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Monday, May 28, 2012

Karma, written by Cathy Ostlere. Razorbill, Penguin. 2011. $22.00 ages 13 and up

"Before he left, Bapu asked for my forgiveness.
It was a mistake to promise me to a man.
A mistake he would correct.
But what if he can't?
And my fate is sealed?
A mother's last wish?
A dowry paid?
Too much shame on the family
for a cancelled bride?"

In her first novel for teens, Calgary author Cathy Ostlere gives us a compelling and heartbreaking story that barely allows the reader to take a breath. I was hooked from the first page to the last; the fact that it is told in verse and runs to more than 500 pages does nothing to allay the breathless wonder of it.

It is Maya's story, but it is told in varying voices. After her mother commits suicide in Canada, she and her father travel to India for the burial of her ashes. It is 1984 and the two arrive on the very night that Indira Gandhi is murdered by her guards. They are Sikhs, as is Maya's father. Chaos reigns, bringing grave danger to all people in New Delhi. It is through a terrifying string of events that Maya finds herself alone in a country she does not know, with no identification and no way of knowing where her father is.

She is helped by Parvati Patel, a doctor who has serious concern for Maya's mental and physical state. She finds refuge with the doctor's family. After seeing such viloence and being subjected to constant terror in her effort to get away from the repercussions of the assassination, Maya is mute and unable to tell anyone what has happened. They do not know who she is, they do not know what has happened to her. Parvati enlists the help of her charming younger brother to bring Maya back from the horror and heartbreak. Sandeep is a listener:

"There's no trick to it really. Just listen. Not judge.
Once people feel safe it's rather incredible to watch.
They lean in. Whisper in your ear. Sometimes they
even cry as they confess their lie or small crime.
(Our neighbor Mr. Gupta is in love
with his wife's sister. They meet in
secret and he recites poetry to her.
It's possible her third child is his.)"

In the six weeks that follow her arrival in India, Maya must face fear, prejudice, and her future. The complex cultural issues are treated with understanding. Maya is the child of two cultures; her mother was Hindu, her father is Sikh. Their marriage was frowned upon, and not an easy one for either because of differing views of religion and the world. As Maya struggles to find her voice and herself, she keeps a diary and finds love with Sandeep, who becomes Maya's protector.

Sandeep gives Maya a gift to help her find her own voice again, a diary for her words...all those things she could not say:

"He gave me a pen too!
No need to press hard
and raise the print through
to the other side.
The slitted nib will draw
words out easily.
Liquid thoughts.
Swelling letters.
A river of ink flowing
black and wet.
Flooding the paper banks.

Oh, how I have missed this voice.
My written soul."

This layered, beautiful story is rich in language and emotion and has definitelyfound its own special place on my 'keeper's shelf...and I will read it again. There is much to savor in the articulate rendering of Maya's life as it unfolds once she has landed in India.The author's use of a format which allows for two voices weaving back and forth (from one side of the page to the other) is incredibly effective. I loved the description of this new and unfamiliar country...with its sounds and smells. In that way, it reminded me of The Tiffin and its many clear images of India and its people.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Sal, for such a lovely review. I don't know the Tiffin but I will add it to my reading list.