Friday, November 8, 2013

Oleander Girl - Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

She is one of my favorite authors of Indian origin. Ever since I read the 'Palace of Illusions' a few years ago, a thoughtful gift from my friend Amar Chegu, I got hooked. Chitra Banerjee has a simple style of story telling and focuses on telling the story instead of relying on any gimmicks with the language. You know many novels where you can praise the way the words have been used but you never remember what the story was about and who the people were. No such problem with Chitra Banerjee. The people stay, their problems stay and you remember the stories.
The 'Oleander Girl' is about Korobi (Bengali for Oleander) who is a student in Kolkata, living with her grandfather and her grandmother in an old house that has seen better days. Her grandfather, a strong personality and a lawyer, was well off, a Bentley in the garage proves it, but it rarely comes out. Korobi Roy is engaged to Rajat Bose, scion of the Bose family that deals with art, and is still social climbing. Rajat's falling in love with the orphaned girl, Korobi's mother died at childbirth, is not looked upon kindly by Mrs. Bose as she believes that she could have got better matches for her son. Come engagement, the cracks appear - first the grandfather dies, then the Bose's business gets a beating, Korobi learns that perhaps some mysteries may still be alive for her. She heads to America to sort out her issues even at the cost of breaking off her engagement. As everything looks fragile and all lives seem to hinge on a delicate moment Chitra Banerjee pulls them back and brings some sanity into their lives. Alls well and that ends well.

For me the story was not about Korobi or Rajat, her parents or the secrets, nor about the Boses or the Roys. It was about Rajat's young sister Pia and Asif Ali, their chauffeur, and the special bond that they share. They emerge as fully rounded, three dimensional characters who are true to themselves and it is their story that I am so glad to have read. Pia's special friend, her defense of him, her special affection for him are real and you can touch them. Just as you can feel the chauffeur's deep love for his little missy (who reminds him of his younger sister) that prevents him from seeking better and more lucrative assignments so he could see her smile, his concern for her and his death defying act in the end was brilliant. It was the part that moved me the most too.

Korobi never rose beyond the normal, beyond the two dimensional. Without her grandparents, her mother's visions, and Rajat, she has no other dimension. The Bose's seem rather bad businessmen the way they handle things and their employees and it shows up. Rajat's flip flops, Sonia's attempts at revenge or getting to Rajat, the Mitra's, the introduction of Vic did nothing to enhance the story's plot because they did not jell. Their motives seemed rather contrived and so it did not really matter who Korobi chooses as much as what Pia does with her letter to Sheikh Rehman. If there is a sequel to this story, it lies there, with the spirited, clear headed and loving Pia.

Not her best surely, but as a story, it picks up after a sluggish start, and though some of the twists appear contrived (Vic's romance, Sonia's angle, Union threats. Mitra), the story does pick up pace towards the end and you start skipping pages, paras, which is always a good sign that you want to know what happens in the end. No wonder they call her a brilliant story teller. That she is, Chitra Banerjee. Sixteen novels already and going!

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