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Karma, written by Cathy Ostlere, 528 pp, RL: TEEN

I first heard of Cathy Ostlere's novel Karma while listening to children's and YA author Julianna Baggott's piece on NPR Hooray for YA: Teen Novels For Readers of All Ages. I have long loved books set in India, for children, teens or adults, so I was immediately intrigued by Baggott's description of this book. I was especially intrigued by the fact that the book was set in 1984 and not the more common setting of the 19th and18th centuries when India was under British rule. Although I was daunted by the page count of the novel, the fact that it is a novel in verse and completely compelling meant that I was able to read it at twice the speed I might have, which is great because it was very hard to put down.

Before reading Karma I knew nothing about the the assassination of the prime minister, Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh body guards in retaliation for her decision to use the military to remove Sikh separatists from the Golden Temple in Amristar, Punjab, or the riots and mass murder of Sikhs that followed. And, while these political and religious battles are explained through main character Maya's eyes as she records the events of her life in verse in her diary, they are but the framework that supports and outlines the conflict and anger that is at the heart of Maya's family. Sixteen at the start of the novel, Maya is a divided being in every way. She is the child of a Hindu mother and a Sikh father who fell in love at a wedding. Outcasts in their own country, the immigrate to a small town in Canada where Maya is born and given two names, one Hindu (Maya, which means "illusion" and "change") and one Sikh (Jiva, which means "soul"). Exotic outsiders, they are stared at and derided by the townspeople who nonetheless patronize her father's shop. The isolation and prejudice is too much for Maya's mother, who longs to visit her homeland and family but is told repeatedly that they can't afford it. As Karma begins, Maya and her father are on an airplane to India to return her ashes to her birthplace.

As Maya tells her story in the pages of her diary we learn that her life is not easy either. While she has a best friend and a crush on a boy who seems to like her as well, she is devastated when, suspecting something, she finds Helen and Michael alone in the barn, Maya's mother's sari between them. But, the betrayal of Helen and her mother's suicide pale in comparison to what happens when Maya and her father when the land in New Delhi, "City of stink and/ noise. Streets clogged with flesh. Voices loud and/ soft./ Sounding of despair./ Smelling of pee." Betrayed yet again, this time by her father, Maya finds herself alone in their hotel room after the assassination while he tries to find help from an old friend. Before her father leaves the room he has Maya help him to alter his obvious Sikh traits.  When Hindus arrive at her hotel and set it on fire in an effort to force the Sikhs out, Maya cuts her own hair so that she can pass a boy, knowing how dangerous it is to be a girl on the streets even in the best of times, and literally runs for her life. Of this experience she writes, "The braid falls beside Bapu's hair. Already a/ forgotten relice. I push at the dark strands with my/ foot and recoil. It's like touching dead things."

Witness to the horrors of the time, Maya goes in to shock and stops speaking. She has no identifying papers on her and seems lost to the world. A kind female doctor sends her to live with her parents and adopted brother, Sandeep, in her home village. Dr Parvati Patel urges Sandeep to keep a journal with Maya's progress in it so that they might be able to unravel the mystery of her origins, although he is loathe to do so at first. Parvati urges him saying, "You can make a stone sing, Sandeep." In his poem titled "Duty" he writes, "Words are for seducing/ Chandi, Priti, Tejal./ Words are for getting what you want/ Words are not for putting in a book/ where somebody might find them." Sandeep's confident voice is a uplifting change, but soon he finds himself caring for Maya and defending her against the village women who scorn her for having short hair like a prostitute and for living in the same home, unmarried, with a boy her age. Finally, Mr Patel arranges to have Maya sent into the desert to live with a nomadic tribe. The journey to the camp, made my Mr Patel, Sandeep, Maya and their guide becomes yet another nightmare, although this time it is one that Maya is able to wake up from. She regains her voice, begins to trust Sandeep and together the two try to find their way back to New Delhi and Maya's father.

What amazes me again and again when I read a novel in verse it the ability of the authors to condense intense emotions and experiences into a matter of lines. I was shocked to learn that, not only is Cathy Ostlere not of Indian descent, but her only other published book is a prose memoir that tells the story of her brother's disappearance while sailing from Ireland to Madeira. The storytelling and verse in Karma are so well plotted, so descriptive and so emotionally intense that I was sure the book had to have been written by someone with first hand knowledge of the characters' experiences. Despite the fact that Ostlere has a very long story to tell in her poetry, she does not forgo advancing the plot for descriptive language. While waiting in the hotel room in New Dehli for her father to return, Maya writes, "I stare at the ceiling fan, stirring the air like warm/ pudding. Click. Click. It counts out time. Click./ Click." I would like to leave you with a poem that Maya writes near the end of the book upon returning to New Delhi to find her father after the riots have subsided. While the story of Maya and Sandeep is one of bravery, devotion and love, what stays with me long after I finished Karma are the ethical and moral aspects of the novel, the questions that Maya has after witnessing horrible violence and brutality enacted in the name of religion.

New Delhi

The city is shrouded with amnesia.
A tattered veil of forgetfulness.

Four weeks ago
I left my mother's ashes
in a hotel room.
I left my hair coiled on a tiled floor.
I left my father in a city mad with hatred while the Indian
government looked the other way.
Citizen killed citizen in a fashion so organized it's 
hard not to think it was planned for
months before.

Yet, four weeks later what is different? Fewer
turbans? But who is noticing?

On the streets of New Delhi, who is concerned?
Who even remembers?

I question that face of every man I walk by.
Was it you? Were you part of this?
Did you take a man's life? His breath? His dreams?
Or did you stand by and do nothing?


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