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Book Review - Naming Maya By Uma Krishnaswami

Nirmala Garimella

The idea for this story, Uma Krishnaswami explains on her website, came when an editor sent her this reply for a query. "I would be interested in something with a deeper, richer emotional grounding. For instance, what if you took an immigrant family going back to India, and something happened there that changed the young protagonist's life irrevocably?" And that is precisely what Krishnaswami has tried to do in her debut novel, “Naming Maya”

Written primarily for Young Adults, the novel tells the story of Maya, a resident of New Jersey who is spending part of her summer in Chennai, India. The visit is borne for one primary reason - Her mother who is recently divorced has come to sell Maya’s grandfather’s house. While the real estate transactions are being carried out, Maya keeps her self busy with her camera and her cousin Sumati. She is also in close interaction with Kamala Mami, who has been a housekeeper and a cook for years in the household. Fiercely affectionate and protective, Mami indulges mother and daughter with her cooking and her efficiency. Soon Maya goes out to the bazaars of Chennai with her, and is amazed at her dealings with roadside vendors “a blend of honey and Chili powder” ‘always fighting for room on the tongue’.

Mami is however stricken with Alzheimer’s and is slowly showing signs of wearing down. While coping with these changes in her, Maya unknown to her is also undergoing a transformation. Her pent up feelings on her parents divorce, her emotional turmoil in trying to understand its consequences are building up and the ultimate showdown takes place with her mother during a family get together.

A sort of coming of age story, the story seems plausible but seemed hurried at times. The ending was disappointing and seemed unconvincing. Although descriptive in detail of the streets of Chennai and the lifestyle of the people, I felt that Uma Krishnaswami left many loose threads and questions unanswered. After her brilliant and delightful short stories on Ganesha, (Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha) that I enjoyed immensely, this one paled in comparison.

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