A sweeping, suspenseful coming-of-age tale from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the beloved bestselling author hailed by Abraham Verghese as a “gifted storyteller” and by People magazine as a “skilled cartographer of the heart.”
Beloved bestselling author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has been hailed by Abraham Verghese as a “gifted storyteller” and by People magazine as a “skilled cartographer of the heart.” Now, Divakaruni returns with her most gripping novel yet, a sweeping, suspenseful coming-of-age tale about a young woman who leaves India for America on a search that will transform her life.
THOUGH SHE WAS ORPHANED AT BIRTH, the wild and headstrong Korobi Roy has enjoyed a privileged childhood with her adoring grandparents, spending her first seventeen years sheltered in a beautiful, crumbling old mansion in Kolkata. But despite all that her grandparents have done for her, she is troubled by the silence that surrounds the circumstances of her parents’ death and clings fiercely to her only inheritance from them: the love note she found, years ago, hidden in a book of poetry that had belonged to her mother. As she grows, Korobi dreams of one day finding a love as powerful as her parents’, and it seems her wish has finally come true when she meets the charming Rajat, the only son of a high-profile business family.
Shortly after their engagement, however, a sudden heart attack kills Korobi’s grandfather, revealing serious financial problems and a devastating secret about Korobi’s past. Shattered by this discovery and by her grandparents’ betrayal, Korobi decides to undertake a courageous search across post-9/11 America to find her true identity. Her dramatic, often startling journey will ultimately thrust her into the most difficult decision of her life.
With flawless narrative instinct and a boundless sympathy for her irrepressible characters, in Oleander Girl Divakaruni brings us a perfect treat of a novel— moving, wise, and unforgettable. As The Wall Street Journal raves, “Divakaruni emphasizes the cathartic force of storytelling with sumptuous prose. . . . She defies categorization.”
This reading group guide forOleander Girlincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
As the only child of an old and distinguished Hindu household in Kolkata, Korobi Roy grew up with the best of everything—except parents. All she knows about them is that her father died a few months before her birth, and her mother died when she was born. Korobi has lived her entire life with her grandparents: her beloved, cantankerous grandfather who made sure she received a top-notch boarding school education and upbringing, and her grandmother who encircled her in the comfort of family traditions. But despite her happy childhood, Korobi yearns to know more about her parents, and cherishes an unfinished love note from her mother to her father that she discovered as a child, tucked away in a book of poetry. At seventeen, Korobi has found her match in the handsome and charming Rajat, the only son of one of the city’s high-profile business families. On the night of their engagement party, Korobi’s grandfather dies of a sudden heart attack. His death reveals the family’s unexpected financial problems as well as a dark secret. The discovery of this secret shatters Korobi’s sense of self, and sends her—against the wishes of her fiancé and his family—to post-9/11 America on a life-changing search.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Tradition and modernity both play significant roles in the novel, and often collide. For example, the Roy family values cultural heritage and traditional religion, while the Boses are more modern and think highly of new entrepreneurial endeavors. The engagement of Korobi and Rajat brings these two families together. How do the family members feel about the union? What do they agree or disagree about? Find other examples of this kind of conflict in the novel and discuss how characters handle the clash between the old and the new.
2. In spite of India’s advancement into modern society, an age-old class system is still very present in Indian culture. Both families are wealthy enough to have many servants, and we hear from Asif, the Bose’s chauffeur, often. After Asif’s “six years of chauffeuring the rich and callous he has realized that to them servants are invisible. Until they make a mistake, that is.” (p. 11) Discuss the servants’ dynamics with each other and with and their families or bosses throughout the novel. For example, how does the dynamic between the Boses and their servants differ from the Sheikh and his servants?
3. There are many couples in the novel, and we see these partnerships from various perspectives. Compare and contrast the way each couple functions together: Mr. and Mrs. Bose, Sarojini and Bimal, Rajat and Korobi, and Mitra and Seema. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each partnership? What makes some of them endure while others fall apart when plunged into adversity?
4. At Bimal’s insistence, Anu and Sarojini make promises to the goddess at their family temple. Both women take these promises very seriously, and keep them with much difficulty. What exactly are these promises? And why do both women keep their promises despite their consciences telling them otherwise? What are the ramifications of keeping the promises?
