LOVE AND LONGING IN KOLKATA
At the heart of Divakaruni’s new novel is a Bengali girls’ quest for a family secret
Having read and enjoyed Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Arranged Marriage several years ago, I turned to this, her latest offering with high expectations. I’m happy to say they were not belied. This page- turner is chick- lit at its best, and if there are some oddities here and there, they are swept away from the reader’s mind by the heady pace of unfolding events driven by the skill of an acclaimed raconteur at the top of her game.
Korobi, the eponymous heroine ( her name is the Bengali word for oleander), is a likeable though fairly mousy college girl who lives with her grandparents in a historic old house in a Kolkata street named after her great- grandfather, the illustrious judge Tarak Prasad Roy. Her life is one of idyllic innocence, and this is the first oddity with which one is confronted. It appears that in describing Korobi’s life and thinking, Divakaruni has drawn upon her own teenaged years, presumably long before 2002 which is when this story is set. So it is with a sense of disbelief that one reads that a girl who has been to a posh boarding school in the hills and who attends an upscale college in Kolkata has never been to a party and does not know how to manage the unchallenging jiggles and shakes that constitute present- day dancing. However, all that is about to change. At this party, she meets the reigning heartthrob of the party set, moneyed Rajat Bose, and their courtship culminates three months later in an engagement, curiously enough blessed by her curmudgeonly grandfather, Bimal, a man full of bile and secrets.
In a book divided into two distinct sections— during grandfather’s life and post grandfather’s death— it is in the second section that things get going. The naïve and sheltered Korobi must unearth the secrets her grandfather took to his grave, and to do that, she must go to America alone, putting her faith in strangers. In America Korobi transforms into a modern- day Ma Shakti— strong, wise and confident as she pursues her quest to its shocking climactic revelation.
But although the author appears to be on surer ground in America, which is where she lives, the Kolkata parts of the story are the most entertaining. There are some extremely enjoyable set pieces, for example the evening party thrown by the pretentious Boses ( they are addressed by their children as Maman and Papa in the French way) to impress a prospective business partner who they hope will infuse new capital into their company which is heading steadily southwards. The stilted conversation, the underlying tensions informing every sentence, the blithely unaware remarks made by the schoolgirl daughter of the house, interspersed by lavish praises of the food— the scene could have come from the pen of a contemporary Jane Austen.
Also very pleasing is Divakaruni’s use of bathos— a literary form that was raised to an art by Alexander Pope and is sadly out of fashion today, particularly among Indian writers, most of whom lack a sense of irony and bludgeon the reader with their angst- ridden prose. Here is a dinner organised by Mrs Bose at a South Calcutta restaurant, five- star of course: “Mrs Bose has personally overseen the arrangements: The decorations are most elegant, the menu very fine, the background music subtle yet original, the restaurant manager ready to have a nervous breakdown.”
The stock characters are well- etched— the lively, prattling kid sister, the devoted old retainers, the scheming ex- girlfriend, the slithery businessman, the local Dada with the proverbial heart of gold— and add in no small measure to what is a bang- on read for the summer holidays.
OLEANDER GIRL by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Penguin Price: RS 499 Pages: 289