books and authors

Contradictions, juxtapositions come naturally to me: Divakaruni

oleaander girl by Chitra

Oleander Girl
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Penguin (Viking)
pp. 289, Rs 499

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest novel, Oleander Girl, is a story of self-discovery and loss. Set in 2002, the story begins in Kolkata at Tarak Prasad Roy Mansion, where Korobi and Rajat are going to get engaged. Bimal Prasad Roy, Korobi’s grandfather, is a strict man of exalting principles. Korobi Roy, the protagonist of this story, lost her parents before her birth and was brought up by her maternal grandparents.  Rajat comes from a nouveau riche family. Before the big dinner party begins on the evening of their engagement day, there is terrible news of Korobi’s grandfather suffering cardiac attack.

As the story moves, Korobi discovers a very crucial secret about her life and decides to go to America on a personal search. It promises to be a life-changing journey and Korobi is all set to make it.

Divakaruni is an amazing storyteller who leaves her readers in throes of surprises at unexpected turns.  At 288 odd pages, the narrative is tight, gripping and full of suspense.

An exploration into human emotions, psyche, stigmas and changing social dogmas, the story also deals with life in America post-9/11. Like 9/11, there was another tragedy to unfold far away in India that would scar people cutting across social strata: The Gujarat riots.

It is a testimony to Divakaruni’s craft that even minor characters that could have been reduced to being sideshows in the larger scheme of the narrative, resonate with a life of their own. The author delves into the relationship between man and woman, between masters and servants across generations. She tries to bring out the clash between the old and the new traditions, capture the pace of the fast-changing Indian society, get a peek into some family secrets and divulge the meaning of love.

A page-turner in rich language, Oleander Girl is a sublimely simple and profound novel.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q: Oleander Girl, like all coming-of-age stories, is about discovery at many levels. What was its genesis?

A: The book was inspired by my last few visits to India, where I became increasingly aware of the clash between old and new values as India rushes ever faster to take its rightful place in the global economy of the 21st century.

Q: Does the story of Korobi and her family secrets have any personal parallels? How crucial are the settings of the novels to her story?

I grew up in Kolkata in a traditional family. We had friends who lived in a mansion just like the one in Oleander Girl. Growing up, I was fascinated by the old house and the Old Bengal lifestyle there. And I’m equally fascinated by the current youth culture (discos etc.) that I portray in the book, as well. The latter half of the book travels across America. I’ve lived in some of those places. I’ve stood in front of the emptiness in New York where the Twin Towers used to be, just as Korobi does. All these settings affect Korobi, making her who she is, and changing her as the novel progresses.

Q: You invest so much in your characters’ psyche. Is that something that interests you? 

A: Yes, to me character is at the heart of great literature. I learned that early from Tagore and Sharat Chandra, and continue to notice it in writers I admire, such as Anita Desai, Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe. I work very hard at creating complex characters, a mix of positives and negatives. Mrs. Bose, Korobi’s mother-in-law to be, is one example. She’s a difficult woman, but my hope is that when readers learn of her background and what she’s been through, they will find empathy in their hearts for her.

Q: Two significant backdrops are 9/11 and the Gujarat riots. Did you want to explore the impact of these two incidents on people? As a writer, how did these two events affect you?

A: I feel these two incidents, occurring so close in time to each other, were both, in their own way, tragic examples of religious violence. I had friends who died in the 9/11 tragedy; some of my friends lost family members in the aftermath of Godhra. But beyond my personal life, as a writer I’m very concerned with a growing tendency in the world of using violence to deal with people who are different from us, be it racially or religion-wise. I want readers of Oleander Girl to think about the costs of such intolerance. I also hope the book provides some answers.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Q: How interested are you in your characters’ flaws? Do you think they make your characters seem more close to the real and lived experiences?

A: Yes, being a flawed person myself, I relate well to flawed characters! I believe flaws are almost universal and they help us understand, sympathize and — paradoxically — feel closer to such characters.

Q: It’s quite a potpourri of themes — roots, race, caste, class — that you delve into. How challenging was it to weave all this into the narrative? 

A: It was difficult. I wanted to do it with a light touch. The last thing I want is for my books to be preachy. I wanted the themes to emerge naturally through the lives of the characters, and that took several revisions.

Q: A significant blend is that of the First Person and the Third Person narratives in the novel. Was it important to give Korobi the voice to tell her own story in the first half? Why was the Third Person narrative required in the second half? 

