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.


Chronicle Of A Life Well Lived: A review of Yasmeen Premji’s Days of Gold and Sepia

This review appeared in The Asian Age on August 29

Days of Gold and Sepia: A Novel
By Yasmeen Premji
pp. 419, Rs 399
“No man’s life can be fully known or his tale entirely told,” argues the narrator of Yasmeen Premji’s (Wipro chairman Azim Premji’s wife) enchantingly evocative debut novel, Days of Gold & Sepia, “for a man’s secrets pass on with him”. “A man’s life may be pieced together from the places he lived in and the people he knew… most importantly, from the memories he leaves behind in the hearts and minds of those whose lives he has touched,” the narrator ruminates. 

This strand of thought colours Days of Gold & Sepia in good measure, so much so that the novel becomes an act of piecing together a man’s life, a life less ordinary, from the places he lived in and the people he knew. And, most importantly, from the memories he left behind in the hearts and minds of those whose lives he had touched.

Days of Gold & Sepia, then, is a rite of remembrance, a romp down nostalgia lane. It’s a story of vaulting ambition in the face of immeasurable adversity and the pangs of early adolescent love that’s doomed but remains lodged in the lovers’ hearts forever, like a lifelong ache. A novel about life and love and the many ways they intersect — life with its share of hardships, love with its quota of heartache — it also trails the forgotten glory and faded grace of “a life richly lived”. Essentially, however, it’s a tale of the inexorable cycle of change, both essential and inevitable; abject penury is followed by prosperity which gives way to poverty again, love leaves in its wake a trail of loss but fulfilment looms just around the corner.

In the novel’s world (just as it happens in the real world), everything — lives, achievements, fame, fortune — eventually end, but memory resurrects them, hearts relive them. “Our stories don’t die with us. They pass down from generation to generation, and even when we think they have been forgotten, somewhere in the universe they resonate, resurrecting at another time, in another place, however distant or far away,” reflects the narrator (in the Epilogue), who is the custodian of the stories of her forefathers.

Days of Gold & Sepia opens on the cusp of a new millennium.  It’s Mumbai, “a rabidly expanding metropolis”. The year is 2000. In the prologue, Shahina Lalljee, the narrator, stands on the threshold of the “grand old mansion” of her childhood. In first person, she apprises us, for example, of the builders who “hover around like vultures”. The surge of “a new tide, a new time” ensures the old makes way; “Life’s endless cycle must go on”. Tomorrow, they will begin to break the mansion down. But Shahina must take a “last lingering look” so that she could “remember it all when it’s no more”.
In the debris, she stumbles upon her grandfather’s portrait in sepia, a solitary reminder of his splendoured era. It is as if he is there to witness the narration of his own story.
In subsequent chapters, 45 in all, Premji turns the clock back to tell the story of Lalljee Lakha, a boy from a small village called Siddhpur along the Great Rann of Kutch, who goes on to become the “cotton king” of Bombay, overcoming the grinding poverty of his origins.  

When we meet him, it’s the winter of 1866. Lalljee is only six-year-old, and with his parents having succumbed to an epidemic sweeping across Siddhpur, already head of the family. Leaving his two-year-old brother Jappu with his elder sister Munni, who is married, Lalljee must make a journey to Gogha. On her deathbed, his mother had asked him to meet one Rehmu Panju who, as it turns out, was her long-lost brother. Rajjo, Lalljee’s mother, came from a well-to-do family, but had fallen in love with Lakha, an itinerant labourer, and eventually disowned by her family.
It is during his temporary shelter at Rehmu Mamu’s place that he falls in love with his charming cousin, Reshma. But their love is doomed: Rehmu Mamu couldn’t marry his daughter to an “orphaned beggar”. Reshma is eventually married away. And Lalljee has to learn to live with the memory of her lost love; Time passes, but Reshma continues to kindle his heart and soul.

The young boy’s loss triggers a resolve: “Lalljee swore then that never again would he let poverty deprive him of something he so cherished… He would become so rich, so powerful that there would be nothing he wanted that he couldn’t acquire, nothing he desired that he could not have.”

Through his incredible strength of character and good old values – honesty, integrity, humanity, compassion –  Lalljee writes his own destiny. From Kutch, he travels to Bombay on foot, penniless but with dreams in his eyes, in 1877. The city provided Lalljee a refuge from old wounds: “Bombay did not question your caste or creed, didn’t care whether you were a pauper or a king, for the city belonged to no one and to everyone. So, people came, armed with their ambitions… Fortune lurked around the corner, a dream away, a scheme away. The city kept their dreams alive and, in time, Bombay itself became the dream”.

Bombay fulfils all of Lalljee’s dreams. His story gets entertwined with the zeitgeist — the 1857 War of Independence, freedom movement, Great Depression, Independence and the “euphoria and mayhem” it left it its wake.
He marries, has children, acquires many cotton mills. But in a life which was “eminently successful and amply fulfilled” there were “the two things he had most craved he had not been destined to have: the woman he had loved and longed for, and a son he had sired.”
But such is life. You win some, you lose some. Perhaps a perfect world is only a mirage. Towards the end of his life, soon after he celebrates his 88th birthday,  Lalljee, looking back on his life, finds a parallel to his life in a Ghalib’s line:
Shama har rang mein jalti hai seher hone tak.”
The flame of life burns in every hue, before the break of day.”

Lalljee’s flame of life had burnt in the hues that his destiny had in store for him.

It was a difficult novel to pull off, with its vast canvas and rich cast of characters. But Premji does that with unparalleled panache and grace, not an easy feat for a debutante: the richness and lucidity of language is in absolute harmony with her vibrant characters, bristling with life. Classical storytelling at its best, Days of Gold & Sepia is dazzling in its scope, ambitious in its conception and delightful and heart-warming in its execution.