As its title might suggest, Karma, Calgarian Cathy Ostlere's first work of fiction, is a book not bounded by earthly concerns. Rather, this novel, a bravura performance in verse, delves into, among other things, "this life" and the "next life," as perceived through the lens of the Hindu and Sikh religions, as well as the goodness and evil done in the name of both.
With its sweeping, even soaring reach, this novel contains a range of earthly experiences and emotions as well: love and death, hatred and evil, joy and engulfing sorrow as perceived and experienced by its two beautifully drawn teen protagonists, Jiva, who calls herself Maya, and Sandeep.
In a diary entry dated Oct. 28, 1984, Karma begins. Fifteen-year-old Maya is on an airplane, travelling from her home in southwest Manitoba to India. She watches the aurora borealis flickering in the night sky over Greenland while her father, Bapu, sleeps. On his lap he holds a brass urn containing the ashes of his wife, Maya's mother. As it transpires, this trip, this moment in the airplane, is a point of transition between Maya's former life in the small, sleepy prairie town where she was born, and a potentially horrifying future in an India that will be rocked to its core by the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh guards on Oct. 31, 1984.
Maya's mother was a Brahman, a Hindu; her Bapu is a Sikh, and those two religions and the historic and current animosities between their adherents play a critical role in this tale. Following a marriage of which both families deeply disapproved, the couple self-exiled themselves by emigrating to rural Manitoba. There Bapu worked as a mechanic and Leela, his wife, profoundly isolated, slowly went mad. Her suicide has forced Bapu's and Maya's trip to India, where Leela's ashes will be dispersed in the Yamuna river.
Shortly after the pair's arrival in New Delhi, a first stop on their Indian journey, Maya discovers that her father has arranged a marriage for her. The impact of that betrayal is all but erased when Mrs. Gandhi is assassinated and Sikhs become the prey of vengeful Hindus. Tall, proud Bapu removes the turban that defines him as a Sikh, cuts his hair in order to look like a Hindu, and goes to find help, leaving Maya in their hotel room. Within hours, hordes of Hindus besiege the hotel with knives and firebombs, and Maya barely escapes with her life. She too cuts her hair and, poorly disguised as a boy, attempts to both find her father and flee the city.
Maya is mute by the time she ends up in ancient northwestern Indian city of Jaisalmer, near the border of Pakistan, after a horrific train ride during which she has watched Sikh men being burned alive. Her story, told in diary form over several subsequent weeks, begins to intersect with that of Sandeep, the adopted 16-year-old son of the family that takes her in.
Karma becomes a passionate love story told in two parts - a verse play in two voices as much as two verse diaries - and one that ultimately offers a form of rebirth for both Maya and Sandeep. Impelled and compelled by this utterly engrossing novel's form and its content, its readers are in for quite a ride.
Susan Perren is The Globe and Mail's children's books reviewer.