WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures




Karma
Written by Cathy Ostlere
Razorbill, 2011, 517 pp.
ISBN: 978-1595143389




Karma, a novel written in verse, oscillates between scenes in Elsinore, Canada, and several cities in northern India. The tumultuous rioting and religious clashes between the Hindus and the Sikhs that erupted in late 1984 at the assassination of India’s Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards form the backdrop to the novel. Maya, the protagonist, is a cultural straddler — she is of Indian origin but Canadian by birth. The novel is her coming of age story and traces her struggles to understand the motives of her parents; the crazed passions, beliefs, and violence of people of her heritage; and the confused longings of teenage romance.

On her website, http://cathy-ostlere.com/, Ostlere provides details about her travels through India in 1984. India was to be the last country that she visited on her yearlong tour of the world at the age of 27. India did leave an indelible print on her psyche and she is able to provide a remarkably vivid description of the customs, landscapes, and peoples that Maya encounters in her journey. The India that Ostlere portrays in the novel is not the fare of travel brochures or elite documentaries but rather that of a nation still struggling with deep-rooted traditions and attempts at modernization. Ostlere’s struggles to ward off strange men from touching her walkman in the train while traveling in India seems to be reproduced in the chapter of the novel when she describes Maya’s attempts to get away from the crowds at the Jodhpur train station by kicking and hitting anyone and everyone in sight.

Karma begins in late October 1984 (three days before Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination) on an airplane with a diary entry. Maya is flying to India with her father, Bapu, and her mother’s ashes in an urn. Through the entries in Maya’s diary, we learn about her parents’ marriage—a Brahman woman marrying a Sikh man—in the face of family opposition, and their life in Canada as well as her mother’s suicide. Maya and her father are traveling to India to empty the ashes into the Ganges so that her mother’s soul will attain peace. But they are unprepared for the violent passions and rage that circumstances unleash upon them at the assassination of Gandhi in Delhi, the capital of India. As Sikhs are hunted in the streets by Hindu mobs seeking revenge, Maya is separated from her father and boards a train to Jodhpur in the Western part of India, away from Delhi, in the guise of a young boy. From Jodhpur, her journey takes her further west to the yellow city of Jaisalmer on the border to Pakistan, after she is rescued from a mob by a doctor named Parvati. Maya is sent to live with Parvati’s family until she can recover from the trauma that has temporarily rendered her mute.

Maya’s counterpart in the novel is the young, 16-year old, adopted brother of Parvati, named Sandeep. He was found in the desert as the only survivor of a sandstorm and was willingly given a home by Parvati’s father, Barindra, and unwillingly accepted by her mother, whom Sandeep addresses as “Amma.” The second half of the novel focuses on Sandeep’s attempts at befriending Maya, his realization that he is falling in love with her, and the tribulations faced by Sandeep’s adopted family in harboring Maya under their roof. The novel finally ends with Maya being reunited with her father but at a great cost. In the process, she has grown from being a naïve 15-year old to an emotionally mature young woman, who is torn between love and loyalty.

Despite the historical accuracy and the detailed descriptions, certain cultural tidbits intertwined into the novel jar the senses of a cultural insider. At times, one almost gets the sense of the exotic portrayed through Western lenses along with the appeal and melodrama of a Bollywood film. One such jarring aspect of the novel is the author’s choice and spelling of linguistic terms. For instance, Maya’s address of her deceased mother as “Mata,” is unusual. Typically, the commonly-used term would be Maa. Mata is most commonly used with the honorific suffix ji, so addressing the mother with respect would be “mataji” and father would be “pitaji.” While the latter term of address is relatively common in Hindi-speaking households, the corresponding term of address for the mother would still be Maa. This should be understood not as being disrespectful of the mother but rather indicating a greater bonding and informality with her as opposed to the patriarch of the house. Mata is also used as a suffix for denoting something or someone who is bigger than the mere mortal, e.g. the homeland as Bharatmata (Bharat refers to India and Mata is mother); or in singing the praises of a goddess such as Santoshi Mata ki jai (or in praise of Santoshi Mata)! Surprisingly, Ostelere did not choose to have her Punjabi-Canadian protagonist speak even a smattering of Punjabi; rather she speaks Hindi!

Similarly, in the second half of the novel, when we are introduced to Sandeep, his choice of address for his foster mother is intriguing. Sandeep addresses his foster mother as “Amma,” a term of address that is common in southern India! Considering that Jaisalmer is located in the heart of the Thar Desert in the western state of Rajasthan, this term of address seems unusual and in fact, rather unlikely. Linguistically, the closest borrowing for “mother” might come from the local language, Marwari, and any associated dialects, or possibly even Punjabi or Gujarati, and/or most commonly, Hindi.

Elsewhere in the novel, the author’s choice of spellings is confusing. To the outsider who has no knowledge of the Hindi words, the incorrectly spelled transliterations could be problematic. For example, the Hindi word for foreigner is phirang (sometimes also written as firang) and not farange. Farang, though, is the term for foreigner in Thai. And then, in the desert, when Barindra addresses Maya, he says, “Maya-bati”; this should have read as “Maya-beti.” Beti in Hindi refers to daughter and is typically used by elders when addressing young girls, whether their own children or strangers.

