Oleander Girl. Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s latest novel. It is about Korbi, who was orphaned at birth and is brought up by her maternal grandparents in Calcutta. She is a bhodra Bengali, while studying in college meets Rajat, a rich young man. (His parents own a very well known art gallery in the city and in New York.) They are engaged and to be married soon. It all seems to be moving correctly when Korobi’s life is suddenly thrown out of gear. She chooses to investigate her past since she would like to begin her married life knowing the truth. It involves her travelling to America soon after her engagement. A move that does not go down very well with her immediate family but she is determined. Korobi or Oleander (as she is named after the flower) is true to her name– “beautiful but also tough. Also knows how to protect herself from predators.”
Oleander Girl is a very readable novel. At the superficial level it is a love story with its moments of heartache. It is gently and charmingly told by Chitra Banerjee Divakurni. It is set against the backdrop of the Godhra riots and the events of 9/11. Frighteningly these events have an immediate impact on even bhodra families like that of Korobi. These unpleasant events also unmask the prejudices that exist in individuals too. It is an intricate web woven by the author and done without making it seem complicated.
A characteristic trait of all of Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s novels are the number of women characters she has. The protagonist is always a woman but she is surrounded by women of all shades. Incredibly the author manages to make every girl and woman in the book a strong personality. They are memorable. In Oleander Girl, there is the grandmother Sarojini, Rajat’s mother, his younger sister Pia and Seema Mitra in NYC. Also not forgetting the late Anu Roy, Korobi’s mother. To put it blandly these are women who struggle, make their choices and survive the consequences. But the joy in reading the novel lies in understanding these women better. I am not surprised that Chitra Banerjee Divakurni writes the way she does. Some years ago when I met her she told me of her involvement with Maitri. ( http://www.friendsofbooks.com/blog/evening-with-chitra-banerjee-divakaruni )
In 1991, Chitra co-founded Maitri (http://www.maitri.org/ ). It is an NGO based in the San Francisco Bay area that helps battered women of South Asian origin. I asked Chitra if her experience at Maitri had in any way influenced her storytelling and the choice of prose. It seems that Chitra first began writing and publishing poetry, but after four years of working at Maitri, she published her first collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage. In fact, one of the stories in it is based on a true incident and so are some of the sketches in the later books. She also realized that writing prose was a far easier medium to communicate and tells stories than poetry. Yet, the rhythm, discipline and diction of poetry did and continues to influence her prose.
Oleander Girl is a must read. Junot Diaz calls Chitra Banerjee Divakurni “A brilliant storyteller”, which she is.
Chitra Banerjee Divakurni Oleander Girl Viking, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 290 Rs. 499