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Oleander Girl

A Novel
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Oleander Girl includes 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.


    Introduction

    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.

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