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.


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,
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.

Daring to Dream Again

 I caught myself out a few months ago as I told my youngest daughter as she was staring into the distance,

“Stop dreaming and finish your breakfast.”

I realized that had been told to me too when I was growing up by well-intentioned elders.
I had stopped staring into the distance.
I had stopped dreaming.
I had stopped the dance and stopped the play.

I don’t believe in coincidences…only in serendipity.  I discovered Whitney Johnson’s blog and I was inspired by her conviction.  I started following her on Twitter and picked up her book on Amazon.

When I found out about the inaugural #DareDreamDo Virtual Circle , I knew without doubt that I wanted to be a part of it.  It meant that I had to commit one hour every week for four weeks. Juggling a full time job with IBM and coming to a full house with three kids meant that every available hour was usually claimed.  But I signed up any way.

By way of introduction, Whitney sent a wonderful email asking questions about me.  Questions that made me sit and think.   Putting pen to paper.

Becky Robinson, the wonderful CEO of Weaving Influence set the lively social stage.

There we were, ten strangers from different demographics and geographies, in a virtual circle knowing nothing about each other except that we all wanted to dream again.

We would, in the four weeks that followed, discuss with honesty and many times with startling clarity about our hopes, our fears, our dares and other saboteurs.

We instinctively trusted Whitney.  She was sincere.  She was gracious.  She listened.  She wanted to help.  She was always present. In every email exchange that I have had with her, there has been warmth that cannot be faked.

Sincerity is often undervalued in our age of hype and hyperbole.  But time and time again, those who hold our attention always bring their heart into the conversation.

“It doesn’t matter what you have accomplished; show me how sincere you are” ~ Mark Nepo

You may read her book.  You may join her circle.  You may follow her blog. Do one or better still do all.  It doesn’t matter where you start as long as you start somewhere.

Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare To Dream
Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare To Dream

From suiting up and showing up, crafting your personal narrative, activating your name to playing up to your strengths, holding on to deeply held beliefs and finding your dare to dream team to dating your dreams, her book is a community of voices, of dreamers who dared, did and continue to do.

A Conversation with the Connector

Whitney Johnson
Whitney Johnson

I caught up with Whitney Johnson and asked her a few questions.  True to form, I got the answers back immediately.

1. Whitney, in your experience where do you feel most of us hit that proverbial roadblock.  In daring.  In dreaming. Or in doing?

For me, it is the dare piece — because I find myself gripped by fear so much of the time.  I have to dare to dream the dreams I really want and dare to start with what I can do.  Some women are full of derring-do, and they know precisely what their dream is, but I think that is rare.

2. I loved being part of the first DareDreamDo virtual circle.  What was the most important take away for you in hosting it?

This is a completely selfish takeaway — but I loved doing this.  We talk about what makes us feel happy as a clue to what our dreams are, and our talents.  If I believe this is true, then I suppose this is one of my talents.  Having a moment where I can talk to each of you, hear you share who you are and aspire to be was an unexpectedly grand gift.

3. You are a community builder and a true connector.  Can you talk about isolation and the importance of the Dare to Dream team?

Because the strengths of women (like relatedness and nurturing) tend to be less visible, some of what we do well often goes unacknowledged and undervalued.  As a consequence, we start to question ourselves, our instincts.  When we dream together, we are able to validate our thinking, we begin to find our voice because we are heard — plus we get a kick of oxytocin.  And then there is the frill of the network effect.

4. What is next on your own Dare Dream Do page? 

One of my big hairy audacious goals for 2013 is to do a lot more speaking — so I am working on putting in place the pieces for that to happen.

The first step is the hardest

When you hear without distortion, see without conditioning, feel without inhibition, the direction is clear.

I believe that each one of us knows about this path with heart. Some of us have followed it and some of us have stood on the sidelines wringing our hands choosing the dictates of the head instead. There are no right or wrong answers as to each a journey as unique as a fingerprint.

Back in January 2012, I had the opportunity to hear IBM’s newly appointed CEO, Ginni Rometty talk at an Austin Townhall.  She gave an inspiring talk about being “essential” to your customers, your community and as a company.  She also said “Growth and comfort don’t always go together” and urged us to be passionate about what we do and to never stop learning.

There are those who know very early in life exactly what they are going to do when they grow up.  It is a burning passion that keeps them focused through school.   There are those who are in the “muddling middle” and still searching. I found clues to my dream in college and then digressed because I didn’t quite understand the signposts.

Five years ago, I rediscovered poetry.  This was triggered by the loss of a good friend.  I first started posting on my wall and then found the courage to publish it on my blog.   Those who create anything will tell you that everything is personal and nobody is thick skinned enough to take rejection.  Having said that, you reach a point where birth is not an option, it is a necessity for your own survival.  I had to remind myself to switch off the “Please approve me” button every morning.

With twenty years in the corporate world, across continents, from Fortune 100 to start up, I wanted to have it all.  Time to work, time to be creative, time to write that book, time to raise my family, to pay attention to health and well being.  I had become a multitasking monkey.   But I was no longer present in many key conversations.  Or present to invest in ideas that would pop up like fireflies just to die out before daylight.

It was a tough decision to take but after much contemplation and cliff hanging, I decided to leave my job at IBM last month.

Sometimes, you can add something into your existing life.  Sometimes you have to clear the space so the new can enter.  Taking a leaf from Nature’s book, a time to be a seed, a time to seek the sun.

MetamorphosisPicture courtesy
Picture courtesy

In Transit

There is a place so well known
Where travelers wait for the path to unfold
Some are uncomfortable, squirming and uneasy
This place of no plans is dangerous to them

Are we there yet?

Some fall asleep, hoping to turn off the mind
Of endless questions without answers
Of checklists and nostalgia
Of connecting flights, delays and baggage claims

Wake me up when we get there

The lucky ones, get up and stretch
They look around, as the ground shifts
They find a thread, they pause and pull
As it takes them along
Listening, absorbing, feeding the muse

Here is where I am

In transit
Is where the embryo grows

~ © Shaku Selvakumar, November 2012