Modernity vs. Tradition in Divakaruni’s Oleander Girl and My Own Experience with Contemporary Indian-American Women’s Fiction

Considering all the beautiful features that her newest novel had to offer, Divakaruni certainly did not disappoint by delivering a beautiful novel that sheds light on culture, family relations, growth, and the modern Indian woman.

During my growing up years, I haven’t paid attention to contemporary Indian writers. After all, that wasn’t a topic that existed in my high school English Literature classes. That was until ninth grade poetry portfolio assignment. That involved analyzing a poetry anthology of my choice. Black Candle, a poetry anthology by Indian-American writer, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni came up on my library search. Years later, as a college student, I have seen the movie version Mistress of Spices starring a well-known Bollywood actress and model, Aishwariya Rai based on Divakaruni’s novel. Only then, I started to pick up other works by other contemporary Indian women writers.

I hope to someday join the sorority of prolific Indian woman writers whom I deeply admire. Any smart writer and reader looks at other similar writers and listens to the topics. It’s so that a writer can pen a thoughtful response to continue the dialogue. Each writer, of course, has her own unique style and distinction—but what are the common topics? That is worth consideration from both avid readers and writers.

I picked up Oleander Girl recently. The poetic, beautiful writing style that Divakaruni is recognized for immediately drew me in. The protagonist is introduced as a young, naive girl brought up by her traditional grandparents. She leaves for America to find out the identity of her father. The story is about her growth as she undertakes a heroic journey. I must admit that initially I was put off by the idea of an innocent, village girl as a protagonist. I felt that I relate more to her foil, a modern city girl who goes out and has a drink at the bar. My immediate reaction was, Oh, great! Just what we need. More female stereotypes where a woman is either the naive, virginal Snow White type or the modern city girl who tends to have a loose reputation. Cant a decent girl also be modern, shrewd, outgoing? I grew up with a lot of outspoken women. Most of my stories have bold, outspoken strong females that do not fit the popular perceptions of women. Characters are not required to be likable. Each character carries their purpose. But, why does it seem that the characters appealed to a cliché? Pondering the intricate nature of Banerjee’s protagonist, I knew there’s more to this because this was a coming-of-age novel about tradition vs. modernity. There’s no way that Divakaruni would disappoint me.

And, that’s exactly the irony. The novel is indeed clever. People are not who they seem to be. The heroine comes to an understanding. Towards the end, she has a keen perception of people. She wasn’t that naive, insular girl that I perceived in the beginning. Well-crafted characters are the marks of intelligent fiction. Here, all the characters created the novel such as a prominent family willing to undergo ridiculous lengths to impress people and for keeping up appearances. For instance, they had the kids speak French when an important guest arrived to give an impression of cultured when they normally don’t speak French. In addition to comic relief, this family broke the expected notion of in-laws.

The foil to the protagonist is the wealthy girl who sports a nice car, boyfriend, and access to exclusive nightclubs. In the end, it is not evident she was to blame for a malicious act. It is irrelevant. People are not who they seem to be. There is also the tension of appearance versus reality. The older generation wants to cover up for the sake of maintaining order and pleasing appearances. However, the young protagonist seeks to expose the truth. When it comes to contemporary Indian fiction, modernity is all about unearthing the truth, which impacts the characters and situations.

Anyone who also enjoys poetic language rich with symbolism will find Oleander Girl a worthwhile read. For third culture kids of Indian heritage, it is important to take time to read fiction from Indian writers. It’s a way to examine our culture as it is evolving. Even pardesis or outsiders to Indian culture can appreciate another culture, yet relate to the common universal themes. One way to combat myopia is to broaden one’s perspective by reading a variety of intelligent contemporary fiction from authors of various cultural backgrounds. That sheds light on universal human themes and we realize that we have more in common than differences. Considering all the beautiful features that her newest novel had to offer, Banerjee did not disappoint by delivering a beautiful novel that sheds light on culture, family relations, growth, and the modern Indian woman.


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