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Monday, May 20, 2013

Oleander GirlOleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

My rating: 4 of 5 stars




If the young are brave and committed, life will reward them with knowledge. In Oleander Girl,  seventeen-year-old Korobi uncovers many truths, palatable and unpalatable, in the course of her quest to find the father who remained a mystery.  She learns the hard way—as most of us do, to judge between true and false and comes to terms with the ground realities of human existence.
Korobi’s story takes hold of you right from the haunting opening paragraph. Her voyage is itself extraordinary, in the sense that a young Indian girl who has led a sheltered life can prevail over convention and persuade her guardians to let her to embark on this journey. As this determined young girl travels from Kolkata to the U.S.A., facing a series of challenges, the reader eagerly waits for the mystery of her parenthood to be revealed. The timeless appeal of the orphaned protagonist finds compelling play here, and the clash of cultures heightens the drama. However, this is not just the tug-of-war between east and west, but also their coming together. The author explores numerous facets of the global, multicultural experience with ease, and her mastery of craft is apparent in the wide range of narrative voices she employs so effectively to add depth and texture to Korobi’s story.
I particularly liked the portraits of assertive women—from Korobi herself to her grandmother Sarojini, Jayashree her future mother-in-law, and best of all, Pia her fiancĂ© Rajat’s little sister. While Rajat comes across as the somewhat confused modern Indian male, it is Bhattacharya the politician who surprises us with his yearning for the past with its well-defined values, symbolized by the old temple in Korobi’s grandfather’s house. For him: “…the gates that shut out the twenty-first century…” are invaluable and irreplaceable, as they stave off the demands of a new age that has still to evolve a respectable code of conduct. A bemused Sarojini wonders, “…how many layers there are to a man’s heart, tender spots beneath the calluses, hidden even from himself.” The interplay between tradition and modernity is another important point of conflict skillfully explored by the author—the faceoff between the old and new Kolkata, starkly outlined as well in Rajat’s struggle to resist the seductive Sonia’s siren song and embrace wholesomeness as represented by Korobi.
The reader is held in thrall as the problems pile up and secrets unfold. However, Oleander Girl is much more than a tale of suspense; it is also a story of tender relationships that reach beyond race, religion and class. Apart from the primary narrative strand of Korobi’s mixed parentage, there is the chauffeur Asaf Ali’s attachment for Pia, which prevails against his employers’ prejudice and his friends’ conventional warnings.
These are the special touches in this book that make it so heartwarming, by reinforcing your faith in human nature.
Towards the end I did find the rapid unfolding of events a tad overwhelming. However, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s consummate storytelling carried the day and this poignant tale remains one of my favourite recent reads. 




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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Spinning Yarns...





There’s something in this collection for everyone—spine tingling spooky stories, thrilling adventure tales, thought provoking fables, even nonsense rhymes that will tickle you silly. Some stories could have been taken from your own life—stories of school and home, of celebrations and hard times, of light-hearted fun as well as heartbreak. There is a vast variety of fascinating, unforgettable characters to keep you enthralled too—clever girls, daring boys, foolish kings, understanding teachers, gutsy grandmothers and dogged shikaris.



Putting them together was a trip down memory lane, a delightful excuse to read, read and read, but I must confess it was not an easy task. What should I include, what leave out? When the decisions confronted me, I realized what a daunting task I had set myself. There was so much to choose from! It was heart-wrenching to leave out some truly wonderful works because there wasn’t enough space. That's life for you--always those tough decisions to make...


But why did I find the tales in this anthology so special, so memorable? I felt they contained universal truths—an essential element of great writing. There are many ‘Aha!’ moments in these stories. For example, Big Brother in Premchand’s story with the same name, keeps falling behind his younger brother in school, despite all his hard work. However, when he says with simple dignity, ‘You are flying high today because you have stood first in your class. But you must listen to me. I may have failed but I am older than you. I have more experience of the world that you have…’ your respect for Big Brother goes up several notches—even failure has not shaken the roots of his self-belief. The warmth of understanding floods through us when Jim Corbett states at the end of his account of a long, gruelling hunt of the man-eating tigress: ‘There have been occasions when life has hung by a thread and others when a light purse and disease resulting from exposure has made the going difficult, but for all these occasions I feel amply rewarded if my hunting has resulted in saving one human life.’

These stories are rooted in our culture and history as well. We are reminded about the importance of the guru-shishya tradition in Sudha Murty’s heartwarming “How I Taught my Grandmother to Read”. In fact, two other tales dwell on the very special relationship of grandparent and child—Shankar’s fun-filled ‘Rain-making’ and Khushwant Singh’s nostalgic “Portrait of a Lady”.

There are many other thought-provoking themes. The power of the imagination is celebrated in Paul Zacharia’s “The Library”; and the peril of excessive attachment to worldly goods is playfully highlighted in Sanjay Khati’s “Soap”. Then there are those moments of realization—of understanding that we are all special in different ways as in Paro Anand’s ‘Eid’.

There are very real boys too, like Swaminathan in R.K.Narayan’s Swami and Friends, to sympathise with when they keep getting into trouble. There are also inspirational characters like Rajappa in Sundara Ramaswamy’s powerful story “The Stamp Album”, who decides to do the right thing, after doing a very wrong thing, even though it requires an enormous sacrifice.  

If you adore chills, there are two goose bump inducing tales—Satyajit Ray’s scary “The Vicious Vampire” and “The School” Ranjit Lal’s compelling tale of a very unusual school. A school quite different from the one in which we encounter the intriguing Mr. Oliver in Ruskin Bond’s engaging story, “Here comes Mr. Oliver.”

The eminent Ray family has contributions in both fiction and poetry in this volume. No matter how low you might be feeling, you cannot help but smile when Mister Owl says to Missus in Sukumar Ray’s hilarious poem:

‘All my fears all my woes
All my throbby sobby lows,
Are all forgotten thanks to you
My darling singing Owleroo…’

And as for Vikram Seth’s highly entertaining “The Goat and the Ram”, nuisances though the two characters might be, you cannot help but admire the resilience of the goat as it says after the farmer turns them out:

‘Things aren’t that bad. We’ve not been beaten.
We could have been, but were not, eaten.
Some time we’ll find some home somewhere.’

What else can I say? That there are stories of village life and city life, from the past and the present, set in real worlds and imaginary worlds; that this is one book you can read in one sitting or you can dip into it again and again.

So go ahead, enjoy—the road to wonderland starts right here! And do let me know what you liked best...

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