Karma by Cathy Ostlere

Karma is a novel in verse about an Indian-Canadian girl who arrives in Delhi to scatter her mother’s ashes on the day in 1984 when Indira Ghandi was assassinated. Daughter of a Sikh father and Hindu mother, Maya is caught up in the riots and chaos. She meets and falls in love with a boy named Sandeep.

The book has many pages, but they go quickly because of all the white spaces. The story is a compelling page-turner, but the language makes you want to slow down and pay attention to it, so there’s this tension that makes the narrative pace whatever the reader wants it to be. I don’t see this genre or format often so I was interested to see what Ostlere would do with it. It seemed to give her a lot of freedom and forced her to produce writing that was strong on the sentence level and could withstand the attention and scrutiny you give a poem. She could flash forward or backward in time, in and out of physical situations. She conveyed a surprising amount of information with the titles of the poems. Every once in a while she would have a poem of three lines or fewer. These were carefully chosen for impact, of course. Typeface, italics, parentheses and spacing were also used to convey information like dialogue, narrator change (Maya and Sandeep are both narrators), asides and inner monologues. The free verse form was flexible enough to contain the fear and chaos of the riots and violence, as well as the sweet emotions of love between the two teens. The form also created some gaps in information, most of which did not impede understanding, but which might be frustrating to some readers.

The historical setting catalyzed the action and generated a conflict that Maya seemed to have been created to fall in the middle of, as a foreign-raised, half-Hindu, half-Sikh. It also put the themes of hypocrisy and forgiveness front and center. The book made me want to learn more about what happened in India in the year of my birth, and that’s a feeling I like taking away from a book.

The love story was sweet, with the couple separated by honor and family and religion. Westernized Maya wants to share a bed with Sandeep, who refuses so that he can be honest and respectful to her father, who forbids Maya to see him when they finally find him., since he’s Hindu. There are many concerns with protecting Maya’s honor and virginity, and arguments about whether or not she’ll be married off against her will, which are certainly cultural issues, but Maya herself has opinions about these topics that render the discussions more progressive.

The ending is not exactly happy, but it’s hopeful and it allows both Maya and Sandeep to grow up. Things got so bad that for a while I thought I’d be happy with almost any ending that left both of them alive and Maya not in an arranged marriage, but it’s nowhere near that bleak, considering the dramatic setting. I kind of wonder if there will be a sequel, but it seems like it would need another world-changing event to focus the action around, and I can’t think of one, unless these two Indian kids are going to meet up again at the fall of the Berlin wall when they’re 22 or something.