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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #26 (June 22, 2004), page 14.

A Two-Gift

Naming Maya

By Uma Krishnaswami

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004

Hardcover, 192 pages, $16.00

By Josephine Bridges

Maya, the protagonist and narrator of this delicious novel, explains that she and her friend Joanie have a tradition of bringing back two gifts when they travel, "one gift to keep and one to give away, me to Joanie, Joanie to me … Looking at our twin collections, you can trace the places we’ve been the years we’ve been friends." This summer, Maya will bring back a "two-gift" from India. Maya’s mother has to sell her father’s old house in Chennai, which used to be Madras. Maya didn’t want to come along at first, but Naming Maya is the story of this girl’s willingness to observe, learn, and change. Pre-teens and teenagers will find a solid role model in Maya.

Because she tells us this story, there are things we never learn about Maya – in particular her age and which country she was born in — that increase the universal appeal of this novel and remind us that wisdom and a sense of home have nothing to do with how many years it’s been since a person’s birth or where that event took place. "It’s funny," Maya says, "I’m American here, but in America, I’m Indian." It’s no surprise that the author teaches writing workshops for children; this novel makes it clear that she doesn’t just like young people, she respects them.

Maya has to come to terms with two big problems. The chronic problem is the aftermath of Maya’s parents’ divorce. Maya tells us, "The trouble in my family began with naming me." The acute problem is the failing memory of the eccentric Kamala Mami, who has cooked for Maya’s extended family for many years. But there’s a lot more to the relationship than delicious food. "Mami is just a cook the way the monsoon is just a drizzle," quips Maya.

Naming Maya is overflowing not only with meteorological features of India, but with religious, cultural, and linguistic details as well, and the author weaves these seamlessly into the story. Relating her history of nosebleeds, Maya deadpans, "I’d be covered with enough blood, you’d think I was the goddess Durga herself, coming back from battling the buffalo demon Mahisha. No lion for me to ride, though." The reader can almost taste the food described throughout the narrative. "There is aviyal, with tender vegetables swimming in a light and delicate coconut and green chili gravy. Tamarind rice, sour and hot at the same time, with fried nuts hiding flavor surprises in random bites. Yogurt with grated cucumber, garnished with popped mustard seeds, to counter the heat." And a glossary expands on the Tamil words used in context. "Paavum," for example, means "poor thing."

Uma Krishnaswami has written a fine novel all the way through, but she outdoes herself with the ending, which further develops the theme of the two-gift. Complex, resonant, insightful, and thoroughly satisfying, it evokes the feeling of the whole book in two short but breathtaking lines. Naming Maya is a joy to read.

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