Friday, July 1, 2011

Karma by Cathy Ostlere

Happy Canada Day! In the Canadian literature book club that I host at the Woodcroft library, one of the members commented that a lot of the books we were reading are set outside of Canada (Waiting for Columbus, The End of the Alphabet, Three Views of Crystal Water) even though the authors are Canadian. Other folks have noticed the same thing - I think a Giller judge commented on it in the recent past. Is the use of a foreign setting a reflection of Canadian social values as identified by analyst Michael Adams (Sex in the Snow; Fire and Ice)? Adams found that a typical Canadian who won $100,000 would spend it on a trip, whereas an American would be more likely to buy a car with the same windfall. Or maybe it's because the themes of identity and belonging that are prevalent in our literature, as well as explorations of the meaning of 'home,' lend themselves to stories placed outside of our native land.

And then there are stories of immigrants, like the Sikh-Hindu couple in Cathy Ostlere's verse novel, Karma, who left India to escape their families' disapproval over their mixed marriage. Their daughter grows up in small-town Saskatchewan in a blend of three cultures. Her father named her Jiva, but her mother always called her Maya, for the goddess of illusion. Maya's father doesn't approve. He quotes Sikh philosophy: "The world is a dream, / Any moment it may pass away [...] All this is Maya."

Maya's mother never adjusted to the isolation of her life in Canada. She commits suicide in 1984, which is why 15-year-old Maya and her father travel to New Delhi with an urn of ashes. The day they arrive, prime minister Indira Gandhi is assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Father and daughter are separated during the ensuing violence, while marauding gangs search the city streets for turbaned men. Maya finds herself alone, traumatized and still grief-stricken from the death of her mother.

The extraordinary circumstances make for a very compelling story and I found myself unwilling to put this down until I'd finished. At 517 pages, it is substantial, even though it is written in verse. Maya's search for herself amid multiple identities will resonate with both teen and adult readers in Canada and beyond.

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