While I’ve long savored Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni‘s short story collections, her novels haven’t really been my thing–they’re always packed with truckloads of emotion and drama, and feel overdone at times. Oleander Girl, however, won me over. The excess of sensibility perfectly suits the seventeen-year-old protagonist of this YA novel, and the soap-opera plot twists seem par for her course.
Korobi Roy’s father died in a car crash before she was born, while her mother died in childbirth, but Korobi has nonetheless led a happy life in her grandparents’ stately Kolkata home. On the eve of her engagement ceremony to the rich, handsome, charming, understanding (if slightly unknown) Rajat Bose, whose parents own an art gallery in Park Street and another in New York, Korobi’s mother’s ghost appears to her. Mutely, her mother begs her to go across the ocean to search for something or someone.
Well, seeing a parent’s ghost is never a good omen, and soon, Korobi’s carefree world starts unravelling. Her grandfather dies of a heart attack, and Korobi learns they’re in serious financial trouble. And her grandmother then confesses that her father is alive. His name is Rob, and he’s American–her grandparents have lied to her all these years. Korobi decides to cross the ocean and look for her father, even though she knows little about him, and even though travelling alone in America a few months after 9/11 might not be the safest thing for a sheltered seventeen-year-old girl from India. The second half of the novel deals with Korobi’s experiences in America, with the note of suspense provided by the search for her father– and the repercussions of the latter upon her loved ones (notably Rajat) in India.
As a coming of age novel, Oleander Girl is up there with the best of its kind. Korobi’s evolution, from a thoughtless pampered blossom to a human being who understands risks and consequences and willingly shoulders responsibility, is believable and organic. Divakaruni (who’s won at least a score of honors for her writing) is careful not to make her protagonist unrealistically perfect–Korobi is impulsive and confused and sometimes painfully self-centered, but her intentions, if not her instincts, are always sound, and she learns from her mistakes. The oleander, Korobi’s namesake, is a beautiful but poisonous plant, and we discover that Korobi’s mother gave her the name because she wanted her daughter to be able to protect herself from predators. (The oleander plant’s toxicity makes it deer-resistant, says Wikipedia.) When Korobi’s finished with her American journey, you get the feeling that no-one’ll dare mess with her; hurray!
For the most part, the Indian background is vivid and detailed nicely, though Divakaruni sometimes imparts information with a heavy hand–for instance, while detailing the setting, she writes “on the Akashbani Kalikata radio station, the newscaster announces the date: February 27, 2002”. The most pronounced aspect of Oleander Girl to me is its soap-opera feel. It’s not just the plot twists (secret fathers rediscovered, beautiful rivals plotting to undermine the romance, devoted family retainers sacrificing all, pregnant women falling down stairs and so on) that I’d mentioned earlier. Characters always react dramatically, with emotions translated into flamboyant gestures, or transposed on to objects. When hearing about the ghostly visitation, for example, Korobi’s grandmother happens to be holding a crystal dish full of cardamom seeds. The dish falls from her hand and shatters! Tiny silver balls go flying over the room! And her grandmother is left “standing among the broken glass, scattered cardamom seeds surrounding her like a field of frozen tears”. Furthermore, most conversations and internal monologues in this book mention promises, sacred vows, honor, sacrifice and love (in the Bizzaro World, Divakaruni would be Jhumpa Lahiri). Everyone apologizes often, and there’s a lot of crying. “Never in my wildest nightmares could I have imagined something this terrible!” wails Rajat’s mother in one scene.
Yes, Oleander Girl is intensely cinematic and extravagant, often borrowing from romance novel tropes, and I confess I enjoyed it immensely, turning the pages fast as I could. It doesn’t stay with you, but it’s great fun while it lasts–a perfect summer read. And hey, it’s eternal summer in my new part of the world.