A: I wanted to use both perspectives because I wanted the contrast between a young woman who sees the world from her own intelligent, courageous but naive viewpoint, and a more knowledgeable authorial viewpoint (though it stays very close to some of the other characters, such as Korobi’s fiancé Rajat, and his family chauffeur Asif). I love using different viewpoints to create irony, since two people can often have totally different ways of seeing the same situation.

Q: It’s beautiful the way the bipolar worlds — traditional and modern, East and West– meet in you novels. Do you have to work hard on this aspect of your novels?

A: I do work at it, but also contradictions and juxtapositions come naturally to me — as an Indian living in the USA, as a writer married to an engineer, and as an activist in the field of domestic violence who regularly comes across terrible tales of abuse by males but whose three favorite people in the world are men (my husband and two boys).

Q: The ending of Oleander Girl provides a point of convergence for the diverse plotlines. Did you think of any other ending? Could there have been any better ending? 

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

A: Other endings are always possible. That’s part of the magic of the novel — it makes readers imagine these endings. This one seemed appropriate for Oleander Girl, given the way the characters developed, and given the final choice that Korobi feels is the right one for her.

Q: Your next novel is a retelling of Ramayana from Sita’s point of view. Could you share something about it?

A: I am very excited about starting this project. A little worried, too, since the Ramayana is such a sacred text and I want to treat it with respect while exploring the character of Sita as I understand her. I think Sita was far stronger and more courageous than she is often credited as being. I would like to bring that out in my novel. I want to showcase Sita as a timeless woman, with thoughts, feelings and values as relevant to our times as to hers — just as I did with Panchaali in The Palace of Illusions.

Write Choice: Who will Read What in 2011

For The Asian Age’s yearender pages, I was asked to speak to a few authors, asking them what they will read in 2011. Even though I wasn’t quite excited by the idea, I must have contacted almost every author I thought could make for an interesting list. They, in no particular order, included: Aravind Adiga, Amitava Kumar, Kunal Basu, Tabish Khair, Indra Sinha, Taslima Nasreen, Amitav Ghosh, Mohammed Hanif, Chandrahas Choudhury, Advaita Kala, Anuja Chauhan, Manu Joseph, Tishani Doshi, Anjali Joseph, Namita Devidayal, Rajorshi Chakraborti, Mridula Koshy and perhaps one or two more. Almost all of them got back, with some excusing themselves for quite valid reasons. About one or two didn’t. Among those who got back promptly were Amitava Kumar (he’s quite a darling, isn’t he?) and Chandrahas Choudhury. But I remain grateful to all of them for being a part of such a thing. Here is what they had to say:

Amitava Kumar: “I always felt that E.M. Foster is overrated. Frankly.” Thus begins a recent clip on YouTube featuring Jonathan Franzen. He talks of Foster and Graham Greene, and asks, “What’s all the fuss about?” I’m eager to know what’s all the fuss about Franzen’s Freedom.

Even US President Barack Obama, with his many global responsibilities — responsibilities that involve making time-consuming, soul-devouring compromises with the immoral Republicans — appears to have read Freedom. I haven’t.
I have been busy reading older novels, books published maybe a year or even two years earlier, which have now been narrowed down to a handful for the $50,000 DSC Prize for fiction. The winner will be announced at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January. In any case, the work I’m doing on the jury is no excuse. I’m very much looking forward to the new year when I’ll read three recent novels that I’ve heard so much about: Franzen’s Freedom, of course; Emma Donoghue’s Room with its imaginative experiment in voice; and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a novel comprised of smartly interlinked stories. I also have near my desk a pile of unread, older classics that friends have recommended to me, including Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. So many books! The other day, to escape the freezing cold, I darted into a bookstore and, on an impulse, bought J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime. I can’t wait to read it, not only because the book was a finalist for the Booker Prize but, more important, because Coetzee is God.

Chandrahas Choudhury: I’m a great admirer of the Tamil writer Salma, whose novel The Hour Past Midnight is to my mind one of the most fulfilling books in all of Indian literature because of its technical prowess and empathy for human dilemmas. Zubaan, the publisher of her novel, is bringing out her poems in 2011 in a translation by Lakshmi Holmstrom. I’m looking forward to reading these.

