Reading Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni’s novel The Oleander Girl has helped me develop a new respect for complacent upper-middle class aunties and their dull drawing-room stories of whether whatshisname and whatshername will be able to overcome the odds and get together. What sets these aunties apart from Divakaruni is that while their stories are also insipid, uninsightful, faulty and enclosed within the confines of their comfortable and ignorant views of the world, at least they don’t try to pass them off as worthy literature. Also, they take up less time and usually tend to feed us for our pain.
In Oleander Girl, Divakaruni, who has some seventeen novels to her name, surpasses all the aunties I have ever given ear to. For nearly three hundred pages she makes us follow the travails of an eighteen year old girl, Korobi. Orphaned at birth, Korobi comes into the care of her very traditional grandparents; the grandfather is strict and severe while the grandmother is kind but weak. We meet our sheltered and meek heroine soon after she has returned to Kolkata after years at boarding school, and suddenly finds herself having bagged the super-rich, handsome, most-sought-after etc. guy on the Kolkata social circuit: Rajat. On the eve of their engagement, Korobi’s grandfather passes away and thus the shroud of secrecy he had painstakingly draped around his granddaughter’s parents starts to melt away. Korobi discovers that her father is alive and in America so her mission in life is now to find him, and she refuses to marry until she has done so. Surprisingly, the very modern Rajat, who loves her oh-so-much is resistant to the idea, as is his family.
In the backdrop both families are crippled by financial difficulties, and Rajat’s family is banking on an ultra-right Hindu politician to bail them out, so Korobi is naturally expected to play her part in appeasing him by getting married soon, like a good little Hindu girl. Yet, Korobi prevails and embarks on her mission. Throw in a journey of ‘self-discovery’, oodles of exaggerated drama, an extravaganza of clichés, and some truly atrocious metaphors and you have the novel.
Divakaruni has set the novel in the year 2002 and the reason for this apparently seems to be her flailing attempts to engage with the zeitgeist of post 9/11 America and communal tensions in India following the Godhra riots. These attempts are, sadly, weak and insincere; the depth of engagement on both counts pretty much boils down to: oh look how terrible it was for brown people in America after 9/11 and yeah, something was up with the Hindus and the Muslims and I’ll use it to advance the plot but you needn’t know or care more. Both themes seem to serve chiefly as background fillers.
[quote]The novel is at its best when it talks lovingly of Kolkata[/quote]
It can possibly be argued that had Divakaruni nurtured the possibilities of the premise she works with and the themes she (briefly) touches, she could have done better but it seems that she dived into the novel with a preconceived map of the plot and did not care when the writing and the internal reasoning of the narrative did not support its trajectory.
Several moments of gravity and import, such as the scene wherein Korobi learns that her father is alive, are dealt with surprisingly cursorily. In other places large statements are thrown about but nothing in the writing attests to their truth (eg. Rajat is supposed to be suffering from some ‘darkness’ in his past but when the story unfolds the matter is laughably petty).
The novel is perhaps at its best when it pauses in its mad rush to cover all the bases of the plot and spelling everything down to the last T, and talks lovingly instead of Kolkata as a city, or describes the old, ancestral house and adjoining temple where Korobi lives; or when it details the preparation of food. These are the rare moments when it seems that the novel actually cares for both the subject and the reader.
About two-thirds into the novel, Asif, a Muslim chauffeur who works devotedly for Rajat’s family alights upon the epiphany that he ‘has had it with the rich, their self-created, egotistical theatrics (sic)’. Unfortunately, at this point the reader feels much the same way about the novel and its characters.
[quote]Rajat is so dull the height of his passion is to design a new website for his parent’s business[/quote]
Indeed everyone does have their cross to bear and problems of the pretty-well-off-going-a-little-poor is not an unworthy theme, yet Divakaruni fails to induce any empathy whatsoever for her pampered, unperceptive characters and what comes off as their silly, trivial problems (eg. an ex-girlfriend who lurks around, a BMW which has to be returned as there isn’t enough money, a fiancé who scandalously turns out to have an inconvenient foreign father and so on). The world of the novel seems to be contained in a kind of petrified cocoon where ridiculous non-issues are elevated to serve the job of actual, real problems and the characters refuse to grow up. Although Korobi does develop relatively more fully over the course of the novel, most of the rest of the cast advances on a terribly limited, uninteresting and entirely predictable scale of emotional growth. Rajat, for example, pretty much fits the bill of the rich, hunky and somewhat insecure and jealous guy (a la cheap romantic novels) but he is so dull that the height of his passion is to design a new website for his parent’s business. In fact, at one instance, a preliminary design of the website is what he hopes to surprise Korobi with. And mind you, Korobi has no interest whatsoever in websites. As you can imagine, whatever little transformation takes place in his character is largely foreseeable and desperately boring.
Someone once pointed out to me that the reason why some television soaps and serials become intensely popular is that they cunningly reiterate a society’s idealized notions of itself and carefully help maintain the status quo. I believe this is where the appeal of Oleander Girl also lies. Although the novel believes that it is presenting a story of breaking free from societal straitjackets; for example, there is a female character who becomes headstrong and learns to hold her own and a wealthy family which learns to respect its servants, if the rhetoric is laid aside and the story examined, there is actually nothing quite so radical going on. Yes, Korobi does do things her way, but her supposed rebellion is terribly tame and eventually she conforms to exactly the kind of woman she is expected to be- the revolt is but a holiday. Similarly, the fallout of the theme of the servants is ultimately equally innocuous and reassuring.
A writer I admire once said that good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted. Oleander Girl seems to comfort the comforted and disturb the disturbed.