The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair
After years of keeping secrets, Rakhee Singh’s “demons” have finally “clawed their way free.” Without confronting what happened to her family that summer in India when she turned 11, she finds herself unable to embrace her future – her impending architecture degree, her promising design job, and most importantly, marriage to her “wonderful man.”
More than a decade earlier, blue aerograms from the other side of the world call Rakhee’s mother Chitra back to the extended family home in Kerala, ironically named Ashoka – Sanskrit for “without sorrow.” Before she was Rakhee’s mother, Chitra fled the compound at 17 and arrived in Plainfield, Minnesota, where she had a cousin who welcomed her. She married Rakhee’s father – 13 years her senior and a research doctor – and tried to be content as a wife and mother. By the time Chitra and Rakhee board the flight to India, Rakhee knows her parents’ relationship is about to implode, but she’s hopeful she can somehow bring them back together, even with thousands of miles between them.
As much as she adores her cousins, Rakhee is too aware of the tensions all around. The stuttering stranger Dev, who is not a family member but never far, is a malignant presence. Her mother’s older sister Sadhana couldn’t be more severe. Her Uncle Vijay is drunk far too often. Her grandmother seems to be getting weaker every day. She overhears too many whispered conversations and finds herself on the wrong side of the closed doors.
And then she discovers the secret garden, and the girl who lives within. Her name is Tulasi, and her only constant companion is a white peacock she calls Puck. Tulasi believes she will die if she ever ventures beyond her protective walls. But the girls’ bond is instant, and Rahkee is determined to free her new friend. Unable to fully understand what is happening around her, Rakhee’s rash reactions set off a series of tragic events and Rakhee’s family can never, ever be the same again.
Interestingly, the Varmas in Nair’s Garden are clearly Hindu, yet Kerala, because of its colonial Portuguese history, was once a Christian stronghold. That influence of the Edenic narrative, whether intentional or not, is subtly woven through Nair’s novel: Tulasi eats the proffered mango which sparks her discontent, what she thought was perfect truth is challenged when Rakhee shares new outside knowledge, she even has a desperate moment of vanity.
If you choose to go aural, Anitha Gandhi makes for an excellent narrator, smoothly modulating between innocent wonder, childish petulance, threatening stutter, blind exasperation, and more. You’ll also be rewarded with an interview with Kamala Nair who speaks about the inspiration for her debut novel, which includes a visit to her father’s ancestral family home in Kerala, her family’s hospital nearby, her beloved grandmother’s death. And yet while certain details may overlap, Rakhee’s story is only Nair’s story in that it springs from her imagination. Three years in the writing, Garden proves to be quite the lush, evocative, haunting (audible) read.