||November 11, 2011
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The novel is a 'sweeping' saga of one man's journey through life in an awakening India and the level playing fields of the new world.
Born into an untouchable family of sweepers in pre-independence India, Karam faces an uneventful life of indentured labor in a remote village. As a "chura" that means cleaning and carrying away the detritus of manure, human waste and dust.
A series of fortuitous events opens the door to education, training and emigration in the lands of opportunity, Canada and America. With his newfound fortune Karam hopes to uplift his own clan and family. However, no matter how high he rises, his fellow Indians continue to view him through the lens of caste and tradition.
Is Karam's story one of modernity opening the doors of opportunity or a greater power intervening?
Sant Baba was a tall man, his large head completely shaved and framed by wing-like ears with lobes stretched low by huge steel earrings. His eyebrows were mobile, going up and down collectively or individually as the hazel eyes they adorned fixed themselves on the supplicant before him, the usually mobile face relazing into a mask-like inscrutability, questioning, probing, and seeking the truth. No one lied, boasted, beseeched, or bothered the monk. Such was his effect.
His left hand held the gnarled staff with a brass ring encircling the bottom end that made the staff ring like a bell as he struck it on the cobbed street, accouncing his presence, and his right hand extended the beggin bowl forward for alms. Housewives scurried into their homes or hovels and rushed forth with a roti, a cup of flour, or a rock of jaggery. Besides the flowing saffrom robe he wore, two cotton pouches hung on either side of him, their belts crossed across his barrel chest like bandoliers. He threw the flour into one pouch and the jaggery into the other, allowing only the cooked roti into the bowl, and he bellowed a blessing...
Reviewed by Stewart Tongue
Sohan Koonar is a fresh name in historical fiction authorship. His debut novel about the destiny of an exceptionally gifted 'untouchable' youth, born into the awakening world of pre-war India, gives readers an open window into one of the largest social evolutions of the modern era. A journey that explores the true meaning of race, clan, caste, religion, mysticism and fate with a delicate touch and a soothing voice.
Unlike other contemporary authors, Koonar leaves room for readers to make their own decisions about the power and morality of complex matters. A fictional protagonist painted as a transparent layer over the beautiful tapestry of Indian history, Karam is a character carefully crafted to reveal the nuanced conflict that exists between the tradition of rural mysticism and the bright lights of urban science. His journey through the infancy of a modern Indian educational system, and his eventual realization that great competence also comes with a duty of self-sacrifice, gives this story heart and speaks to the courage of people willing to change the world through their own daily deeds.
In Koonar's skilled hands the prejudices we all struggle to reject are illuminated without shame or penalty. Instead, Koonar shows his own inherent belief in the best of humanity by asking questions of his audience without spoon-feeding us the answers. The full spectrum, from modern reason to a traditional belief in divine forces, is well-represented and readers are asked to examine their own views with a sense of humility that is uncommon in most open debate. Some self-analysis is best reserved for the kind of private exploration that fits perfectly into the realm of a very good book by an exciting new author.
Sohan Koonar has written a fast read filled with difficult questions and created a journey worth undertaking, as Karam's Kismet is a book you will find yourself contemplating long after you have completed reading it. It's books like this one that allow an author like Koonar to bridge the gap between having a fresh new voice, and having earned the trust of a loyal audience.
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