Two worlds collide in Chitra Divakaruni’s Oleander Girl

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has a mystical streak that is evident in all her books. Take the Mistress of Spices, or The Vine of Desire or my favorite Palace of Illusions –she assails your senses with her words and carries you to a different world.

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Oleander Girl brings the author back to a narrative that is in a few ways similar to Sister of my Heart as it is set in both India and the US.  It is in many ways a coming of age story of Korobi Roy who is orphaned at birth and is raised by her maternal grandparents in Kolkata. Korobi’s life is a fairytale. She has fallen in love and is engaged to Rajat Bose, the scion of a wealthy business family.

When her stern yet loving grandfather dies unexpectedly, Korobi is privy to a few skeletons in the family closet and cannot rest till she has the answers. She must turn to her grandmother who will also have to find her own strength having lived under the long shadow her husband has cast.

The urge to discover the truth about yourself regardless of where it leads us is a core theme of the novel.  As is the clash of tradition, heritage, class and race. As Korobi journeys to America to unravel her mystery and origin, other voices and sub plots enter the narrative. Prejudice, sacrifice, secrets, loyalty, lies and love color the palette of the story which is hinged on redemption. It is also centered on family and the ties that can bind or break us. There is always a choice between forgiveness and pride. Korobi is a catalyst as well, as we see most of the key characters faced with external and internal change.

Korobi is the Oleander Girl. “Because the oleander was beautiful – but also tough. It knew how to protect itself from predators”

The idea for this review was courtesy of my good friend, Tanya Bhadra Pal who also put me in touch with Chitra Divakaruni. As a fan of her work, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview her.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

How was Oleander Girl initially conceived?

CD: It came out of several recent visits to Kolkata. I saw the growing clash between old and new, modernity and tradition, and wanted to explore it through a novel. Korobi’s family represents Old Bengal; her fiance Rajat’s family are the nouveau-riche. Their engagement will lead to unexpected conflicts and change both of them in unexpected ways.

The theme of transformation touches all the main characters as well as your supporting cast. The journey though is not easy and not everyone embraces change easily. Did it pose a challenge to bring all the different threads together?

CD: This novel is more tightly plotted than some of my earlier ones, with some reversals and revelations of secrets, so it was a challenge to depict each character’s challenges and changes and weave them all together.

Your books always underline the importance of familial ties and the need to walk the tight rope between nourishing and devouring. Korobi and her mother walk this path as do some of the others. Would this be different if Korobi was raised in the US?

CD: Right.  The dynamics of family vs. individuality would be different, as external culture does affect that balance. However, in many South Asian American families, members–especially the younger generation– are quite concerned with this issue–family love vs. autonomy.They love their parents but they want the freedom to live their lives the way they want to.

The novel is drenched with hues and issues of class, caste and race. You handle it very sensitively in the novel. Prejudice sits deep in the bones, however. When writing about it, how did you approach it in your head.

CD: It was challenging. These issues mean a lot to me, but I didn’t want them to weigh down the novel or make it didactic. so i stayed close to the characters, trying to imagine how they would feel, think, act.

Oleander Girl raises many questions about empowering yourself, identity and the love of family. Do you plan to continue these conversations on your Facebook page.

CD: Absolutely. On my FB page,
https://www.facebook.com/chitradivakaruni
We have many such discussions. A big one is going on right now about violence against women in India. I invite all your readers to join in.

I understand you are quite active in your advocacy against domestic violence through local non profits.

CD: Yes and I would like to encourage my readers to participate in any way they can. Pratham, Daya and Maitri are doing some great work. Saheli, which is based in Austin, is another non profit that helps Asian and other immigrant families dealing with domestic violence. I will be meeting them in Austin next week.

I understand you have a hectic book signing tour!

CD: Right! I am looking forward to my book signing at Book People on April 17 in Austin and would love to meet my readers and answer any questions. For my fans who live elsewhere, you can check the schedule on my website.

