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.

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