The political thinker Tony Judt passed away earlier this year when still in his early sixties. His last book, A Grand Illusion?: An Essay on Europe comes out next year. The Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz is one of the greatest names in contemporary letters, and a new translation from the Arabic of his novel Love In The Rain comes out next April. The 15th-century poet Kabir is already well-served in English in translations by Vinay Dharwadker and Linda Hess. Now, in March, we’ll get to see what the Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra makes of his work in Songs of Kabir (NYRB, March).

Advaita Kala: 2011 seems to be a great year for books. Forthcoming releases that have me excited are Ruskin Bond’s — Susanna’s Seven Husbands, along with the screenplay by Vishal Bharadwaj. I admire both the writer and director and look forward to reading it. Then there is

Krishna: A Journey Through the Lands and Legends of Krishna — a Jaico Book that describes various tourist places and the legends of Krishna that are associated with them.

I am also looking forward to Bunny Suraiya’s debut novel based in Kolkata as well as Amitav Ghosh’s volume two of his Ibis trilogy. Mukul Deva has his next, Tanzem, out in the early part of the year, getting the military action genre going. Also, Ratika Kapoor’s debut novel is out this year. Published by Hachette, it’s a great read.

And like every year since it’s been announced, I wait in earnest for Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Girl, but alas I am told there is yet another year to go.


Anjali Joseph: I’m looking forward to checking out a new translation by David Bellos of the French experimental writer Georges Perec’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. This year I happened on a translation of his Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, a delightful little book that records his impressions of sitting in different cafes in the same square in Paris for three consecutive days, down to pigeons, buses, and passers-by.

I’m also very much looking forward to the release of the second volume of Samuel Beckett’s Letters, published by Cambridge University Press, the first volume of which both shed light on his reading and artistic preoccupations in the early part of his career and entertained. The debut novel I’m most excited about is Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, a beautifully-written tale of a young girl’s family life in rural Nigeria, and how oil politics come to impinge on that life. It’s definitely going to be one of the signal titles of 2011.

Manu Joseph: I am desperate to start The Tell-Tale Brain by V.S. Ramachandran. The book is about the mysterious aspects of the cerebral nervous system. It is inevitable that he would discuss
the nature of consciousness through the organ and that is always interesting though you know that in the end the author will not say anything conclusive about the matter. Good works of science non-fiction are often deeply philosophical and I am confident that I am going to like this book.

After this I want to read Makers of Modern India by Ram Chandra Guha.
Then I must move on to Monkey-Man by K.R. Usha and The Thing about Thugs by Tabish Khair. Their plots, from what I have read in their reviews, are very surprising.

I have to also read The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe for mildly comical personal reasons — I will be very relieved to know that its plot is not what I think it is. The last three books have been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Then there is Ken Follet’s Fall of Giants. That one will be read, as usual, with envy. The way Follet makes his plot move is astonishing.

Tishani Doshi: There’s a few people I know who have books coming out next year, and I look forward to reading them all: Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of

People Who Care, Javier Cercas’ The Anatomy of a Moment, Parag Khanna’s How to Run the World.

I’ve also heard really good things about Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, an advanced copy is already at my bedside. The highlight for me though will be Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, a memoir about ageing. If it’s anything like The Year of Magical Thinking, I may not need anything else for the rest of the year.

Namita Devidayal: I am really looking forward to Mohammed Hanif’s next novel which is due to be published sometime in 2011. I have had the privilege of reading some early extracts and it sounds fabulous — in that same deadpan way as his A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

I am also looking forward to the second part of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies trilogy. I also hope someone discovers an unpublished manuscript by the late Steig Larssen.

Mridula Koshy: I’m not the big reader of fiction I used to be. And when I pay attention, it is to the writers in India. Vivek Narayanan’s Universal Beach and Jeet Thayil’s English were really the beginning for me in terms of becoming a reader of poetry. I’ve heard Narayanan perform poems from his Submramanian series and am extremely curious about what else there is that I haven’t heard yet. I’ll find out when his new collection of poetry is released. Thayil has shifted to the novel: Narcopolis. I expect it will be the earthquake his poetry is.

Another writer I want to mention is Siddhartha Deb. The question of how we can write about places that haven’t figured in English language literature is one I ask myself in my writing. His novel, Surface, gave me a lot to work with. His Do You Know Who I Am? Stories of Wealth and Poverty from India is non-fiction so I am curious to see him make the shift from fiction.