Terri's Reviews > Karma

Karma by Cathy Ostlere
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it was amazing

I have read some great multicultural pieces this summer that I can't wait to booktalk in the fall! "Karma," by Cathy Ostlere, is one such novel. The piece takes place in India from late October 1984 through late December 1984 with flashbacks to earlier in the main character's life. If you are familiar with your history, you know that on October 31, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in her garden by two of her Sykh bodyguards as revenge for the attack on the Sykh's holy "Golden Temple." This in turn led to riots where many (the numbers are disputed) Sykhs were brutally murdered by Hindus to avenge Gandhi's death. By December of that year, Sykhs and Hindu's were denying that anything had happened. As the main character says on page 397, "...we are a nation with a long history and short memories. We are a nation accustomed to pain."

In "Karma," just prior to Gandhi's assassination, fifteen year-old Maya/Jiva has just suffered the tragic loss of her Hindu mother, Matu. Maya, who is half Hindu and half Sikh, was born and raised in Elsinore, Canada. Her parents story is very much a "Romeo and Juliet" story, a recurring theme throughout the novel. Their marriage (of a Hindu to a Sykh) was not approved by either of their families. Thus, after having been born and raised in India, the two sought refuge in Canada where they did not fit in either. Matu's unhappiness grew over the years, and her desire to go home was discouraged by Bapu. With no job, no Indian community members with whom to find friendship, Matu was slowly driven mad. After her death, as "Karma" begins, Bapu and Maya bring Matu's ashes back to India, where Bapu seeks to deal with his guilt and to honor Matu - in ways Maya is not at first aware of. Soon after they arrive in New Dehli, Gandhi is murdered. Bapu, who is easily identifiable as a Sykh, must cut off his hair and give up his turban (which is like betraying his faith and denying everything about himself) in order to survive. When he goes out to find help and doesn't return, Maya is left to fend for herself. She too cuts off her hair and dresses as a boy. She flees to the train staiton, boards a train to an unknown destination, and witnesses brutality that forever changes her life and who she is. As a result of what she sees, she becomes mute and is taken in by the doctor, Parvrati, to whom she is brought after her collapse in a crowd. Parvati sends her to live with her Hindu family (Amma, Barindra, and the seventeen year old son they took in at age six, Sandeep). Parvati makes Sandeep promise to watch over Maya and to get her to talk and reveal her true identity and her story. Thus begins a great adventure, and eventually another "Romeo and Juliet" like relationship.

"Karma" is stunning in its writing. Presented as a 517 page novel-in-verse, it reads very quickly. The story is told in a first person journal format by first Maya and then Sandeep, whose voices are both distinct and memorable. Filled with vivid imagery, Ostlere is able to bring the sights, the smells, the colors, the emotions, and the sounds that surround Maya and Sandeep to life. It is in this way that the reader gets a real sense of the time and the place. For an American teen this is a beautiful introduction to India, and its history and cultures. Fabulous writing! Some reviews that I have read have mentioned that "Karma" could be an awards contender for the 2012 season. I would have to agree.

There is a wealth of thematic material here for thought, discussion, and writing. On page 390-91 Maya says, "Too dark to be Canadian. Too tall for a girl. Too pretty for a boy. I can speak three languages. English. Hindi. Punjabi. (And sometimes French.} But who am I? Always the foreigner. Hiding in her skin." Though Maya is literally a foreigner, most teens can identify with feeling like the foreigner, the odd one, the only one, etc. Another important theme found in "Karma" is that of forgiveness (page 489), "The dead. This is what they try to tell us. Everything can be forgiven. Everyone." On page 491. Maya talks of second chances: "Reincarnation. Another chance. Everyone deserves a second chance, don't you think?" In regards to racism, Bapu says on page 492: "Ignore them...Racism isn't always hatred. Sometimes it's just confusion and fear. It's their own hearts, they're not sure about. Not ours." Other significant themes include: shame, retribution, war, religious fanaticism, the will to live, suffering, suicide, ignorance, not fitting in, love, loss, grief, saying good-bye, hope, tradition, etc. Another interesting discussion would be on why the book is named "Karma."

My only beef about the book is the cover. While it is really beautiful, the bright pink and yellow cover will make it a book primarily for girls - and there is so much here for any teen! Even if I got a teen boy to take a look at the book, through booktalking, it is doubtful that most boys would be willing to carry around this gigantic pink book! So sad...

Otherwise, this is a stunning debut young adult novel by Cathy Ostlere! Highly recommended!
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Reading Progress

July 13, 2011 – Started Reading
July 13, 2011 – Shelved
Finished Reading

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Karen Totally in agreement on the cover- it pigeon-holes an otherwise amazing book.


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