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Oleander Girl | Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Sugar and spice

Something emotionally compelling happens when opposites—in reality, sentiments, personalities or purposes—wrestle with one another and none wins. They evoke an unsorted but comforting mix of responses—whether dismay about what you have admired or an unpredictable repose in someone who has formerly left you disheartened. A lot begins to make sense because of this uneven mismatch. That’s life, you could quip. Sure, but what if it is a book?

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Oleander Girl, which weaves together many realizations—social and personal, opposing yet working to each other’s advantage—is like that. To use a metaphor from West Bengal, Divakaruni’s state, the story gives the feeling of wearing a Kantha quilt—a handmade, slightly wrinkled, endearingly uneven, but soft and reassuring coverlet. It is colourful, even if it has a bit of brown and grey, two depressing colours that you can’t wish away. So, well, it’s a good book. More than that, it is a reassuring book because it tells you why people don’t really give up easily. It’s a book that allows you to debate the place of pure emotion as a driving force in life.

Seventeen-year-old Korobi (named after the oleander tree by her dead mother), beautiful, long-haired, vulnerable, doted upon yet shielded from what will be her life’s calling, lives at 26, Tarak Prasad Roy Road in Kolkata. It is an old house that belongs to retired barrister Bimal Prasad Roy, where, besides antique desks and beds, haunting stories are placed as the furniture of life.

Other than Korobi and her grandparents—Roy and his acquiescent wife Sarojini—it houses a temple with a watchful goddess who will bless Korobi with a tough and disturbing yet fulfilling quest. It begins with a dream just the night before her engagement to Rajat Bose and meanders on to become nightmarish in parts.

Rajat, as all suitable boys must be, is handsome, caring, well-to-do, his parents own an art gallery, he has left behind a ruthless and reckless girlfriend to ask for Korobi’s hand and has eyes only for her (even if his heart behaves like a fluttering bird sometimes).

A seductive and curious tale unravels as an aching and possessive love seeps into Korobi’s life from the past and begins to dance alongside life’s other rituals, both deep and mundane—the sudden death of her grandfather, the grave helplessness of her grandmother, the deepening mystery around her dead parents, financial turbulence, traditional niceties and contemporary urges, meals redolent with fish fry, khichuri made of Gopal Bhog rice and deep-fried eggplant.

Divakaruni brings up the generation gap, debates on social status, personal loyalty, Indian mindsets and American realities (ongoing subjects of inquiry in many of her former novels) and serves them with just enough sugar and spice to keep her reader liking the fare. Asif Ali, the driver, fondly called AA and Pia Missy, Korobi’s could-be sister-in-law, are both well-layered characters, representing opposite sides of the social order, yet with a similar sense of emotional loyalty.

The narrative has everything. A villain, a vamp, a mystery, a well-kept dark secret, love, vengeance, an art gallery, an old, traditional house with a temple, food and foliage, helplessness and resilience.

I like Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions more than any of her other books but I have to say that Oleander Girl tells us why illusions, however enticing, are, well, illusory. Oleander plants are more real.

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