A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Personal Identity and Familial Duty
By Neely Kennedy
In the April Ladies' Home Journal Book Club selection, Oleander Girl, award-winning author, poet and activist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni weaves a complex cross-cultural coming-of-age saga about discovering ones identity amidst the formidable pressures and expectations set by family and society. The story begins when seventeen year old Korobi Roy, orphaned and raised in Kolkata, India by her loving, yet strict, traditional Hindu grandparents, experiences a strange visitation from her deceased mother on the day of her engagement party to Rajat, the son of a prominent business family. When Korobi’s grandfather, Bimal, dies suddenly that same evening, Korobi is doubly bereaved, having lost both her parents and now the tender love of the only father-figure she has known. Haunted by guilt in witnessing Korobi’s grief, her grandmother, Sarojini, confesses a shocking secret that she and Bimal colluded to keep from Korobi all her life—her father is not dead. Unable to start the next chapter of her life in marriage until she is reunited with her birth father, Korobi embarks on the search to find him in America. Feeling unsupported in her efforts, Korobi is conflicted with doubt in her engagement to Rajat, and ultimately must choose—her life with Rajat in India, or the freedom of life in America with her father and a possible new love interest, Vic. While in America, religious and personal tensions and conflicts among family and in-laws-to-be mount, bubble, and eventually boil-over.
Below are examples of the contrasting themes Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni explores, as the characters wrestle with the issues of culture, class, forgiveness and love.
India vs. America
- “I’ve never looked down upon Kolkata from up high, so I had no idea how far the city sprawled, which shape it took. On the ground, I knew its contradictions: lavish wedding halls behind which beggars waited for leftovers; red-bannered, slogan-shouting.”
- “She would tell us in her letters about folk-dance lessons and plays she had seen in San Francisco. She visited the giant redwoods and saw migrating whales. People in California, she said, were kind and friendly and very interesting.”
Parenting vs. Manipulation
- “Mrs. Bose notices Rajat’ flushed face, his pained expression. Has Bhattacharya hit upon something? Is there a problem with Korobi that she doesn’t know of? She feels a constriction in her chest. Oh it’s hard to accept that children come with their own fates. That a parent can do only so much to make them happy.”
- “You weren’t the one he dragged into the temple on the night Anu died, insisting that the baby never learn about her father. He made me promise in front of the goddess that I’d never tell you. He was determined that you would grow up believing that he’s dead.”
Identity vs. Duty
- “Sentences swirl inside Sarojini’s head. Remember who you are. Remember the world that waits for you here, its privileges and obligations. What happens in America isn’t your life; it’s only an interlude.”
- “’It’s my hair,” I say defiantly. But my statement is only half-true. That hair belonged to Bimal and Sarojini’s granddaughter, to Rajat’s fiancée, to Papa and Maman Bose’s daughter-in-law to-be.”
Rich vs. Poor
- “’You don’t know your boundaries. He’s a servant – and not even our servant anymore. Left us for some Muslim highflier. You’re a girl from a good family. You’re growing up now. You need to learn how to behave in society.”
- “He walked past them even as Mr. Bose was talking to him. Shaking off his son’s grasp, he spat on the sidewalk, close enough to Mrs. Bose feet that she jumped back in shock. None of the words of love and apology that Mr. Bose offered her afterward could keep her from feeling besmirched.”
Betrayal vs. Forgiveness
“Sarojini thinks the silence will go on forever, until she crumbles into dust. She would welcome that. To disintegrate, to blow away in the wind, to never have to answer the look in her grandaughter’s eye.”
- “I wait for rage at my grandfather to wash over me, but there is only sadness. What he did, it was because of love. Isn’t that why most people do what they do? Out of their mistaken notions of love, their fear of its loss.”
Prejudice vs. Tolerance
“Sarojini wants to explain the complicated gradations of race prejudice in India, how deep its roots reach back. Why for so many people, having Korobi’s father turn out to be black would be far more worse than if he were merely a foreigner.”
- “Because of love. Isn’t that what we do for the people we care for? Accept their problems because there are so many other wonderful things about them? And in your case these aren’t even your problems. They’re just the circumstances you were handed.”
Book Club Bonus: Discuss what effect family obligations have had on your life choices. What sacrifices in personal identity and freedom, if any, have you made to maintain peace within your family?
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