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A tale told with flowerlike delicacy

Monday, June 10, 2013
By Carol Andrade

Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee
Divakaruni. Long before she reached her current total of 17 books, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni had hit her stride and her oeuvre — which was the documentation of the female immigrant experience. in the US. That she has done it with considerable success is commendable, because she has a lot of competition, notably from Pulitzer prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri and Bharati Mukherjee, not to forget Anita Desai and Bapsi Sidhwa.

Regarded as the most prolific in the category, time and again, her books have received plenty of plaudits from no less personages than Junot Diaz (Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) and Abraham Verghese (prize winning physician-author memorable for My Own Country).. Both have praised her for different works, fulsomely, as have Vogue, Outlook, etc.

Therefore, in picking up this current work, her readers know exactly what to expect and are not disappointed, especially since the story, interesting but not shatteringly original in its premise, is accompanied by sharply observed situations, well-delineated characterization and lashings of style when it comes to simile, metaphor and imagery that straddled the seas and creates its own music across two countries — India and the US. Perhaps we should say Kolkata and the US, because of course the heroine is well-rooted Bengali who travels to the US, a place that the author, having lived there for a couple of decades, is very familiar with.

So we have Korobi Roy, only orphaned grandchild of a well-established, aristocratic bhadralok family who may not have all the money in the world but plenty of name and tradition. She meets Rajat Bose, newly-minted moneybags whose desirability off-sets Korobi’s own blue blood to create a heady coupling that then runs into problems.

When Korobi’s grandfather dies suddenly, she learns a shocking secret that sets her off on a trans-ocean quest to discover the truth and find herself. Telling you any more would be a shocking breach of the spoiler rule so we will let readers find out for themselves.

The book is a good read, racey enough to keep one turning the pages, but also satisfying in the author’s artful use of language and style. Actually, this is what saves it from becoming one of those dreadful books categorized under “airport novels”, because while you more or less know what to expect from Divakaruni, she continually surprises you with little nuggets that suggest original research, empirical fact into little-explored aspects of character.

Everyone is beautiful or handsome, all are tormented, and each harbours a secret. That’s a lot like real life isn’t it, except that here it’s tarted up and made to look very good indeed! All in all, if the travel experience is what you enjoy, this book will absolutely not disappoint.

Oleander Girl
by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Published by Penguin Viking
Price Rs.499

The mystery man who would be PM
The NaMo Story: A Political Life by Kingshuk Nag. At a recent event to lunch this book in Mumbai, a panel discussion populated and moderated completely by journalists and featuring the author as well, threw up a curious viewpoint. Asked what they thought would happen if Narendra Modi actually became the Prime Minister of India, all cited different reasons that came to the same conclusion. NaMo had a little more than a snowball’s chance in hell of making it to 7, Race Course Road.

Then why, asked a member of the audience (also full of journalists), was Indian news so keen on projecting his popularity on a national level as the man to watch  against the background of the approaching elections? There was really no answer.

Even as I write this, said newspapers (Indian) were announcing the Gujarat by-poll results and declaring them a boost for Modi, bringing him even closer to his ultimate dream — replacing Dr Manmohan Singh.

Not a bad dream for anyone, but in particular for Modi, who has come a very, very long way since he started out, the middle of six siblings, son of a tea-stall owner at Vadnagar in northern Gujarat. You would be forgiven for saying “Vad-where”, for even now, it is far from being fully developed, and this itself, along with the fact that Modi has not carried along a single member of his family as he journeyed to the top in Gujarat, should tell you what a singular category he employs in the pantheon of son and family-loving, nepotistic and corrupt Indian politicians.

Written in simple, direct reportage, Kingshuk Nag has done readers who would like to know more about the man who would be king a real service. All of us know bits and pieces about the man’s political journey, but he burst upon the national psyche only with the Gujarat riots in 2002. Since then he has been viewed through the prism of presumed guilt or innocence, depending upon whether you support or oppose him. For, like it or not, cliched though it may be, the truth is that you may like Modi or hate him, you cannot ignore him. That’s how Nag introduces him, before taking us into the next chapter which addresses the main question — can he become Prime Minister?

The thing is — no-one really knows what can happen in the volatile world of Indian voting because results have so often gone completely contrary to expectations. The introduction of the AVMs may have brought more voters out to the polling booths, but cards are held very close to the chest indeed.

So Nag does the next best thing – he weighs the pros and cons, does some math, says it is possible, and then proceeds to tell the reader what kind of Prime Minister Narendra Modi would make. In one word — different. From every other prime minister we have known except for Indira Gandhi!

Much of the book treads familiar ground and we realize how much we have actually absorbed in bits and pieces about the man over the years. But absorbing does not mean putting the picture together. Nag does that for us, dovetailing fact, reportage, anecdote, interview into a seamless whole that makes for very good reading indeed precisely because there is very little drama. And because of the lack of hyperbole and declamation, it rings true, even though there is very little to add to knowledge of the man himself. For that, we will have to hynotise Modi and make him answer questions!

That is the worrying part — that Narendra Modi, who has an outside chance of becoming the Prime Minister of India, is such a private person that no-one knows what might spring out once that last ballot has been counted and he is installed. If he is installed. 2014 is going to be a very interesting year indeed!

The  NaMo Story
by Kingshuk Nag
Published by Roli Books
Price 295

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