5. Many of the characters do things out of duty to their families or their religion, but there are exceptions to this sense of responsibility. Even though Anu technically keeps her promise to Bimal not to marry, she still “had chosen love over duty.” (p. 67) What are other examples of characters making such a choice? Do duty and love ever coincide in the novel?
6. Right before Korobi leaves for the United States she chastises herself for not noticing her grandmother enough, and thinks: “If I come back…I’ll do it differently. Then I was shocked. If I come back. Where had that come from?” (p. 103) Why do you think Korobi unconsciously uses the word ‘if’ instead of ‘when’?
7. Religion is central to the lives of many of the characters in Oleander Girl. Conflicts between Hindus and Muslims plague India and its inhabitants throughout the novel. The discord at the Boses’ warehouse is brought on by the ongoing religious tension in India. Within the warehouse the workers—both Muslims and Hindus—have always worked side by side, but a news bulletin on the radio sparks a violent fight between the men. Find other moments in the text when religious conflict instigates or exacerbates confrontations between characters. Are there instances when a different kind of attitude toward religion brings characters closer to each other?
8. When Korobi travels to the United States, she experiences a kind of prejudice that is completely different from anything she has known in India. At the airport in New York, on the way to San Francisco, Korobi comments that many of the people pulled out of line for security checks are Indian. In response her companion Vic says, “Welcome to flying while brown in post-9/11 America.” (p. 210) Korobi is indignant at the discrimination; Vic is not bothered by it. Discuss the similarities and differences of prejudice in the United States and in India.
9. Korobi travels from her house in Kolkata to New York City and Berkeley before returning to India. Each place she goes holds a unique significance for her. Find a description of each setting in the novel and discuss what that place signifies for a certain character. Consider the Roy house and temple, New York City, Boston, Berkeley, Kolkata, the Bose’s warehouse and their gallery, and the Mumtaz gallery in New York.
The story of Oleander Girl. is narrated from changing perspectives, and each narrator brings different eyes to every situation. How does this style of writing affect your reading experience? Find a passage from each narrator and discuss how his or her voice reveals new insights to the reader about the story or the characters.
11. Korobi thinks that Mitra and Seema will be her allies in America; instead she finds Mitra suspicious and unhelpful, and Seema lonely and scared. How did this once successful couple descend into their misery? Seema tells Korobi that after 9/11 “many South Asian businesses were boycotted, especially those with Muslim names. Others were attacked.” (p. 117) Discuss how 9/11 traumatized and terrorized the city even after the attacks. How is Korobi affected by the tragedy?
12. Near the end of the book, Korobi learns the meaning behind her name: “Because the oleander was beautiful—but also tough. It knew how to protect itself from predators. Anu wanted that toughness for you because she didn’t have enough of it in herself.” (p. 289) Does Korobi live up to her name in the story? Find examples in the text to support your answer.
13. At Korobi and Rajat’s lavish engagement party, Mrs. Bose recalls the unpleasant circumstances of her own union. Mr. Bose’s father “was furious that his son had chosen—no had been entrapped by—a girl so far beneath their station…” (p. 34) How do you explain Mrs. Bose’s reaction to Korobi’s shocking secret in light of her experience with Mr. Bose’s father? How do the other characters react?
14. While Korobi is in the United States, Rajat, Pia,, and Asif are injured in a car accident. Why does Asif sacrifice his safety to help Rajat and Pia, even after Rajat rudely truncates Pia’s chat with Asif in the parking lot? Discuss if the incident had any positive effects for the characters.
15. At a crucial point in her life, Korobi is given a piece of advice: “…never choose something because it’s easier.” (p. 289) How does Korobi apply this advice to her life decisions? What is your opinion of this statement?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Pretend Bimal had lived for a few more minutes. What might have he said to Korobi other than apologize? Do you think he would have told her the truth about her parents?
2. Pick a character who does not narrate a section of the novel and imagine the events from his or her point of view. For example, consider what Vic thinks about Korobi and her American quest. When do you think he begins to take an interest in Korobi as more than a friend?
