My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If the young are brave and committed, life will reward them with knowledge. In Oleander Girl, seventeen-year-old Korobi uncovers many truths, palatable and unpalatable, in the course of her quest to find the father who remained a mystery. She learns the hard way—as most of us do, to judge between true and false and comes to terms with the ground realities of human existence.
Korobi’s story takes hold of you right from the haunting opening paragraph. Her voyage is itself extraordinary, in the sense that a young Indian girl who has led a sheltered life can prevail over convention and persuade her guardians to let her to embark on this journey. As this determined young girl travels from Kolkata to the U.S.A., facing a series of challenges, the reader eagerly waits for the mystery of her parenthood to be revealed. The timeless appeal of the orphaned protagonist finds compelling play here, and the clash of cultures heightens the drama. However, this is not just the tug-of-war between east and west, but also their coming together. The author explores numerous facets of the global, multicultural experience with ease, and her mastery of craft is apparent in the wide range of narrative voices she employs so effectively to add depth and texture to Korobi’s story.
I particularly liked the portraits of assertive women—from Korobi herself to her grandmother Sarojini, Jayashree her future mother-in-law, and best of all, Pia her fiancé Rajat’s little sister. While Rajat comes across as the somewhat confused modern Indian male, it is Bhattacharya the politician who surprises us with his yearning for the past with its well-defined values, symbolized by the old temple in Korobi’s grandfather’s house. For him: “…the gates that shut out the twenty-first century…” are invaluable and irreplaceable, as they stave off the demands of a new age that has still to evolve a respectable code of conduct. A bemused Sarojini wonders, “…how many layers there are to a man’s heart, tender spots beneath the calluses, hidden even from himself.” The interplay between tradition and modernity is another important point of conflict skillfully explored by the author—the faceoff between the old and new Kolkata, starkly outlined as well in Rajat’s struggle to resist the seductive Sonia’s siren song and embrace wholesomeness as represented by Korobi.
The reader is held in thrall as the problems pile up and secrets unfold. However, Oleander Girl is much more than a tale of suspense; it is also a story of tender relationships that reach beyond race, religion and class. Apart from the primary narrative strand of Korobi’s mixed parentage, there is the chauffeur Asaf Ali’s attachment for Pia, which prevails against his employers’ prejudice and his friends’ conventional warnings.
These are the special touches in this book that make it so heartwarming, by reinforcing your faith in human nature.
Towards the end I did find the rapid unfolding of events a tad overwhelming. However, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s consummate storytelling carried the day and this poignant tale remains one of my favourite recent reads.