It’s 1984 and Maya (to her mother; Jiva to her father; she’s half Hindu, half Sikh) is growing up in nowhere Manitoba. It’s not the best place; the town is small enough and isolated enough that Maya and her parents stand out. And not in a good way. Even so, it’s “home” to Maya, even if it isn’t to her parents.
Her mother dies, and Maya and her father decide to take her ashes back (“home”) to India. They get to New Delhi just as Indira Gandhi is assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, which sets off mass violence and murder of Sikhs. Her father, being one, finds that his life is suddenly in peril, and leaves 15-year-old Maya (!) in their hotel to fend for herself. This, of course, is not a good thing: the hotel is attacked, Maya sees a man murdered before her eyes, and she has a complete psychological breakdown. She is rescued by a kind doctor, who ships Maya off to her family to recover. Except that doesn’t help. Not really. But then she meets Sandeep, a fellow rescue — they saved him from certain death once his parents had been killed — and, somehow, he makes all the bad things she’s discovering about the country of her heritage seem a little bit better.
A heartbreaking novel in verse, Karma looks at difficult issues — religion-based violence, suicide, arranged marriages, preconceived notions of both women and Westerners, to name a few — but does it in a way that is neither heavy-handed nor preachy. As a reader, you come to care about both Maya and Sandeep (two-thirds of the book is narrated by Maya, one-third by Sandeep); both are imperfect people, and while neither sets out to make a difference in the world, they both do. Even if it’s only in small ways.
It’s an intriguing book: a haunting, lyrical story that will make you think.
Rated: Moderate, for some disturbing instances of violence, Sandeep’s flair for using the s-word, and one f-bomb.