Tale of human follies

Oleander Girl
Chitra Banerjee
Divakaruni
Penguin
2013, pp 289
499

One has to pity the compulsive novelist these days. It is becoming very difficult to hold on to the reader’s attention, what with everything made so common, be it sex, violence, corruption or terrorism.

Riding the tiger of success, the story-spinner has to go on, for there is no respite from the winning publisher or the eager reader. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has been trying quite a few permutations and combinations. Retelling the Mahabharata.

There is never a dearth of matter in that treasure-chest. With Chitra, it is not the idea, but her capabilities of building up, that mark her remaining fairly at the top. With the present impressive list of publications and her untiring zeal for creating realistic edifices she is sure to go on and on and up and up. Mercifully, she does not victimise the readers with formula novels.

Lovers of Tagore’s Raktha Karobi would welcome the title. The idea for Oleander Girl is a skeleton in the closet. Not that it is such a repulsive skeleton. These days, pre-marital relationships are as common as corruption in India; in any case, the Anu Roy-Rob Lacey affair happened in America. If Anu’s doting father was dreadfully upset, that is understandable too.

As Chitra moves backward and forward in time, her fingers weaving a cat’s cradle on her PC, the one question that stares at us is, at what price is liberal feminism? As long as nature is against a woman, if a parent tends to be extra-protective, how can we blame him? We cannot judge Anu’s father harshly.

And if his love for Anu had curdled into a blind rejection of her African-American lover, one cannot accuse him of being inhuman either. Not all educated persons can “kiss the Joy as it flies”. Bimal is no Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Young Karobi comes to the same conclusion, though she had been terribly upset about the way her grandfather had manipulated her life. He had meant well, he wanted no harm to touch her, nor any shadow from the past. Few can digest the fact of being known as a by-blow and the old man knew it. And what will the society say? How can he get her married? Interrogative reactions everywhere.

Chitra’s manoeuvring of her characters and events is almost perfect. Remember, Anu promised her father that she would not marry without his consent. And Bimal could not think of an unmarried girl of his family having intimate relations with a stranger. The one place where Chitra’s narration trips up is the long-winded recollection of Bimal’s deceptions by his driver Sardarji, who had helped his master in all that.

Chitra adroitly rises from the mundane into the para-normal by getting Anu visit her home long after she is dead. When a filmy spirit clad in translucence rises through waves, speaks without a mouth, and vanishes in the same way in Karobi’s dream, we take it all in our stride.

The novel has Chitra gently tapping the sensitive area of religion too. How do the Hindus manage to keep their calm after the riots of the 40s and the present terrorist attacks? Elders live in the past, but the youngsters look to the future. The character of Asif comes off well, though it leaves a dark spot behind.

Should a trusted driver take it upon himself to slyly open private letters addressed to his master? Asif does it for he had seen it in a spy thriller. Having read the letter of Rajat’s former girlfriend, he tucks it in the copy of his Quran.

“He takes the scuffed volume from the shelf and presses it to his forehead, hoping for guidance. But the book offers no answer. Instead, an image rises in his mind: himself down on the ground, face encrusted with blood, ribs broken, teeth knocked out. It isn’t difficult for a moneyed woman to hire thugs to beat up someone in this unforgiving city. He feels that might be Sonia’s style when people refuse to do what she wants.”

Prophetic in one sense, as if the Quran can catch the shadows of coming events. Oleander Girl has more to offer. Apart from the chattery Pia, the long-suffering Sarojini and abusive Mitra, we get to watch the not-so-rosy lives of Indians seeking dollars in the land presided over by Barack Obama.

Need money for a plane ticket, Madam? Go sell your hair for a good sum. Karobi does just that but fortunately, does not sell herself, the suggestion from friendly Vic. Karobi certainly appears wise to have come back to Kolkata, a lesser evil. Let us wish her a happy married life!

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