3. Divakaruni has written seven novels, two short story collections, and two poetry collections. Choose one (maybe a short story or a poem) and read it as a group; discuss and consider any themes that appear in both Oleander Girl and your selection.
A Conversation with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
1. You’ve written novels, short stories, and poetry. How is the writing process similar or different for each form?
The writing process is different for each in some ways. For instance, with poetry, I would get sudden moments of inspiration, and I’d usually write the entire first draft at once. With short stories and novels, I have to plan things out much more carefully, and think about developing characters, themes, and settings. But what’s similar is that for all of them I have to have an idea or an image that fascinates me, that I can’t forget, that I must explore. And all forms require a lot of revision!
2. Were there any aspects of Korobi’s upbringing that come from your own life growing up in Kolkata? You were only a little older than Korobi when you first came to the United States. How does Korobi’s first impression of the United States compare to your own?
I grew up in a traditional Hindu family, like Korobi, so many aspects of her upbringing are very familiar to me—from my own family, and the households of friends. When I was almost done with writing the novel, I realized—with some surprise–that a lot of my own grandfather was reflected in Korobi’s grandfather.
My own first impressions of America are from the 1970s—things were very different then for immigrants. There was a much smaller Indian community, and communicating with India was more difficult and expensive. I felt cut off, as though I’d moved to a different world. But everything was also new and exciting. People were very curious about India—and overall, very kind. Korobi is much more connected (through technology) to those she leaves behind, yet she still feels some of that same excitement, of having entered a different world. She is challenged differently, though, by 9/11, which made life a lot harder for brown-skinned people in America, subjecting them to a new kind of prejudice and distrust.
3. A prominent theme in your writing is the experience of being caught between two worlds, such as India and the United States. How does Oleander Girl continue to build on this idea?
Korobi in Oleander Girl is definitely torn between two worlds—the values of India and America, how women are expected to behave in each culture, the importance America places on the individual versus the privilege given to family by Indian culture. She will also be attracted to two men who in some ways are products of these dichotomies, and she will have to choose between them.
4. Religion and religious conflicts appear frequently in this novel. What was your religious experience growing up? How did that change or develop when you moved to the United States?
I grew up a Hindu and remain one, although now I am more interested in a spirituality that embraces people of different faiths. It strikes me as a terrible irony that religion, which should help people see the divine in each other and to respond to those around us with compassion, has been the cause for so much bloodshed in the worldOleander Girl examines this issue and, I hope, will make readers think of possible alternatives to religious strife.
5. Two of your novels, Sister of My Heart and The Mistress of Spices, were made into movies. What was it like to see your words come to life on the big screen? How would Oleander Girl translate to film?
It was very exciting, in both cases, to see my words translated into images and actions. I had known the films would be different from the books, and they were. Each medium has its strength. A book is much more introspective; a film can sway you through a wonderful visual moment, an expression on an actor’s face.
I think Oleander Girl would do very well as a film. The historic old house in which Korobi grows up, or the run-down New York apartment where the Mitras have been forced to retreat after the misfortunes that strike them following 9/11 would make powerful settings. There’s a lot of dramatic action that would translate well on the big screen, as well, and moments of psychological complexity that could be shown poignantly on the screen through facial expressions and gestures. Relationships are very important in Oleander Girl, and that’s a key ingredient in a good movie!
6. Are there any particular writers you admire and draw upon for your writing?
There are so many that it’s impossible to list them all. I’ll put down a few favorites here: Margaret Atwood for the amazing and dramatically fraught world she imagines in The Handmaid’s Tale; Anita Desai for her deep understanding of Indian cultural intricacies in Clear Light of Day; Tim O’Brien for his originality, poetry, and heart in his Vietnam short stories in The Things They Carried; Maxine Hong Kingston for her weaving of myth and immigrant issues in her memoir The Woman Warrior; Italo Calvino for his imagination, poetry and structural intricacies in Imaginary Cities.
7. You’ve written about 9/11 and the aftermath of the tragedy before. This novel takes place one year later and is not directly about 9/11, yet the characters are still affected by the event. How does your inclusion of 9/11 in Oleander Girl differ from its place in your other writing?
