India as the 'Other' in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's Oleander Girl
"Chitra Divakaruni, the most recent star in the Diaspora sky … since her woman characters are mainly Indo-American, there is tendency to see them not as individuals so much as representative of the Diaspora, and we are back on square one perpetuation of negative stereotypes that the average north American reader has of Indian life and culture." (Jain 1998: 34)
Today, diasporic literature in India forms one of the most explored and fascinating literary research areas. The issue of migration, identity quest, nostalgia and sense of being alienated has attracted the attention of many expatriate authors, who elucidate these issues in their own characteristic manner through their works. In doing so, they not only describe their emotional angst of being an immigrant but they undertake a rather complex and more responsible task of representing their native land for global readers. As a result, these narratives become a medium of knowing about what is India, how is India, what does it mean to be an Indian and so on. People belonging to other cultures develop their knowledge through these sources thus unconsciously building an image which may or may not be true in reality. Hence the question that arises here is: does the diasporic author really represent India? Or, does he/she merely frame a narrative that may enthrall, surprise, shock, amuse and entertain people at large only to serve the popular taste of readers? Also, these novels are published with editor's choice of content where:
"we have to be aware that editors often select text that are poignant, for the same reason…. our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.… Authors?...the writers choose viewpoints and plots that would appeal to English-reading world, wherein lay recognition and remuneration. Do authors intentionally or unintentionally, assume the voice that readers wish to hear?" (33)
Yet another significant point worthy of being noted here is that is it possible for an author to represent India, which they have left years ago and have gone too far enough both in terms of time (since they left the country) and geographically?
India being an immensely heterogeneous country can hardly be represented accurately in a single body of work. Even the authors within India find it difficult to explain the ethos and emotions through exact words. So how can a writer who has not lived in the country for decades, think of doing justice to the country which he has not experienced lately? The situation appears similar to subalterns as stated by Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak in her seminal essay 'Can the Subaltern Speak?' Spivak in her essay argues that the intellectuals who consider their responsibility of talking about the injustice and harm being meted out to the subalterns end up doing nothing but only "epistemic violence" to them who have "irretrievable consciousness". In the same way diasporic authors desperately try to create an image of India that they think still exists when they left the country.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in her latest novel Oleander Girl can be considered to have done harm not only to Indians but also to their age long traditions. The novel is a classic example of feminine identity and the question of women freedom. The story involves women from three generations- Korobi the youngest, Korobi's mother, Anu, and Korobi's grandmother, Sarojini. Each generation has some unique womanhood experience to share. While Sarojini being the meekest of all spends all her life living in India following her husband's demands, Anu and Korobi are defiant ones who go to U.S. to pursue their dreams despite of knowing that their visit abroad is a cause of displeasure for people around them. The other important aspect that moves along with the feminist note of the novel is the picture of India. An image of India is formed in the novel through many scattered comments and in addressing common place issues written here and there. In an attempt to highlight the changes between two cultures and the problems that Korobi and Anu felt after their displacement from India, Divakaruni has done the harm to totalize the entire Indian experience merely through these two characters. According to this consolidation India seems to appear as a male-dominated, racist and superstitions society.
Edward Said in his theory of Orientalism stressed that various gazes employed in characterizing east, are merely the construct of west. These constructions do not depict reality in the least but these constructions are made in order to view east as inferior when compared to west. It is true that Divakaruni does not undermine India's value but she unconsciously does harm to its reality. While writing about Korobi's engagement ceremony at her grandmother's home, she discusses various rituals and rites that are performed as a part of Hindu traditions to avert the evil eye and bring luck and prosperity for the engaged couple. It is important to note here that Divakaruni only names these rites but does not explains their essence for being performed from ages. Consequently, when the novel is read by a foreigner, it goes on constructing Indians as superstitious who believe in dream interpretation, ghosts, magic, evil eye, etc.
