, Korobi faces a series of obstacles she must overcome in order to achieve her goal. In this, Divakaruni is cunning and clever, but Korobi pushes forward, and her quest for her parentage unfolds like the opening of the beautiful but dangerous oleander flower for which she is named. As she navigates avenues strewn with miscommunications, misunderstandings, suspicions, and assumptions, the reader might wonder if Korobi is the poison her name implies, or if she is mired in a sea of poison from which she must extract herself.
Meanwhile, the Bose family experiences its own dilemma at home. The comfort of the privileged is shaken by the distress of workers in the turbulent times of early 2002. Religious fighting, union unrest, and the inability of both classes to trust or communicate with each other combine to add another layer of conflict that will keep the reader turning pages to the very end.
“2002 was important,” Divakaruni said in our e-interview. “It was the year of upheavals in the United States and India—United States in the wake of 9/11 had created Homeland Security laws that were to affect people of Indian origin, among many others. A pall of uneasiness and suspicion shrouded the country, and Korobi must face that. 2002 was significant in India, in terms of this book’s themes, because of the religion-based Godhra riots, the fallout from which affect people in the novel even though they are across the country in Kolkata.”
Skillfully crafted, the novel is a bouquet of collisions that illustrate how choices we make affect more than just ourselves. The past and present clash, as do secrets and truths, needs and wants, old and new India, East and West, wise and unwise decisions. Subplots span two continents and families, and double back on themselves. What Korobi ultimately discovers as she crisscrosses America will force her to confront that which she could never have imagined. The book, adds Divakaruni, “…underlines how, once we move away from truth into secrecy, the way back becomes very complicated indeed.”
Intrigued by this literary suspense novel, I asked Ms. Divakaruni how the idea of Oleander Girl came to her. “I had been thinking for a long while about two issues,” she explains.
“[One,] the clash between the old ways of life and the new, changing, globalized views in India and [two,] how can people of different beliefs, faiths, values, get along, be friends, care for each other, etc. Also I was haunted by an image of an old mansion in Kolkata … an actual old home which I saw one day, driving past it with my mother on my way to a relative’s home in North Kolkata, which is the oldest part of the city. They all came together in this book, and the setting seemed right for a character who was sheltered from the world and yet filled with courage when the moment came for her to step out into that world.”
Characters vacillate between their likeable and unlikeable qualities, which adds to the tension and validates their behaviors in terms of human frailties and power. They reveal themselves in dualities. Korobi is ignorant of the ways of the world but strong enough to do what only she feels is right. Rajat is a modern, moneyed free spirit who cares about and respects elders and tradition. Asif, the Bose family driver and one of the most enjoyable characters of all, is a loyal employee, yet he is tempted by money and community. Korobi’s grandfather, the person she loves most in her world, is tender and gentle to her despite having obliterated all proof that his own daughter ever lived.
The book’s dedication page states, “And for my grandfather, whose life inspired this story.” I asked her to tell me what she meant.
“I loved my grandfather dearly—he was my favorite adult while I was growing up, more so than my parents,” she related. “But at a certain point I was shocked to discover that although he was always very loving to me, he had in the past been extremely harsh with some of his own children. In fact, he disinherited [two] of my uncles. This dichotomy in his character is something that bothered me a lot and ultimately influenced my creation of Korobi’s grandfather.”
Many difficult decisions are made over the course of the story, all exceptional in their own ways: decisions about family, business, home, the future, actions taken, relationships. From Korobi to each of her grandparents to her fiancé and even Asif the driver, I wondered whose decision the author felt was the most complicated. Most diplomatically, she responded, “Each of them has a uniquely difficult decision to make.”
However, truth always wins.
“To me,” she continued, “Korobi’s choice is the hardest because I think she grows and learns the most, and her world and her vision of her world changes because of that.”
In her interview with Girija Shankar (India Currents, 4/2010), Divakaruni said, “I write about a theme that I consider important.” So what does she see as that important theme in Oleander Girl?
“The most important theme in the novel is love—humanistic love, spiritual love, romantic love. The book examines the necessity and the cost of love.”
Perhaps if it all boils down to love, then Divakaruni has found the antidote to a world languishing in its own cauldron of poisons. The oleander, you see, is much, much more than it appears.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes from Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she is happily at work on her young adult novel.
Q&A with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
The title is so simple and, after reading the book, so perfect. Where there other titles that had been considered that were more (pardon the pun) flowery? (SMILE) Without getting into spoilers, how did you decide on the title?
I always obsess over titles. So although I started with this one, I spent a long time thinking about other possibilities. At one point, I had a whole page of them. My agent, who is very smart, told me to stick with this one! I think it’s the right one because the novel is focused on Korobi (oleander) and on her learning who she is, learning why her mother, dying in childbirth, had given her that name. One of my other titles was: Till Shadows Have Eaten the Moon. It’s from a poem by William Butler Yeats on the complex nature of love, which is also one of the themes of the novel. (I finally used lines from the poems as the epigraph, so I got to keep it as well!)
Oleander Girl is built on many lies, deceits, and misunderstandings, whereas your previous novel, One Amazing Thing, was built on sharing truths—difficult truths. Was one easier to write than the other? What challenges did this present in writing Oleander Girl?
Each book presented its own challenges. In each book, characters are in search of truth. In each book, some find it more difficult to face … Part of the effect of Oleander Girl depends on discovery. I hope readers will find certain portions of the novel suspenseful and surprising.
With which character do you most identify and why?
I identify with them all. Otherwise I can’t write them! That said, I found myself developing a surprising fondness for the driver Asif, who was originally supposed to be only a minor character.
Rajat is a rich young man who never had to work, and his friends fall into the same category. Yet Rajat is different from his friends. Are you commenting on the moneyed class of today’s India?
I’m examining different lifestyles. Even within the same social class, there is bound to be difference, and the writer needs to show that if she is to avoid stereotyping. I hope I’ve managed to do that!
You’ve created a family of, figuratively, four generations (Korobi’s grandparents; Rajat’s parents; Rajat and Korobi; and, because of the age difference between siblings, Rajat’s eleven year old sister Pia). Each generation represents a different social viewpoint. Was this a conscious effort, or was it a result of the process of writing?
It came about naturally, as the story unfolded, but I was happy to have these generations because I think it adds to the texture of the world since each generation thinks differently, often about the same issues.
In Oleander Girl, you chose first person point of view for Korobi but third person for everyone else. It would, of course, be a very different story if it were all from Korobi’s POV, but I’m curious about this vs. third person for the entire story. How did you settle on this dual POV for the book?
I wanted Korobi’s voice to be the closest and most immediate in the reader’s mind. I wanted her feelings to be the one they identified with more. The others, I wanted more distance—I wanted a little irony in places, especially since the other POVs are sometimes in conflict with Korobi’s understanding of the world or of how she needs to respond to the situation (such as Rajat and Korobi) and sometimes they are in conflict with each other (Rajat, Asif).
What would you like your readers to take away from reading Oleander Girl?
I hope they will relate to and/or think about some of the issues the book raises. I hope they will feel the characters’ dilemmas as their own.
Are you working on anything new yet?
I’m working on a novel about the Ramayana, told from Sita’s point of view.