Book Group Guide

The questions that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of THE GIRL IN THE GARDEN by Kamala Nair


1. Compare Rakhee’s home in Minnesota with the Varma house in India. What aspects of each home are comforting to her? What aspects are upsetting? How is Rakhee herself different in each location?

2. So many problems stem from Rakhee’s parents’ unhappy coupling, which was born out of complex circumstances. Do you think there could have been any way to avoid the pain that was suffered by Prem, Rakhee, and her parents themselves, as a result of their marriage and subsequent split? Do you think Rakhee benefitted from knowing the full story of her parents’ past, even though she was a young girl?

3. Rakhee often finds herself between two worlds: In Minnesota, her Indian parents pull her in one direction as her American classmates push her in another; in Malanad, she plays with Krishna and her other cousins while hiding Tulasi and the garden as her own secret. How does this affect Rakhee as a person? Does her duality affect your perception of her as a character?

4. Two pairs in the story (Rakhee and Tulasi, Chitra and Prem) feel an intense connection for one another and later discover that they are siblings. Do you feel that siblings have this kind of bond, even when they don’t know of one another or are separated by distance? What kind of relationships do you (or your friends or other family members) share with your siblings that are unique from your other relationships? What other literary siblings do you enjoy reading about?

5. The Varma family’s commitment to maintaining honor and following the words of the elders led to problems for Chitra’s (and to an extent, Rakhee’s) generation. Have you had experiences in your own immediate or extended family in which secrets and appearances have caused conflict? Were the conflicts ever resolved?

6. There is an element of magic in The Girl in the Garden, even though the magical elements (the hidden garden, the ghost at the well) are eventually revealed as having straightforward explanations. Do you like having fantasy elements in the stories you read? Why or why not? How did you feel when the reality behind the garden and the ghost are revealed?

7. The Girl in the Garden has been compared to the childhood classic The Secret Garden, which was a source of inspiration for the author. Have you read The Secret Garden, and if so, in what ways is the book similar, and in what ways is it different?

8. Rakhee does several brave things in the novel, but her biggest moment of bravery begins the book. How do you think a person who faces his or her past honestly can alter his or her life? In other words, if a person cannot (or refuses to), how might that affect him or her adversely?

9. At the end of the novel, Rakhee reunites with Amma and Tulasi. What do you think was the outcome of their reunion? How might it have unfolded?

10. Rakhee considers many of the adults in her world, particularly her grandfather, Sadhana Aunty, and Dev, to be directly responsible for her family’s downfall. Were any of these characters’ actions justified? Once you learned about their motivations, were you able to sympathize with any of them?

11. Discuss Rakhee’s conflicted feelings toward religion in The Girl in the Garden? How do you think the events of the story may have impacted her religious beliefs as an adult?

12. Could this story take place in any other part of the world, or is it distinctive to India?

13. What role does the garden play in the novel? Why do you think Tulasi, and even Rakhee, get sicker as the garden grows increasingly neglected?

14. In some ways, the village of Malanad is a character in the novel. What are your impressions of Malanad after having read The Girl in the Garden? Do you think the author has a discernable attitude about the village? If so, would you call it affection, disdain, or something else?

15. Rakhee is disturbed by the injustices toward women that she witnesses, particularly in the case of her cousin Gitanjali. Yet one of the most empowered characters is arguably Sadhana Aunty, who takes over as head of the household after her father dies. What do you think about the role of gender in the society as portrayed in the novel?

16. Is Rakhee justified in deserting her mother and refusing to have any contact with her until the end of the novel? Do you agree with her decision to go back to India and forgive Amma?

17. Rakhee’s coming of age coincides with her realization that her parents are fallible human beings with complicated pasts. Has there been a pivotal moment in your own life where you came to such an understanding?

18. Were there any characters you found yourself particularly identifying with? Were there any you found difficult to feel sympathy for? Why?

Author Q&A

1. The Secret Garden was clearly an inspiration for this story. What other books and writers inspire you?

The Secret Garden was one of my favorite novels as a child. There are so many elements of the book that entranced me then and now: the grand old estate harboring a dark secret, a family of lost souls, a young girl dealing with cultural confusion, and a garden which holds the key to the family’s redemption. I wanted to explore similar themes in my own novel in a darker way, and through a different cultural lens.
I was also inspired by 19th-century British novels, especially of the Gothic variety. I am a huge admirer of the works of the Brontë sisters. Other writers whose works I admire include Arundhati Roy, Daphne du Maurier, Edith Wharton, Edna O’Brien, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, among others.

2. Were there any elements of the story or characters that were based on your own life and family?

Like Rakhee, I grew up in small American towns, eventually landing in Minnesota, where I moved when I was twelve and stayed until leaving for college. My father is a physician at the local hospital, and he spent his childhood in a village that served as a loose template for Malanad, including the Ayurvedic hospital started by his own father, whom I unfortunately never got to meet. My mother grew up in Trivandrum, and in everything from her beauty to her grace to her intelligence and strength of heart, she was one of the heroes of my childhood, much as Rakhee’s mother is a queen to her awe-struck daughter. As Rakhee entered the strange territory of her ancestral village, Malanad, so, too, did I go back to those many summers I spent in India as a child. I revisited my memories: the rituals, the ethos, the social politics I observed, as well as the feeling of being a fish out of water in a place that was so intimately tied to my identity.

