Sunday, July 1, 2012
Jasmine Skies by Sita Brahmachari
Jasmine Skies is the sequel to Artichoke Hearts which introduced us to spunky Mira Levenson, who lives in Britain with her dad, Sam, her half Indian mother, Uma, and her twelve year old brother Krish and younger sister Laila. In Sita Brahmachari's newest novel, Mira is now fourteen years old and on a visit with her mother's relatives in Kolkata, India. She has come not only to reconnect with her mother's family but also to help out at her Aunt Anjali's children's refuge center.
Before leaving for India, Mira sees her mother looking at some old letters -- which turn out to be the correspondence between her mother and Anjali, years ago. Mira thought her mother would show her the letters but instead her mother hides the letters and tells her they are none of her business. Of course, this has the opposite effect on Mira, who steals the letters before she leaves on her trip.
Mira's mother and Anjali were very close. They shared the same birth date and frequently sent letters and postcards back and forth. In 1980 her mother went for a visit to Kolkata and something happened during that visit. The last letter was from Anjali to her mother in 1981. Mira wonders why her mother and her aunt would go from writing several times a year to nothing and hopes the letters will provide a clue.
When she arrives in Kolkata, despite feeling guilty about taking these letters, Mira reads them in the hopes of learning what happened over twenty years ago. But the letters only deepen the mystery as to why her mother lost contact with her family in India. From the letters Mira learns that when her Auntie Anjali was a young girl, she lived in a large home on Doctor's Lane in Kolkata. This home was dominated by a beautifully crafted heavy door decorated with wooden carvings of flowers. Mira feels that she must find this home and that it might hold the key to what happened years before.
Meanwhile, Mira gets to know her cousin, Priya, who is a classical Indian dancer and somewhat of a rebel. While Priya prepares to dance in a local festival, Mira is taken to various places by her Aunt Anjali including a sari shop. At the sari shop, her Auntie tries to encourage Mira to select a new sari. But when Mira chooses an old sari with its exquisite needlework over the new and colourful sari, Anjali is unsettled.
Mira also meets Janu, a handsome sixteen year-old boy who was adopted by Anjali and who helps out at the children's refuge center. Mira, who has a long term friendship with a Jide, a boy back home, begins to fall for Janu. This causes Mira much conflict as she tries to sort out her relationship with Janu and figure out what her friendship with Jide back home means.
One night when Priya and Mira sneak out to a house party, which happens to be in the old abandoned home on Doctor's Lane, a terrible accident happens that brings the story to its enlightening conclusion.
Jasmine Skies was a truly delightful story, well written, with vivid descriptions that allow the young reader to experience the culture of India in a real way.
The story is told in the voice of Mira and Brahmachari has captured her point of view in an very authentic manner. Mira's trip to India provides her with the opportunity to mature and is, as the author states in her note to the reader, a "rite of passage". When Mira arrives in Kolkata, she is troubled as a result of a fight she had with her mother prior to leaving London. She also feels guilty for stealing and reading her mother's letters. As time passes in Kolkata and when her aunt finds her mother's letters, Mira must face that fact that what she did was wrong. The letters were personal and private and she violated her mother's trust. She is forced to take responsibility for her actions. But Mira's actions also force her mother, Uma, and Anjali to confront their feelings about what happened years ago and to finally forgive each other.
The trip also provides Mira with the chance to explore her Indian heritage - something she really hasn't been able to do living in London, England. What Mira's grandfather has told her about her family's history, comes alive when she visits Kolkata. Understanding her past becomes an important part of developing her identity.
Through Janu, Mira comes to understand the realities of life in India; that while there are poor in England, the poor in India often have much less, sometimes not even clothes to wear. Mira's volunteering at the refugee center and her trips around Kolkata expose her to the poorest of the poor, beggars, and street children.
I sincerely hope that Sita Brahmachari will consider writing a third book about Mira so that readers can follow this young character into adulthood. She knows her subject well and it's obvious the story is very dear to her. This book would be a wonderful read for a mother-daughter book club, providing the opportunity to discuss another life in very different culture and themes of identity and betrayal.
Jasmine Skies by Sita Brahmachari
London: MacMillan Children's Books 2012