In Oleander Girl I’m looking at the long-range effects of 9/11—the way it took hold of the American psyche. (And in a way, continues to do so today. Flying while brown is still a very real phenomenon that I have to deal with when I travel.) I’m also looking at it from different angles—how the hate-crimes that rose from it affected brown-skinned Americans who had nothing to do with the terrorist act, but also the fear and despair and anger that led to those acts, how so many kinds of lives became unraveled as a result.
8. Some of your works, such as Queen of Dreams and Mistress of Spices are located in the realm of fantasy. While Oleander Girl is based in reality, some of the characters have visions and dreams that they fully believe. For example, Korobi believes her mother’s spirit comes to her the night before her engagement to give her an important message. Do you believe that our deceased loved ones ever visit us in our dreams? Or is this another example of fantasy?
I believe there are many layers of reality. The logic-based one that we privilege, particularly in the Western world, is only one of them. So yes, I believe many mysterious and unexplained events—such as a visit from the dead—can occur.
9. Do you do any kind of research to write from so many different perspectives? Do you have any strategies to help you get into the mind of a certain character?
I do a lot of research before I write a novel. For Oleander Girl, I researched 9/11 and its aftermath, especially in New York. I also researched New York neighborhoods, particularly the Queens/Jackson Heights/Astoria area. I wrote with a map of Kolkata in front of me, so I would get street names and distances travelled by characters correct. I even researched the architecture, structure, and building materials of colonial-period homes in India so I could write about the damages suffered by Korobi’s ancestral home. But a lot of things I knew already, through personal experience, or hearing old stories.
My strategy for characters is a fairly simple one—to just be quiet and imagine them. If I am still, I can hear the character begin to speak. I get a visual image of them doing something in a scene. That’s when I can start writing about them.
10. What are you working on next?
I'm writing a novel that will re-tell the story of India's most famous epic, the Ramayana, from the point of view of the main female character, Sita. I am always interested in how the female perspective differs from the male, and Sita's story, dramatic and powerful and tragic, is a great opportunity. Here's the story in brief: Sita follows her husband, Prince Rama, into exile in the forest. There she is abducted by a demon king. She resists his advances and remains faithful to her husband as he gathers an army to battle the demon king. Rama is ultimately victorious and returns in triumph to his kingdom with Sita–but just when we expect a happy ending, he sends Sita away because his subjects believe she has been "tainted." Sita must give birth to Rama's twin sons in the forest, and bring them up on her own. Years later, he sees the twins, realizes they are his, and asks Sita to return to his kingdom. You'll have to read the novel to find out what she decides to do, and why.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is the author of sixteen books, including Oleander Girl, The Mistress of Spices, Sister of My Heart, Palace of Illusions, One Amazing Thing, and Before We Visit the Goddess. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times, and has won, among other prizes, an American Book Award. Born in India, she currently lives in Texas and is the McDavid professor of Creative Writing at the University of Houston.
"Gorgeous. . . [An] elegant and highly evocative new novel from Divakaruni."
"With the barest touch of magical realism, Oleander Girl whisks the reader into the layered intricacies of love affairs, family, Indian social class, racial prejudice and religious tension. . . . [Divakaruni] delivers an absorbing modern fairy tale about an orphan in search of the messy truths of family and love."
– San Antonio Express News
"Emotionally compelling. . . . Oleander Girl . . . weaves together many realizations—social and personal. It’s a book that allows you to debate the place of pure emotion as a driving force in life. . . . Divakaruni brings up the generation gap, . . . social status, personal loyalty, Indian mindsets and American realities (ongoing subjects of inquiry in many of her former novels) and serves them with just enough sugar and spice to keep her reader liking the fare."
– Live Mint
“Divakaruni is a poet as well as a novelist—a fact on display in this mystery, which unfolds like a time-lapsed lotus. . . . [She] weaves the issues of the caste system, Hindu and Muslim differences, modern Indian women balancing love and duty, and prejudice into the fabric of her story. It’s the smell and feel of Kolkata that resonates long after the book is finished.”
