A novel in verse, Karma by Cathy Ostlere alternates between the journals of Jiva/Maya – the Canadian born daughter of a bi-religious Indian family –and Sandeep–a Hindu adolescent orphan with amnesia. Karma is the story of a girl from a troubled family navigating troubled times. Born to a Sikh father and a Hindu mother who emigrated to rural Canada to escape the censure of their families, Jiva’s identity is conflicted. Perhaps nothing symbolizes this more effectively than her name: Jiva is the name her father gave her and the name on her birth certificate, but it is Maya–the name her mother gave her in defiance of her father– that she uses throughout the book. The book opens with Maya and her father on a flight to India with an urn containing her mother’s ashes and as the story unfolds through flashbacks we learn how unhappy her mother was in Canada, in part because of the racism of the community, but also because of the expectations of her husband.
Just after Maya and her father arrive in India, Indira Gandhi is assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for her decision to send the army into the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a Sikh holy site, to suppress a militant Sikh separatist movement. In response, anti-Sikh mobs instigated an organized pogrom in which at least 8,000 Sikhs were murdered, 3,000 in the city of Delhi alone. Maya and her father are caught up in the violence and separated when their hotel is attacked. Maya disguises herself as a boy, flees Delhi, witnesses several atrocities, and when found by Dr. Parvati Patel, refuses to speak.
At this point the narrative switches to Sandeep’s diary, which he is keeping on the insistence of his adoptive sister, the doctor who treats Maya. Parvati sends Maya to live with her family and hopes that Sandeep, who is a friendly, sociable guy, will be able to draw Maya out of her shell so they can find out who she is, where she belongs, and how to get her back home. But Maya is not welcome in Sandeep’s conservative village, and Sandeep’s adoptive father concocts a plan to get her out. During the ensuing adventure in the Thar desert, Sandeep and Maya fall in love.
I read this book in two days and it has taken me just as long to figure out what how to review it. Clearly it pulled me in–there were several times I found myself glaring at my husband for daring to interrupt me while I was reading. But even while I was reading it, I felt vaguely uneasy with it and it took me a while to put my finger on why.
So, first the good stuff. Writing a novel is an ambitious undertaking. Writing a book-length manuscript of poetry is an ambitious undertaking. So writing a novel in verse is doubly ambitious and difficult and I applaud Cathy Ostlere for the simply act of sitting down and writing this book. The language is beautiful and powerful and often moved me to tears (and not just because of the tragic subject matter. Here is one of my favorite poems, from early in the book when Maya first gets to Delhi:
A hand tugs at my arm
holds up a small earthen cup.
It belongs to a boy, small,
yet his face is old. he could be
nine or twenty or thirty-seven.
one rupee chai
He puts the chai into my hand,
presses my fingers around
the unbaked clay.
drink now chai chai
The tea is brown like a puddle
And swirling like an eddy.
chai rupee rupee chai
I hear voices rising out of the cup.
chai rupee rupee
chai rupee rupee chai
chai rupee chai chai
Like crows plucked alive.
eat rupee rupee eat
aii hungry rupee chai
The air rings with longing
aii rupee aii rupee
The ground shakes with heartbreak
aiii rupee aiii chai
I raise the cup to my lips.
aiii aiii aiii
The tea slides down my throat
and I swallow India.
Ostlere captures the chaotic energy of the Indian capital and the everyday tragedy of poverty in this and other poems. Once the anti-Sikh riots begin, the poems stretch to encompass the horrors of murder and the darkest acts human beings are capable of.
Where she loses me is love.
Sandeep’s diary begins on November 13 and ends on December 4. The diary begins as “a record of the comings and goings of a troubled mute girl” (p 182). In other words, Dr. Parvati Patel has asked her brother to follow Maya around and write down everything she does. Ostensibly this is in the hopes that Maya will reveal something of her past to Sandeep, either through her actions, or Parvati hopes, through a return to speech prompted by Sandeep’s easy-going nature. What it actually means is that Sandeep is something between a spy and a stalker, talked into keeping his diary because Parvati describes Maya as “too pretty to be mistaken for a boy” (despite her disguise) and about his age. The final hook? The girl’s name is Maya, the name that Sandeep cries out in his sleep–the only remnant from his forgotten life before the Patel family adopted him. How does Maya feel about all this? Who knows, she’s not talking! But apparently by December 5 when she starts a new diary, she has totally fallen for Sandeep as well.
While Maya’s self-imposed silence may make sense from a trauma perspective, it makes me uneasy in the context of romance. Voiceless, Maya becomes an object of mystery, an object of pity, and an object to be fought over, but never a subject of her own making. In the roughly 175 pages of Sandeep’s notebook, we see him watching her, overhearing conversations about her, punching people who malign her character, but rarely actually interacting with her. Where does the love come from? Instalove is a common problem in young adult (and well, any romantic) literature, but given the overall weightiness of Karma the superficial nature of the relationship between the two main characters is particularly unfortunate. If this is supposed to be a story about how love can flourish and triumph in the worst of times, the love must be more believable.
Despite these misgivings, I found Karma to be an important and compelling read. The winner of more than half a dozen awards, including the South Asia Book Award Highly Commended Book and the R. Ross Annett Children’s Award, Karma is the kind of book that will stick with you long after you finish reading it. It makes you think about the big questions of human nature, love, and forgiveness.