Thank you, Chitra…I am looking forward to getting my book autographed on April 17 🙂

Signing off with an exquisite poem I found in the book.

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.

Give me a book

Give me a corner
Give me some light
Give me a book

Now I have another world
Now I have new friends
Now I have another adventure

Where is this place that I have never seen?
How will they find the hidden door?
When will they defeat that devious foe?

Who knows what she might say
Who knows where he may go
Will they meet or wont they

The terrain inside more frightening
Than the storms outside
To seek, to discover, to share

Of monsters in closets
Of courage in the darkness
Of wonder, pain, love and redemption

And in the end when the sound
Has subsided, at exit stage left
When the credits roll

When the author has signed off
When you are still in thrall
When you let it sink so deeply in

You find another clue
Some insight, another missing link
To that which fiercely binds us all

So spin me a tale,
Give me that book,
A corner and some light.

— Shaku Selvakumar Feb 2013



Mother and Child. The book of books. Picture courtesy Vladimir Kush
Mother and Child. The book of books. Picture courtesy Vladimir Kush

On Hugh MacLeod, hunger and why everybody needs an Evil Plan.

 

Cartoon courtesy Hugh MacLeod http://www.gapingvoid.com

“Change is not death.  Fear of change is death.” Hugh Macleod

I was at South by (SXSW) over the last few days.  Yes that’s how you say it. More on my entire experience on another post.

Learnt much, enjoyed much and discovered yet again that manifestation is not an easy 13 letter word.  Let me elaborate with one example.  I follow @gapingvoid.  For those who don’t follow him, he is Hugh MacLeod, creative genius, cartoonist, author and provocateur.

He was supposed to do a book reading at the Ogilvy stage on Saturday afternoon which for some reason did not happen.  I thought “oh well” that is a pity because I wanted to buy his book and get it signed.  Now typically, I am not one of those people who hanker after many things.   One of the reasons I don’t like window shopping.  So I let it go.

Today I went to the Tradeshow for a meeting with a cool mobile app vendor.  Had one of those aha meetings and roamed around an exhibit hall filled with hundreds of exhibitors and I turn a corner and it’s the Gapingvoid booth.  Long story short, I buy the last copy of  Hugh’s latest book, Evil Plan and then got to meet him and got his book and some artwork autographed.

Manifestation to me is a strange bird.  You cannot force it to sing.  It operates on passion not greed.

Coming back to Hugh and the Evil Plan.  Don’t let the provocative title put you off from picking up this book.  Evil is Live spelt backwards.  It’s only evil if we put aside our purpose and sacrifice our talent because we think we will live forever.  We have been always told to stay off the untrodden path.  Here is what Hugh says as he makes his case.

“Everybody needs an evil plan. Everybody needs that crazy, out-there idea that allows them to actually start doing something they love, doing something that matters….Every person who ever managed to do this, every person who managed to escape the cubicle farm, and start doing something interesting and meaningful, started off with their own Evil Plan.  And yeah, pretty much everyone around them – friends, family, colleagues – thought they were nuts.”

 

Welcome to the Hunger

“The Hunger to do something creative

The Hunger to do something amazing

The Hunger to change the world

The Hunger to make a difference

The Hunger to enjoy one’s work

The Hunger to be able to look back and say, Yeah, cool I did that

The Hunger to make the most of this utterly brief blip of time Creation has given us

The Hunger to dream the good dreams

The Hunger to have amazing people in our lives

The Hunger to have the synapses continually firing on overdrive

The Hunger to experience beauty

The Hunger to tell the truth

The Hunger to be part of something bigger than yourself

The Hunger to have good stories to tell

The Hunger to stay the course, despite the odds

The Hunger to feel passion

The Hunger to know and express Love

The Hunger to know and express Joy

The Hunger to channel the Divine

The Hunger to actually feel alive

–Hugh MacLeod

 

So as you read this I hope you are hungry, I hope you have an Evil Plan and I hope you never ever give up.