________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 33. . . .April 27, 2012



Cathy Ostlere.
Toronto, ON: Razorbill/Penguin Group (Canada), 2011.
534 pp., trade bk., $10.50.
ISBN 978-0-14-317472-1.

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Darleen Golke.

**** /4



Yes or no?

There’s no time to think.

Hurry! Hurry!

But I’m not ready.

Be ready, Jiva.

The top of the dresser:
Passports, rupees, hotel key,
And scissors.
The silver blades.
I pick them up and weigh my options.
My braid.

(Could I be a boy?)

Yes or no?

Get out! Get out!

Yes or no? Yes or no?

Faith, Vanity, what does it matter now?

The braid falls beside Bapu’s hair. Already a
forgotten relic. I push at the dark strands with my
foot and recoil. It’s like touching dead things.

I strip off the orange sari, pull on jeans and a T-shirt.
I remove my earrings and nose ring. Rub
The tikka from my forehead. I look at my slippers.
I tear at the beads and sequins. Run them under
The tap until they darken.


I slip my feet into wet satin.

Though the open door I see people running down
The hall. Bapu! I call out, just in case he has
Returned. Amar! It’s Jiva! Men run by me, but
None is my father. They are all wearing turbans.
Blue. Red. Yellow.

Who or what will save them now? Courage?
God? A sympathetic Hindu?

I hold out the scissors for any who will dare.


Set in India during the tumultuous period of the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, the novel in verse, Karma, follows the experiences of 15-year-old Canadian-born Maya from her home in Elsinore, Manitoba, to India. Maya’s culturally-conflicted parents, a high caste Hindu mother and a Sikh father, cannot even agree about her name – her mother, Leela, names her Maya, illusion in Sanskrit; her father, Amar, insists on Jiva, soul in Sanskrit. “I was born into a division that began long before me.” Strong family opposition to their marriage compelled the newlyweds to emigrate to Canada; however, Leela found the adjustment difficult, and, after suffering from depression for years, she committed suicide in October 1984. Readers meet Maya as she begins a diary “somewhere between an old life and a new” on a flight to India with her father who is carrying the urn with her mother’s ashes home to the Yamuna River, known as the River of Sorrow.

     Two days after they arrive in New Delhi, Gandhi’s assassination triggers a bloodbath as more than 3000 Sikhs pay the price for her death; Maya and her father become caught in the midst of the violence. When Amar seeks help from friends, he leaves Maya at the hotel where violence erupts, and she barely manages to escape. Disguised as a boy, “a Canadian girl of mixed-religion," Maya waits for Amar at the train station, but finally, fearing the worst, she realizes she must go on alone and boards a train bound for Jodhpur, “wherever that is.” A gang of men, “four-limbed and angry/ carrying iron rods and knives/ hands gripping gasoline cans/ voices shouting in the hot dry air/ their fury stirring the dust like wind” attacks the train and drags off a Sikh man, binds him, pours gasoline on his body and sets him on fire In the aftermath of the horror, Maya disembarks in Jodhpur, fights through crowds, ends up in the hospital, and decides to stop speaking even to Dr. Parvati Patel. “Sometimes there’s nothing left/ to say to another human being.” Maya thinks that “without a voice,” I’ll be safe. Patel takes a special interest in Maya and arranges sending her north to Jaisalmer to stay with her own family.

      Patel charges Sandeep, her adopted brother, “a shepherd’s son” found under a goat, his parents “drowned in sand,” to care for Maya and try to persuade her to speak, insisting he keep a diary to record activities. Sandeep’s adoptive mother, Amma, “high-strung and sensitive” married below her caste to Barrindra, is horrified by the prospect of taking a strange, mute female into her proper household. The situation deteriorates until Barindra arranges a marriage for Maya with Akbar who guides them across the Thar Desert to his grandfather’s household. When Maya and Sandeep, who predictably grow romantically involved, discover Barindra’s arrangement, chaos ensues, and the teens escape the adults and travel back to New Delhi to find Maya’s father. Eventually, Sandeep finds Amar and reunites father and daughter, but accepts Amar’s dictate: “Choose your heartbreak, boy. If I ever see you/ near my daughter, I’ll have you both killed.” Despite Maya’s pleas, she realizes “Sandeep must have heard the/ pledge of vengeance and believed him./ I can still see the grief in Sandeep’s eyes as he/ backed away down the hallway. He had done/ what he promised. Brought me my angry father./ But the price was for us to be kept apart. The/ space in between filled with cruel longing.” Sandeep manages to see Maya one last time before the Singhs head back to Canada, and he gives her his diary, pledges his love, and promises “to find you,/ again, meri jann. Here. There./ Somewhere in between here and there.”

      Ostlere elects to tell Maya and Sandeep’s story in verse using the diary format to cover the October 28 - December 17, 1984 time frame. Maya relates the first half of the novel, October 28 - November 4; Sandeep continues the story from November 13 - December 4; Maya resumes her journal December 5 - 16. Sections of the diaries are laid out in a two-voice format, one voice left-aligned, and the other right-aligned. The writing is beautifully lyrical, characterized by generous metaphors and similes, enriched with rich and passionate language, symbolism, and meticulously described cultural details. The author travelled in India during the months before Gandhi’s assassination and admits she “realized that India was a complex, troubled nation layered with racial wounds, a lingering caste system, and corrupt political organizations.” Twenty-five years later, she presents Karma in which her characters face “the brutality, racism, and superstitious beliefs of their nation.” Themes of religious and cultural conflict, caste discrimination, racism, mistreatment of women, political corruption, and abuses of human rights permeate this historically-based coming-of-age novel. The concept of Karma that both Hindus and Sikhs embrace flows throughout the narrative. Maya believes “kindness and/ generosity is the Karma we bring to/ other’s souls”, and she accepts love from Sandeep and offers forgiveness to her father. “I have seen things no child/ should see. I have seen adults make/ a hell of this world.” Maya concludes, “Who will show the world the possibility of love, if it isn’t us?”

      Ostlere includes a discussion of “The Genesis of Karma”, and the editors of this paperback edition have included a “Discussion Guide” prepared by Pam B. Cole, Professor of English Education and Literacy, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA.

      The Canadian Library Association recently included Karma on the 2012 Young Adult Book Award shortlist.

Highly Recommended.

Darleen Golke writes from her home in Abbotsford, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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