Although Ostlere’s descriptions of cultural details are meticulous, she seems to have lost sense of the real and tried to portray the exotic side of India in some places. For instance, her choice of the deity that Maya’s mother worships – Munsa Devi, is not a common everyday deity worshipped in Hindu households. And her choice of spelling seems to be incorrect. The true name of the goddess seems to be Mansa or Manasa Devi, the goddess who fulfills your wishes and desires. Mansa Devi is a Tantric goddess of serpents! She does have shrines in the northern states where people pray to her, especially barren women who are praying for a child or unmarried women who are praying for a husband. In southern India, similar deities exist albeit known by different monikers.

The Hindu pantheon has about 30,000 gods and goddesses. Of those, the choice of Mansa Devi seems very unusual, especially considering that the author references her only once in the novel. Also, the author’s choice of this particular goddess from the huge pantheon of much more powerful deities is one reason for the argument about eroticizing the characters. Mansa Devi is pretty low in the hierarchical structure, and is believed to be one of the forms of the divine feminine power or the Shakti principle.

Another issue is the title itself – Karma. In Hinduism, Karma refers to a deed or act that ultimately results in the unending cycle of birth and rebirth through the principle of cause and effect. Very simply put, we are born on this earth in order to evolve spiritually so that at the end of one’s life, the soul gets united with the Creator. But this union is not quick and easy because of “free will.” Because of our free will, we might tend to go astray and get lost in the clutches of the materialistic world, which itself is nothing but an illusion or “Maya.” In the process, we lose sight of our purpose of evolving spiritually. In a way, the idea of Karma may be understood as earning merits by doing good deeds and earning de-merits by committing bad or sinful deeds. The belief is also that we are not always born as humans; if we are human in this lifetime, we must have done a lot of good in our past lifetimes. The idea of Karma is also that each individual is responsible for her/his own deeds and reaps the result of the same. Karma is not earned or inherited by proxy.

Both Hinduism and Sikhism subscribe to Karma and reincarnation in order to fulfill the effects of past actions. It is a little confusing therefore to see Amar’s father warning him of getting caught up in the “cycle of life, death, and rebirth” (p. 23) by lusting after a Hindu woman because “he will be bound to the Wheel of Existences” (p. 23). Lust is one of the Five Sins that a true follower of Sikhism tries to eliminate from his mind in order to evolve as a spiritual being.

Also, when Sandeep says that his adoption is supposed to save or improve the family’s “karma,” the concept that resonates most is that of social standing rather than “earning spiritual merit.” Each individual has her own “karma” to work off in every lifetime; so in Sandeep’s case, since Barindra is the one who readily adopted the child, it is he who is earning the merit. The mother grudgingly adopts him, so she might earn a little merit too but then at every available opportunity, she wishes him back in the desert and constantly reminds him that he is adopted and not really a member of the family. This would only earn her more de-merit, which would weigh down what little merit she might have earned in the first place!

In sum, while Karma is an interesting read, the author has gone a little overboard with all the different scenarios. Also, there is a certain Westernization of the characters that smacks of Bollywood influences. Another novel that offers perspective on the conflicting identity of immigrants in western countries is The Latte Rebellion (2011) by Sarah Jamila Stevenson. Several titles invite readers to explore the Indian culture: Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins (2009, WOW Review Vol. 1, 8), Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman (2008, WOW Review Vol. 2, 5), Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth (2007), and Saraswati’s Way by Monika Schroder (2010) that is reviewed in this issue.

Srilakshmi Ramakrishnan, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

2 thoughts on “WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures

  1. Hello,
    How I wish I had found this posting before I submitted my changes for the paperback version of Karma! As you can imagine it is not easy to write of Indian culture as a foreigner. All assurances to readers that I did enlist the help of three Indo-Canadian writers for assistance with the language (one writer of HIndu descent and two Sikh-Punjabi writers). Not only did they read for accuracy but also made many of the additions that you refer to as incorrect. Sigh. It is so difficult to get things right. Writing Karma was a very risky undertaking that I spent three years on. To explore both a culture and the dire political situation of 1984 as an outsider was fraught with peril but I was committed to telling this important story. My hope was to bring to light the relatively unknown massacre of the Sikhs to the general community as well as write about the difficulties of immigration, identity and adolescence. It was a work of passion that I am proud of. Many thanks for taking the time to read Karma and offer your thoughts. I learned much for your post. All my best, Cathy Ostlere

  2. Shri Ramakrishnan says:

    Hello Cathy,
    Thank you for your gracious response! I thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel and was stunned at the meticulous descriptions of daily life in India, especially considering that your first visit to India was not exactly very pleasurable. India is complex and it is very challenging to view it as a single entity or a single theoretical construct. I admire and applaud your resolve to write a novel about my homeland despite the challenges of being an outsider. And I also applaud your thematic choice for the main plot – the riots following Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination are some of the least known and least discussed topics of Indian politics. I hope you will be writing another such powerful story set in India pretty soon! Warmest regards, Shri Ramakrishnan

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