LOVE AND LONG­ING IN KOLKATA

At the heart of Di­vakaruni’s new novel is a Ben­gali girls’ quest for a fam­ily se­cret

India Today - - SPORT - By Bunny Su­raiya

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

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