“Ke ami?” – A must-read book review of a must-read book

by neo

“A once-in-a-lifetime debut by this author.” – Debut magazine

“Four out of Five bindis.” – South Asian Identity Exploring Website

“I’d be on the edge of my seat if I wasn’t lying on the beach!” – Amazon.com reviewer.

“A tour de farce!” – Neo

“Ke ami” is a path-breaking novel by debutante novelist Kavya Mehta. The books deals with the journey of a young woman, Mala, as she explores, rejects, discovers, redefines and then finally questions the very core of her Indian cultural identity; an issue that has not been explored by contemporary Indian writers since last Wednesday.

Mala Chattopadhyay hails from a traditional Bengali/Hindu Indian family that will be familiar and instantly identifiable; at least to European and North American readers. For Indian readers who might be more fuzzy about what goes on in traditional families living in small Bengali towns, Ms. Mehta describes the Chattopadhyay family in painstakingly vivid detail. Mala’s family consists of a Father who is a daktar (literally: “doctor”), a Mother who works in a skul (literally: “school”) and a quirky Brother who is notable for being the only character in this book that is devoid of an identity crisis.

In what is perhaps the most poignant scene in the novel, a warm breeze flaps open a window that is draped by a curtain adorned with an intricate pattern, oddly reminiscent of the living room couch in the Chattopadhyay residence. The window knocks a bowl of vermillion onto Mala’s head. But, instead of causing intense irritation to Mala’s eyes, the vermillion attaches itself to her forehead. Mala’s mother takes it as a sign; it is time to close the window.

Alas, the vermillion incident also portends a somewhat less orange turn of events for Mala. As if being raised in a typical Indian family were not hard enough on her emotions, things are about to get positively bittersweet; Mala gets married (the marriage is arranged, but with Mala’s demure, if endearingly hesitant consent) to a Bengali Indian American boy, Harish, who has just graduated from MIT*.

Soon after her arrival in America, Mala’s life takes an interesting twist, the first of several increasingly interesting twists: she meets Gbjkel, an exotic young woman of Syrian-Kurdish-Molvanian descent. In a poignantly allegoric scene, both Mala and Gbjkel are searching for an affordable source of lighting for their new homes and end up reaching for the same halogen lamp for $10.95 at Walmart. Introductions occur between the two women, and Mala and Gbjkel embark on a life-changing friendship that is the subject of much of the novel. However, many readers will be left wondering if this friendship could have acquired vastly more personal hues, had the two women not been content with merely comparing cultural notes over coffee.

The central theme in this book is the conflict in Mala’s life. On the one hand, she is struggling with her assimilation into American society: a task made even more challenging given that she had barely understood the True Meaning of the Bengali life she left behind in India. On the other hand, a harshly materialistic Harish wants Mala to get a job and help with a mortgage that is looking increasingly foolish by the month, rather than spending long hours reading Indian (and Syrian-Kurdish-Molvanian) literature.

Bottom line: If you’re an Indian who’s ever wondered, “Who am I?”, but have had little or no time to truly explore your identity, this book is for you. You will identify with Mala, who asks a similar question in her own, hauntingly Bengali way: “ke ami? (literally: “Who am I?”)

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(* An earlier version of this review erroneously suggested that Harish had graduated from Yale (instead of MIT); the error completely changed the tone of the review, and is deeply regretted. -ed)

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