Review of Oleander Girl

Reviewed by Ananya Sarkar

A Compelling Novel

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Oleander Girl
Viking, Penguin, 2013
Pages 288           Price: Rs. 499

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest book Oleander Girl is the tale of seventeen-year old Korobi Roy, who was orphaned at birth but nonetheless had a sheltered, happy life with her maternal grandparents. The novel begins on the eve of her engagement party to Rajat Bose, whose parents own an art gallery in Park Street, Kolkata and another in New York. Notably, Korobi is also the only granddaughter of Bimal Prasad Roy, a renowned former lawyer. Hence, the match is perfect in terms of class and background. Also, Rajat and Korobi are very much in love.

However, this picture-perfect scene  is soon shattered when Bimal Roy suddenly passes away on the evening of Korobi’s engagement. Consequently, Korobi shockingly discovers that her father is alive and living in America. This breaks the myth of her childhood. However, after overcoming her initial feeling of anger and betrayal towards her grandparents (for having kept this truth from her), Korobi decides to search for her father in order to fathom her roots and come to terms with herself. The major portion of the novel deals with her search while alternating it with the happenings at Kolkata at the same time.

The setting is in 2002. Often, there are references to the Godhra riots. For example, on the morning of Korobi’s engagement party, amid the bustle in the Roy household, the radio commentator announces the news of the train fire in Gujarat. Later, when Bahadur and Asif engage in friendly conversation, they both listen in consternation to the transistor’s news of the continuing massacres in Gujarat. Though belonging to different communities, they are careful not to hurt each other’s sentiments and discuss the unrest objectively – “concluding that it was madness.” However, the widespread impact of the riots is seen when communal conflict breaks out at the Boses’ warehouse in Kolkata and spreads prejudice in the minds of many.

When Korobi goes to the U.S.A., we also get an insight into the post 9/11 scenario. Seema tells Korobi about the drastic way in which her husband, Mitra and her own life changed after the disaster. Many South Asian businesses were boycotted, especially those with Muslim names, and others were attacked. Included among these, was Mumtaz, the Boses’ art gallery in New York, which was broken into. When Mitra, the manager and overseer of Mumtaz went to the police to complain, not only were they unhelpful, but they also detained him for two days for questioning. As his wife recounts, “Those two days changed him, made him bitter and silent the way he’d never been.” Seema too developed a fear for strangers. Even Vic recalls how his restaurant business started suffering heavy losses after 9/11. As he says, “We aren’t used to shit like this happening inside our own borders, America the protected. We needed to find an enemy to lash out. Some people did, and folks like Mitra became the casualties.”

However, here, the repercussion of the 9/11 tragedy is depicted at a distance, unlike the first-hand experiences of Rakhi in Queen of Dreams and Uma in One Amazing Thing. The Godhra riots and the Twin Towers crash have a parallel in each other as they are both the culmination of communal intolerance. However, through Asif, Divakaruni makes us realise that there were certain bonds stronger than religion, and these have the power to shape a brighter future.

The characters in the book are appealing. The central character, Korobi evolves in the course of the novel and matures as a woman of substance. The others, like Mrs. Bose, the sophisticated wife of the rich entrepreneur, and Sarojini, the traditional matron, break the types into which they seem to fall at first glance. Notably, the character of Asif, the Boses’ car driver, is endearing in its poignancy.

The title of the novel is aptly justified as Korobi, the “oleander girl”, loves the oleanders that grow in the Roys’ garden. Time and again, Korobi’s fondness and association with the oleander is hinted at. For example, even after practicing her lie to have a swanky house made for her, Korobi ends up telling an architect how she would like a house with oleanders. Later, Korobi’s father tells her that her mother loved oleanders as well, and as a memory of her, he had rows of oleanders in his garden. When Korobi asks him about whether he knew why her mother named her so, he replies that it was because the korobi flower or oleander was beautiful “but also tough.” As the oleander could protect itself from predators, Korobi’s mother wanted the same stamina and resilience in her daughter. And indeed, Korobi’s journey of selfhood depicts her to be very much like the oleander.

The book review of Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is continued here.....