Books: Strong Women
Story is the primary driver in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s fiction—as showcased in Oleander Girl, her latest novel. There are subtle observations about immigrant life, and she’s able to capture the true spirit of Indian-Americans. The popular novelist, a professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, spoke to Khabar.
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
Simon & Schuster.
Hardcover, 304 pages.
The young and beautiful Korobi Roy in Oleander Girl has the weight of family on her shoulders. She is “old Bengal through and through.” After all, she is the great-granddaughter of the famous Judge Tarak Prasad Roy; her grandfather, Bimal Roy, is a prominent barrister in Kolkata in his own right.
After being orphaned at birth, Korobi was brought up by her doting grandparents. As the novel opens, she is about to be engaged to the man of her dreams, Rajat Bose. Rajat is dashing and debonair and even if he has a not-so-stellar past, he is trying get back on the straight and narrow. His parents, Jayashree and Shantanu, own one of the most prestigious art galleries, Park Street Gallery, in Kolkata, and so Korobi and Rajat are together expected to form a power couple. Their alliance is one where old-world traditions meld with wealth.
Unfortunately, shortly after the engagement ceremony, Korobi’s grandfather dies. It would not be too much of a reveal to say that in short order, another calamity strikes. Korobi finds out that her father is not who she originally thought him to be. All she knows now is that her father was an American named Rob. Korobi is devastated and wants to find out more about her mysterious father—for that, she must travel to America. Deciding she can’t get married without sorting out this aspect of her life, Korobi suspends the wedding and sets off for the United States.
From here on, the story tracks two narratives in parallel: one follows Korobi’s adventures in America and the other stays with Rajat in Kolkata. Banerjee-Divakaruni has said that her role model is the Indian freedom fighter Rani of Jhansi. Strong women are the author’s forte and here, too, Korobi meets all expectations. Korobi, which translates to oleander, is beautiful but also tough. She is dogged in her efforts to find out more about her father, yet she is plagued by insecurities as well.
Back in Kolkata, Rajat has to learn how to work in a place where class and religious divisions make themselves felt ever so insidiously. It’s a new India, Banerjee-Divakaruni shows, not just through Rajat and Korobi’s well-defined expectations of each other but also through the flux in relationships between the boss and the “help.” She peppers the story with keen observations about the human experience. The subtlest of statements (when Rajat describes a sea-side resort near Kolkata as “low-class” for example) speak volumes about the characters’ ideologies and motivations.
What is particularly noticeable here is the author’s almost complete devotion to plot. Even if the story might be easy bait for melodrama, the author largely steers clear of it. Those expecting endless flowery descriptions focused on setting will have to look elsewhere. The new novel is extremely tight and well-plotted. At the novel’s outset, author hints at the religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat and over the course of the book, beautifully brings those right home to Rajat’s art gallery. This gradual ratcheting up of the energies all around is wonderfully executed and makes the book read almost like a thriller in places. The “desis” whom Korobi interacts with in the United States are not all of one stripe—they occupy a diverse socio-economic spectrum and Banerjee-Divakaruni presents their everyday challenges in a refreshing light.
“The way you’ve grown up, orphaned at birth, hidden away in some mountain valley, and now guarded in that ancient, beautiful mansion by your ogre of a grandfather—why, just listening to you was like entering a fairy tale!” Rajat tells Korobi early on in the novel. Indeed, Banerjee-Divakaruni’s fairy tale of a novel is sure to please her loyal readers. She has jokingly said that she would like to continue doing what she’s doing, hoping for more bestsellers, with fans waiting for her to autograph their bodies. Oleander Girl might not get her quite that kind of screaming fan base (unless your name is J.K. Rowling, most authors never do in any case), but it’s a fast-paced read that’s definitely worth the ride.
I have enjoyed your books about strong women who cope very well with everyday events and troubles. Would you say Korobi, your latest female lead, typifies a strong South Asian woman? How is she like your most inspirational woman, Draupadi in Palace of Illusions?
I love writing about strong women. I try to make them different in each book. Korobi begins as a sheltered girl brought up in a very traditional Kolkata household. Her grandfather’s death and the resulting discovery of a family secret that she must pursue pushes her to undertake a journey to America on her own— a very courageous act. This journey will change her and make her strong.
Korobi is not much like Draupadi on the surface. Draupadi is born with a prophecy that she will change the world, and this haunts her all her life. Korobi doesn’t think she can, nor does she wish to. But by the end of the book she transforms herself, which is perhaps an equally great achievement.
When I mentioned your book to a friend, she asked me, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, if it was going to be about arranged marriages. It bothers me to think there’s this preconceived notion that South Asian writers must conform to writing about monsoons or arranged marriages. How has your work been molded (or not) by those dictates? How hard is it to carve your own path in this area?
“I don’t think too much about
expectations/preconceived notions. I
write about what moves and concerns
me. I am interested, particularly, in the
changing roles of women. I like myth
and magical realism.”
