The Muscle of Karma
By Cathy Ostlere
The writing of Karma is one of those accidents of life or perhaps confluence is a better word for how writers find their subject matter – the meeting of rivers of experience, happenstance, and imagination. Karma is the result of a three-month trip made through India in 1984. A very long time ago, now. But that trip left a mark on me. I was twenty-five, not a writer, though I had a university English Literature degree, and I was travelling around the world for a full year with only $7000. By the time I got to India I had spent most of my money in eight countries and had less than $2000 left. So, I travelled by train and bus, often third-class, hitched rides with truck drivers, stayed with families in rented rooms, and ate what the locals ate. It was neither romantic or easy but it was rich, the richest kind of experience one can find when you are young and healthy.
I was not in Delhi when Indira Gandhi was murdered, but many of the situations that my character Maya experiences are drawn from my travels and memories. I also struggled with the intensity of the country but I came to love it as it continued to challenge my conception of who I was. And so, when I began Karma, I believed I was writing a love story to a country that had frightened me, thrilled my imagination, and was ultimately unknowable to a girl raised in a Canadian prairie city. Karma was my attempt to understand this great nation– particularly the events that followed Indira Gandhi’s murder.
When I decided to write Karma I naively thought a verse novel would be easier – there would be fewer words to wrestle with – and the original plan was for Karma to top out at 200 pages (not the 500 I ended up with!). But could I have been more wrong? What I learned through the writing was that each page of a verse novel must do the same work as one page of tradition narrative work. Each page carries an idea, develops a character trait, or moves the action forward (and sometimes all three). Even the white space and the line breaks must serve the narrative in some way. All of this was surprising to me. A verse novel is not just a narrative that is chopped up and shortened; it’s a muscular way of telling a story.
While much of Karma is extracted from my own memories and experiences, I did conduct research for certain aspects: Indira Gandhi’s murder; the riots of Delhi; the eye-witness accounts of the destruction and murders; Hindu and Sikh religions; Hindi and Punjabi words; the cities of Delhi, Jodhpur, and Jaisalmer; train schedules; sand; and saris. Unlike some writers, I did the research as I was writing. I let the novel unravel quite unconsciously, allowing the characters to act until I came to a situation that I didn’t know enough about. Then through books (fiction and nonfiction), as well as searching the internet, I went looking for a detail or a fact that I thought was necessary to the overall veracity of the novel.
Every author hopes that her book will find its audience – the reader that is willing to go on an unusual journey, and is a risk-taker like the writer. I like to think that our world and our thinking is constantly shifting and expanding and it is literature’s responsibility to express this growth and sometimes lead the way.
Thank you so much Cathy for that post. I hope all of you enjoyed reading this wonderful guest post and will consider adding Karma to your to-read list if it isn't on there already.
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