Rajat Bose, the somewhat spoilt son of newly-rich parents downs beers with friends at Pink Elephant (an early 1980s Calcutta nightclub), at the same time that workers in his parents’ art warehouse listen to radio bulletins of communal riots in Gujarat following the burning of Hindu pilgrims in a train (an obvious reference to the 2002 violence in the state, though the year is not mentioned) and his fiancee is told of the difficulties faced by Asians in the US after the September 2011 terror strike.
Confused? So was I. Surely it is too long a leap in time to take even for something as wayward as an author’s fancy?
To term my feelings after reading Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Oleander Girl as something akin to what a Tendulkar fan feels when the master cricketer is caught out at zero, would no doubt be an exaggeration. For Divakaruni has never occupied the same place in my heart as Tendulkar would in the hearts of his fans. Plus, the excellence of her style of writing has not really been as undisputed as Tendulkar’s talent. But I can’t deny the little feeling of emptiness inside as I set aside the finished book.
I have enjoyed reading several of Divakaruni’s works, The Unknown Errors Of Our Lives, Sister of My Heart, Queen of Dreams, and yes, the difficult to miss, Mistress of Spices (though I wonder whether people remember it more for Aishwarya Rai who played the protagonist in the Hollywood adaptation of the novel). I have been charmed by her perception of people, especially women, relationships and the quality of illusion or magic that is present in some of her works. These were the traits that helped me enjoy her writings as works of literature while overlooking the ‘masala’ in the plots that has often endeared her to filmmakers.
With the Oleander Girl however, you feel more like reading a film script than a novel by an award-winning author. There’s romance here and family pressures, jealousy, friction between the traditional and the modern, fortunes made and lost and trips abroad in search of identities, union trouble, communal whisperings… it’s as if the author has put it all in, unsure of what might catch the readers’ sympathies. Where’s the confidence of an author who had woven such a charmingly simple tale out of the coming of age of two cousins in Sister of My Heart. Or the command with which she had blended imagination with post 11 September realities in the US in Queen of Dreams.
Karobi, a young orphan grows up idolising her grandfather, a retired barrister and thirsting for more information of her parents, whom she has never seen. While in college, she meets and falls in love with Rajat Bose. On the day of Karobi’s engagement to Rajat, Karobi’s grandfather dies, thus releasing her grandmother of the promise to not tell Karobi the secret of her parentage. Karobi must travel to America in such of her roots, even as Rajat is left at home to cope with the demands of a family business that is falling apart. Also part of their lives are Asif, the Bose’s family chauffeur, who nurses brotherly sentiments for Rajat’s much younger sister, Pia; Sonia, Rajat’s beautiful and jealous ex; Bhattacharya, the wealthy politician; and Mitra, the corrupt manager of the Bose’s New York art gallery.
There is always a sense of drama in Divakaruni’s works. Here though, it is a little trite. What remains constant, however, is the physical journeys her protagonists make, symbolic of their journeys within. And it is in the presentation of this journey of the Oleander girl, that Divakaruni gives us hope that all is not lost for the author. Karobi must oscillate between love and doubt, accept peripheral attractions and rise above them to recognise the choice that her heart had already made.
At a time when debutante authors are turning their college romances into best-sellers, there will be no dearth of takers for Divakaruni’s Oleander Girl. But those who have followed her journey as an author will surely miss a little something here.