– BUST magazine
"Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s new novel, Oleander Girl, is . . . a showcase for the best-selling author’s ability to maintain her signature, beautifully-crafted prose while creating a complex set of deceptions, ruses, and lies, exposing the dark side of human nature. . . . Skillfully crafted, the novel is a bouquet of collisions that illustrate how choices we make affect more than just ourselves. The past and present clash, as do secrets and truths, needs and wants, old and new India, East and West, wise and unwise decisions. Subplots span two continents and families, and double back on themselves."
– India Currents
"A many-faceted story of discovery . . . Oleander Girl is part mystery, part search, but mostly the story of a young girl finding herself and deciding where she belongs."
– Seattle Times
"An orphan teen raised by her grandparents in India finds the love she always searched for, but a newly unearthed family secret may interfere."
– Oprah.com "16 New Books to Get Lost in This April"
“Oleander Girl will keep you captivated from the very first chapter. . . . The twists and turns to the story will make you want to read it in one sitting. Beautifully written. As an author, Divakaruni is in a league of her own."
"Oleander Girl is a coming of age novel in the best tradition. . . . Divakaruni's gift is story telling, and she is generous with her gift. Through her wonderful novel we become active participants. . . and grateful witnesses to the maturing of a child into a woman."
– The Huffington Post
"Chitra Divakaruni’s enthralling new novel, Oleander Girl, tells a love story that is more than just that. . . . The many memorable characters that people this novel make it a pleasure to read. [Divakaruni] lavishes as much care on secondary characters as she does on the principals. [Her] tale is so well-plotted that few will guess the secrets at the heart of this page-turner."
– The Dallas News
"Divakaruni uses her considerable storytelling skills to full advantage in her new novel."
– The Oregonian
"Divakaruni explores issues of class and politics in modern India and immigrant America, but the family issues at the heart of the novel give it a cross-cultural appeal. Told with empathy and intelligence, and accompanied by intrigue, the stories--and issues--of the Roy and Bose families should appeal to a broad range of readers."
– Shelf Awareness
"Divakaruni has crafted a beautiful, complex story in which caste, class, religion, and race are significant facotrs informing people's world views."
– Library Journal (starred review)
"Oleander Girl is a masterpiece--a Dickens novel moved forward 150 years."
"An entrancing storyteller with an unerring moral compass, Divakaruni has created a superbly well-plotted, charming, yet hard-hitting novel of family, marriage, and class, a veritable Indian Jane Austen novel spiked with racial prejudice and religious violence. . . . From baneful secrets, poisonous misunderstandings and conflicts, and transcendent love, Divakaruni has forged another tender, wise, and resonant page-turner."
– Booklist (starred review)
“The heart of Divakaruni’s cross-cultural novel lies in contemporary Kolkata, India. . . . Like an Indian Maeve Binchy, Divakaruni offers an entertaining [read].”
"Oleander Girl is elegant and classic, but also vivid and immediate. Love and loss and secrets collide in this powerful story of the way we live now. There is poetry on these pages, but also the burning-on-both-ends urgency of a page turner. Gorgeous and exciting, this is a wonderful novel."
– Tayari Jones, bestselling author of The Silver Sparrow
“When you think of thrilling page turners, you don’t usually think of fluid, graceful prose. But that’s what you’ll find in Oleander Girl. This is the gripping story of a young woman who leaves India in pursuit of a shocking family secret, only to learn far more about herself than she bargained for. It is also a story that bears out the wisdom of something one of the characters says: Never choose something because it’s easier. Chitra Divakaruni is such an elegant writer, one who makes the reader feel not only engaged and entertained, but a bit elevated, too. I’ve been a fan of Divakaruni’s work for a long time; this book keeps me one.”
– Elizabeth Berg, New York Times bestselling author of Tapestry of Fortunes
“Compulsively readable, a real page-turner. I found it impossible to set this novel down once I picked it up. Chitra Divakaruni confronts the hard truths about love, loss, grief, redemption and the choices we make, in a family saga that reads like a detective novel.”
– Thrity Umrigar, bestselling author of The World We Found and The Space Between
“Oleander Girl is a riveting and powerful exploration of family secrets, betrayal, love, and ultimately, the search for self. Divakaruni paints colorful characters on a rich tapestry of modern India, all still haunted by the past.”
– Shilpi Somaya Gowda, New York Times bestselling author of Secret Daughter