Just at the beginning of novel, Korobi tries to infer her dream thinking that it is a forewarning from her dead mother- "Has she come, like ghosts in tales, to warn of an impending disaster?" (Divakaruni 2013: 4) Yet another example of this superstitious belief is described- "The commentator on Akashbani….over fifty people dead in a train fire in Gujarat… Sarojini thinks…A pity that one had to happen today, a day of more happiness than their family has seen in a long time." (6) This depicts Sarojini as a narrow minded person who might not have bothered about the mishap if it would have occurred on any other day than Korobi's engagement. Sarojini also mentions the ritual of "mustard-seed ceremony to avert the evil eye" (8) which Korobi should necessarily undergo before Korobi's in-laws arrive for engagement ceremony. Though there is no outsider's (westerner) eye in the text, yet one can easily infer of what Occident thinks about such rituals of the Orients. The character of Flory (British) in George Orwell's Burmese Days remarks about Indians ritualistic activities as "This was the Orient, scents of coconut oil and sandalwood, cinnamon and turmeric, floated across the water on the hot, swimming air." (Orwell 1986: 43) to which another character Elizabeth replies "There's a touch of diabolical in all Mongols" (43). Hence these situations present a very dark picture of India.
Even on the day of Korobi's royal engagement party, thrown by her elite in-laws, she decides to wear an off shoulder dress which becomes the cause of distress for Bimal Roy, her grandfather, who considers it cheap attire for girls belonging to traditional families. He calls her as "callgirl" (Divakaruni 2103: 28). Such remarks offer half truths about India which go on to establish it in an exotic fashion. The author nowhere stops to explain the story behind the age old beliefs and traditions but she continues with same pace with the narration of story.
We all know India as one of anti-racist country. Even the movement against racism achieved its new height in India where people of India fought against the color discrimination. Yet the publication of Oleander Girl in 2013, accuses the country with the prevalence of racism. Though what Divakruni says may be true among certain people or in certain areas where still traces of racism can be felt, such exceptions cannot validate the charge to be true for entire nation.
But the novel presents well-educated, literate, socially eminent members of society as racists. Both Bimal Roy and Boses find it difficult to accept a black man being related to family in any manner. This becomes clear when Anu visits her parents back in India during her pregnancy. She never discloses it to her father that the father of the child inside her belongs to an African-American Rob Lacey. Infact, later when Korobi herself discovers that her father is a black man she is advised by Sarojini for not letting this news out to anyone.
"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 worse than if he were merely a foreigner. But it's beyond the present capacities of her muddled brain. "Don't open that can of worms," she begs her granddaughter. "Just come home."" (225)
Marriage in Indian context is depicted as that stage of girl's life that completely cuts her from her parents and childhood relations and places her in the realm of burdensome expectations imposed by calculative and mean in-laws. Though this may still be the case in some Indian villages and small cities, but wouldn't be so in a metropolitan city like Kolkata, where two well-educated persons belonging to economically well-established families are getting married. Marriages in Indian society mean same as what it means to a person of any other race, tribe or country. Divakaruni has done authorial injustice to Rajat, for unjustifiably using him as an aggravating source for Korobi's problems, only to highlight the issue of female helplessness after becoming an Indian fiancé. Readers themselves know that Rajat, inspite of much insecurity, stood by her side till the end of the novel. He defies even his mother's anger against Korobi and visits her home being repentant of whatever wrong he might have done to her. Nothing, not even her family history, altered his decision to marry Korobi. He always thought of Korobi as his lucky charm and allowed her to follow her dreams to America. But this is not what Divakaruni has highlighted in the novel. The irony remains that Divakaruni instead of emphasizing on aforesaid matters takes the other way, of depicting how Indian girls are tied to several traditions, once they decide to marry.
The difficulties involved in marriage are even more gravely aggravated by Anu's relationship with Rob. We later get to know that Rob and Anu were not married because she promised her father that she would never marry against his wishes.
"For a moment, the words hover in the air between us meaningless. Then I stare at him, aghast. "I'm illegitimate?".. I'm a - bastard?" …..She took the promise she'd made in the temple… I coundn's understand it, but there it was. That was one of the reason she went to India- to ask her father to release her promise so we could marry before you were born." (245)
Hence patriarchy overpowers Anu over love. It brings to a conclusion that the country does not allow its girls to choose what is right. Rather Indian girls are shown to be tied and over-burdened by family ties, in-laws' expectations, societal prejudices, etc., for whom freedom becomes unfulfilled fantasy.
Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. 2013. Oleander Girl. New Delhi. Thomson Press India Ltd.
Orwell, George.1986. Burmese Days. England.Secker & Warburg.
Parameswaran, Uma. 'Home is where your feet are, and may your heart be there too!' in Writers of Indian Diaspora. 1998 (ed. Jabir Jain). Rawat Publication. Jaipur, pp 33-34.
Said, Edward. 2003. Orientalism. USA. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakaravarti. 'Can the Subaltern Speak' mcgill.ca. n.d. Date of access- 29 Dec 2013.