Rummanah Aasi
  I had originally planned on reading and reviewing Cathy Ostlere's debut novel, Karma, for my Southeast Asian Reading Challenge last year. Due to some glitches and a very busy schedule towards the end of 2011, I wasn't able to get to Karma until now. If you're looking for a great read about India, be sure to pick up Karma as it embraces the light and dark aspect of the nation's history. For full disclosure, I was provided a copy of the book from the author in exchange for an honest opinion. 

Description (from the publisher): It is 1984, and fifteen-year-old Maya is on her way to India with her father. She carries with her the ashes of her mother, who has recently committed suicide, and arrives in Delhi on the eve of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi s assassination - one of the bloodiest riots in the country s history. Then Maya is separated from her father and must rely upon the help of a mysterious, kindhearted boy, Sandeep, to safely reunite them. But as her love for Sandeep begins to blossom, Maya will have to face the truth about her painful adolescence . . . if she's ever to imagine her future.

Review: After reading a slew of mediocre reads, Karma felt completely original and the captivating story sucked me in right way. This epic tale unfolds through the pages of alternating diaries from October 28th through December 16th, 1984. The deceptive simplicity of the passages contains many layers with its few words, unveiling a sometimes painful history, both personal and on a national level, beneath the story's surface.
   Fifteen-year-old Maya, half Hindu/half Sikh, has lived her entire life in rural Canada. Her family's religion and ethnicity set them apart from their community, but also from one another. Naming Maya signifies the tension between her parents, lovers who gave up their families, pride, etc for each other, but who have lived in different states of mourning and regret ever since. Her father insists on calling her a Sikh name, Jiva or "life," yet her mother defiantly calls her a Hindu name, Maya or "illusion," as an insult to her Sikh father. Maya begins her story in the typical fashion of a coming of age tale detailing her plight of fitting in with her surroundings.
 Heartache and loss lead Maya and her father back to India at the time of Indira Gandhi's assassination. You may or may not know but on October 31, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in her garden by two of her Sikh bodyguards as revenge for the attack on the Sikh's holy "Golden Temple." This in turn led to riots where many (the numbers are not very clear) Sikhs were brutally murdered by Hindus to avenge Gandhi's death.
  Karma takes place during the riots where the city erupts in chaos. Through a sequence of horrifying events, father and daughter are separated, and Maya is left alone in a violent foreign country where she must rely on the help of strangers to reach safety. Maya's sense of otherness escalates dramatically as she is forced to consider it on virtually every aspect of her life as well as on a larger, broader scale. In her journal, she pours her uncertainties and her fears especially of never returning to her once mundane, peaceful world in Canada. She records the atrocities she has witnessed and her guilt of not helping those around her. 
   The middle diary belongs to blunt yet charming Sandeep, with whom Maya experiences love, tragedy, ancestry, and loyalty at an intimate yet physically innocent level. Sandeep is the balm of Maya's wounds yet he himself isn't immune by the riots. He too suffers from pain and it was interesting to compare how these two characters approached pain and sorrow differently. I loved how the romance between Maya and Sandeep quietly bloomed and didn't overtake the important introspection from the book. Their romance, which may or may not be doomed depending how you look at it, offers hope, even in its slightest glimmer.
  Despite its tome like appearance, Karma reads fairly quickly. The book's pace and tension compelled me to read quickly, but I did have to stop and reread a few passages to really appreciate the richness of the language, imagery, and the subtle meanings behind the surface of the words. Ostlere uses the verse format to her best ability in relaying an important story with just the right amount of words and emotions. There is nothing superfluous in the book. The various themes such as shame, retribution, war, religious fanaticism, the will to live, suffering, suicide, ignorance, not fitting in, love, loss, grief, second chances, and many more left me thinking for quite sometime after I finished the book. Part coming of age, part historical fiction, part self discovery, and part romance, Karma has something to offer for various readers. I'd highly recommend picking this one up in you are at all curious about India or Indian history/culture.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Curriculum Connection: Asian Studies

Words of Caution: There is some strong violence, disturbing rioting scenes, language, and crude humor. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.

If you like this book try: Keeping Corner by
8 Responses
  1. I have this book in my library and the cover is just beautiful. I haven't read it, but you've made me want to. I will have to slow myself down, as you said, because when I read verse novels I sometimes go to fast and miss the beauty of the writing. Thanks for bringing this one up!

  2. I just don't know much about India so this would be a great book for me to emerge into the culture. I also love books told through diary entries so this would be a good one for me, not to mention I am stuck in a rut of mediocre reads right now as well. Thanks for the recommendation, now to just find the time!

  3. Books with diary entries can be a hit or miss for me because I'm always questioning how the characters remember everything so vividly. But, as long as this one involves more introspection and less chronicling everything that happened during the day, it should be okay.

    I think I'll add this one to my wishlist as it seems like a deep novel. I can't imagine how scary it must have been for Maya to be separated from her father and surrounded by violence in an unfamiliar country.

  4. I have little understanding of the politics in India. I'd love to know more, but I'm not sure about a book in verse. I guess I should see if this is in my library and pick it up and see if it's something I'd enjoy. I'm always turning my nose up at novels in verse. And this one sounds as if it has all the other elements I enjoy in a story. Great review!

  5. Candace Says:

    I actually got this awhile back but haven't read it yet. It sounds absolutely fascinating to me though and I'm happy to hear you really enjoyed it. Thanks for the reminder, I need to read this soon!

  6. I'm always reluctant to read novels in verse. Did you feel like there were enough words to feel fully connected to the characters and story? I'm guessing so since you liked it so much. The plot sounds like something I'd love. I'm fascinated by India.

  7. Great review! I linked it on I hope that's okay!

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