A clever narrative of a young girl coming to terms with her past.
There isn’t much you can negate in a Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni novel. You keep a pen and paper nearby but realise, two hours later, that you are halfway through the book and haven’t taken a single note. Oleander Girl is the story of a girl, who tries to come to terms with the secrets in her past.
If you have followed Chitra’s other works (Arranged Marriage, an anthology of short stories, for example), you will begin to see patterns. An Indian woman from Kolkata goes to the U.S. to study, finds love there (much to her parents’ chagrin) and finds a way to cope. This story, too, is similar. While the smaller incidents are charming, the larger premise makes you wonder what in this storyline inspired Chitra: her own experiences or something more?
Orphaned Korobi Roy is about to be married to her sweetheart Rajat and everything seems to be going well. But she wakes up one night, after a terrifying nightmare of herself drowning and Rajat not being anywhere nearby. Moreover, her dead mother’s apparition beckons to her and points at something far beyond the horizon.
Brought up by her maternal grandparents, Korobi is often confused about her past. How did her parents die? What kind of people were they? There are no clues around; her protective grandfather, shattered by the loss of his daughter, had removed everything from the house. But on the eve of her engagement, her grandfather suffers a heart attack and dies. Torn by the loss, Korobi’s life takes a sudden turn and answers to all the questions she has asked herself over the years begin to appear. Is the truth good for Korobi? Chitra’s narrative is as clever as it is seamless. Her protagonist is sharp and vulnerable yet strong and grows (or rather, evolves) with the book. Perhaps that’s why the name Oleander (or Korobi) Girl is rather fitting. She is shown as a girl,drawn to her roots and as someone who has never been alone. Yet, as she travels alone to the U.S., and goes in search of her identity there, she grows into an independent woman.
Korobi is charming and Rajat, her fiancée, is etched well too as a loyal partner, often overridden by his insecurities and doubts, but someone who still sticks by his values. Korobi’s grandfather Roy, who holds the plot together, is a stubborn traditionalist who will go to any length to protect his family. His wife, Sarojini, stands by him, even if she doesn’t always agree with him.
The sub-plots are interesting as well; how Korobi’s grandmother struggles after her husband’s death and comes to terms with the information he hid from her. Soon after Roy’s death, as she is trying to sort out his clothes, Sarojini thinks; ‘Tell me! All my life you insisted on making the decisions until I forgot how to think for myself. And then you leave me like this?’
Rajat’s turmoil, his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, and his driver Asif’s affection for his sister are other stories that run on the side. Everything lends itself to the bigger story and culminates in an emotional climax. But in the end, even the headstrong Oleander deserves a happy ending, doesn’t she?