I poured a great deal of myself into Rakhee, but as the story progressed she grew away from me into her own distinct personality. She is much wiser, more headstrong, courageous, and sensitive, than I ever was at her age. She is also much lonelier. While I wasn’t the most outgoing kid, I always had friends, and was lucky enough to have a sister who I grew up with, and two stable, loving parents who still live in Minnesota and just celebrated their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.

Ultimately, Rakhee turned out to be a highly romanticized version of myself, and something much greater than myself. She has been able to say so much about life that I, hiding in her shadow, would never have been able, or have had the right, to say.

3. Why is the story told in flashback and not as a present experience? Do you think that having the distance of time changes the reader’s experience of the book?

I wanted the story to be about how our childhoods can continue to haunt us as adults, and how we to learn to cope with and move on from past traumas. I thought it was important for the reader to see how the events of this watershed summer affect not only Rakhee, but everyone around her, and how the mistakes of a past generation are ultimately made right in the next.

4. Rakhee and her cousins perform a version of the Indian epic Ramayana, which has a plot that somewhat mirrors Rakhee’s mother’s experiences. Can you tell us about your connection to the Ramayana and how you decided its part in your story?

It’s an epic, archetypal tale that not only mirrors Rakhee’s mother’s experience, but also provides context for the Varma children’s superstitious beliefs. My parents shared the Ramayana with my sister and me when we were children, and its stories are deeply enmeshed in my imagination. I think this is the case with most every Indian and Indian-American child, and so I wanted it to also play a part in Rakhee’s childhood.

5. How long did it take you to write The Girl in the Garden? What was your routine/process?

It took me about three years. I wrote the majority of The Girl in the Garden while working full-time editorial jobs at magazines in New York City, so I knew that if I wanted to finish, I would have to be very disciplined about my routine. My mind tends to be fresher in the mornings, so I would set my alarm a few hours before I had to be at the office, get up, make a cup of strong tea (toward the end I switched to black coffee), and sit at my desk to write. Even though getting up that early was a challenge, I loved the feeling of being awake while the rest of the city slept. It was still dark outside and the streets were silent. There was something magical about moving from the world of sleep and dreams directly into the world of my novel…especially when writing the scenes where Rakhee rises at dawn to visit the garden. New York is an inspiring city for a writer, but it’s also full of distractions, and I often succumbed. I had to turn down a lot of invitations and miss out on many exciting events in order to write during the weekends.

6. Do you consciously plan out all the details of your novels, or do you figure it out as you go?

For this novel, I planned everything out from the get-go, once I had completed the first few chapters. I created an outline, which I used as a loose template. This particularly helped whenever I got overwhelmed by the process because I felt like I had a roadmap to guide me as I wrote. Of course things never turn out exactly as you plan them and as I got to know my characters and story better, I veered off the set path and made some of changes along the way. For my next book, I have found the process to be a lot less planned and a lot more intuitive, which is both scary and exciting.

7. What inspired you to write The Girl in the Garden?

I became inspired to write The Girl in the Garden during a family trip to India. I was in the rural village in Kerala where my father grew up, a place I had visited many times as a child. The lush jungles surrounding my father’s childhood home had always struck me as a magical place to set a story. One night I accompanied some relatives to the village temple after sunset. When we got to the temple, which was illuminated by flickering torches, one of my cousins pulled me aside and pointed out a field with an ancient-looking stone well at its center. She told me there was a superstition in the village that the well was haunted by a ghost, and that no one dared tear it down. Later that night I dreamed about that field and the well, but in my dream I also saw a tree with branches covered in red flowers, and there were two little girls huddled under the tree. That image captured my imagination. I wanted to know who those little girls were and why they were under that tree. I started writing, and the story evolved from that single arresting image.

8. Why did you decide to become a writer?

I have been writing ever since I was a child. Reading was always my great passion, and I started writing my own stories at an early age as a form of entertainment. I was always happiest when I was reading and writing, and that organically translated into a desire to become a writer professionally. I always knew writing would be part of my life no matter what, but I didn’t make the decision to plunge into it as a profession until after I got my Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin, and turned down admission to a law school in order to pursue my writing career.

9. Did you ever consider a different ending for the story

My original ending for the story was a lot darker. My first draft of The Girl in the Garden was only about Rakhee’s childhood summer, and did not involve her life and growth as an adult. Thanks to some helpful feedback from my agent, I decided to re-think it, and add a few more chapters about the adult Rakhee. I realized it was unfair not only to my readers, but also to Rakhee to leave her hanging in such a dark and uncertain place.

10. Why did you decide to use the poetry of Mirabai in your book?

I discovered Mirabai while researching poems to read at my sister’s wedding. I stumbled across “Unbreakable,” and thought it was incredibly beautiful. I researched the poet and her life, and was moved and intrigued. She was a pioneer and a feminist in a time and place where such a figure was rare. I wanted to pay tribute to her, and felt the poem fit the mood and theme of the story.

11. What is your relationship to Kerala?

I grew up in places without a substantial Indian community, so my parents paid particular attention to exposing my sister and me to Indian culture. We visited Kerala every few years during school vacations, and had the opportunity to get to know our extended family and observe the way of life there firsthand. Both sets of grandparents came to visit over the years, and spent a significant amount of time with us, which also helped. When we went to India, we usually spent a couple of weeks with my mother’s family in the city, and a couple of weeks in my father’s village, so we were exposed to two very different worlds within one small state. My memories and observations from those trips are some of the most powerful from my childhood. I have not been back in five years, but I am hoping to visit again soon.