(Photo: Murthy Divakaruni)
Yes, these preconceived notions are troubling. I am interested in a number of issues affecting South Asians and South Asian Americans, especially women, so I write about them. I don’t think too much about expectations/ preconceived notions. I write about what moves and concerns me. I am interested, particularly, in the changing roles of women. I like myth and magical realism. But I also like peopling my world with characters of many backgrounds, and I deal with a lot of immigrant issues, as in Mistress of Spices, which has sometimes been wrongly interpreted as exotic. (It is a novel of magical realism that takes place in an Indian grocery in an inner city locale in California and features many immigrant challenges, such as intergenerational conflict, domestic violence and gang issues.) Both Queen of Dreams (another magical realist novel which deals with the fallout after 9/11 and its effect on our community) and One Amazing Thing have characters of different racial/religious backgrounds. I’m concerned with how we can coexist peacefully in a diverse world. That is one of the major themes of Oleander Girl, too. On the other hand, I am very interested in re-interpreting myth and epic. Thus I wrote Palace of Illusions from Draupadi’s point of view.
As someone who moved to the United States more than 25 years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see Korobi choosing her own husband. There’s even kissing before marriage (unheard of in “those days”). I also found Rajat’s father’s views to be pleasantly liberal. How in your mind have the notions about marriage changed (or not) in India over recent years?
I think such issues are changing very rapidly—but in pockets, mostly urban. And even in urban areas, India coexists in many centuries at the same time. One of the themes of Oleander Girl is the clash between tradition and modernity in urban India—and an examination of what modernity really means. Is it just going partying, disco dancing, drinking, premarital sex? Or is it something more challenging, such as changing our attitudes to women, allowing them—even encouraging them—to shape their own lives, and also changing our attitudes towards people of other religions, accepting them as equally human beings. Additionally, the novel deals with issues of class and how servants are treated—another clash between tradition and modernity in India going on right now. Asif the driver has very modern views on this topic.
At one point in the book, a character makes a point about how talks about class and race in India can have many subtle gradations. I found that to be such an accurate statement. Can you talk more about why this is such a complex topic anywhere, but especially in India? Have your personal experiences shaped your outlook here?
I am glad you noticed that. That is a big issue in Indian culture because of its many divisions—caste, skin color, your last name, the amount of money you have, the kind of family (gharana) you come from. Because it is a culture so dependent on “servants,” there’s a huge problem with how they are often treated by “masters” who have a distressing sense of entitlement. (However, I do try to show both sides of this issue—there’s also great affection towards old retainers, and great loyalty towards employers). I grew up in India observing how people treated their servants in both of the ways I mention above. This issue strikes me more strongly each time I go back to visit.
There’s one scene in which Korobi’s grandfather chides Anu, her mother, to “not talk like an American.” What is it about the “Americanization” process that you think Indians fear so much? Why?
This again differs from person to person, but I think people fear the fact that America values the individual so much and privileges one’s right to choose one’s own life path. Traditional India is built around the family, around the clan. You do what is in sync with the clan. That’s how you survive and grow stronger. Your own happiness is secondary. That’s why there’s often a taboo on love marriages—the fear is, it’ll splinter you off from the family. This becomes a major issue in the novel for Korobi’s grandfather.
Your picture of Mitra’s tiny cramped apartment in New York is not the kind of glamour digs most people think of when they think “America.” Your capture of reality vs. expectation is always done very well. What do you think are some of the common misconceptions about life in the United States?
Well, I think (in spite of the internet and globalization), America remains in many minds a kind of luxury utopia. You and I know that’s not accurate—it’s a wonderful country, and I love living here for many complex reasons, but I’m certainly aware that the American Dream doesn’t work out for everybody. And life for many immigrants/temporary workers is tough, in both physical and psychological ways. More so since 9/11, which is another major theme of Oleander Girl.
The trope about a protagonist in search of her true identity is a reliable one—one which you have executed really well in this book. In what sense is this an “Indian” story while also being a universal one?
I love the motif of the hero’s mythic journey. In addition to being universal, it’s very Indian—goes back to the Ramayana. (Joseph Campbell realized this). But Oleander Girl is also an Indian story. It begins in the heart of traditional Kolkata, and that has shaped the heroine, Korobi. India has also shaped her fiancé, Rajat (whose Indian story we continue to follow side by side with Korobi’s American adventures).
What is your next book going to be about? Any ideas brewing around?
Yes, it’ll be on the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view. I’ve finished most of the research and hope to dive into it as soon as the tour for Oleander Girl is done. I’m excited by the project and a little nervous as it is a very challenging one.
Will you be going on any book tours or other book promotions in India?
This time to India it’s a brief family visit to South India with my husband, though I’m doing a reading in historic Fort Kochi. In 2014 I hope to go back for book business, when Oleander Girl comes out there in paperback.
I see you have a chocolate obsession. Any particular place to indulge that in India? What other foods are you looking forward to eating on your India visit?
I indulge in chocolate when in America and Europe. In India, I indulge purely in Indian foods, which I love. Looking forward to some good Mysore Pak. And Bisi Bele Bhat. And vadas. And pachhadi. And hot dosas. The list goes on.
Massachusetts-based Poornima Apte reviews literary fiction and narrative nonfiction for a number of outlets.
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