May 11, 2017

Kalyana - Rajni Mala Khelawan

Second Story Press, March 15, 2016.

Four Stars

Kalyana is an impressionable young girl growing up in the Fiji Islands in the late 1960s. The recent political independence of the island nation brought with it the news of the feminist revolution in America – stories of independent women who burn their bras and scorn marriage. Kalyana’s mother and her sister Manjula read these stories with excitement for the future of women’s freedom.

Aunt Manjula walks with a visible limp, which prevents her from marriage – because she has no opportunity for real romance, she ravenously reads trashy novels in the bedroom that she shares with Kalyana. When she feels trapped at home, Manjula teaches herself to drive a car and becomes a spectacle in their conservative community. Manjula’s independence, although it was not her choice, becomes an inspiration for Kalyana – and she was easily my favourite character in the novel.

Kalyana is a quirky child who is as precocious as she is endearing. When she makes friends with a boy at school, she has no idea that it will result in a life-long friendship and eventually marriage. Kirtan always saw Kalyana as more than just a girl, and their marriage provides her with the freedom she imagined as a child. When the two immigrate to Canada, Kalyana leaves Fiji – and their former way of life – behind.

The move to Canada also severs Kalyana’s relationship with her mother, which was strained already. Kalyana is haunted by a childhood incident of sexual assault and the shameful silence that followed it. Her mother convinced her to keep quiet about the experience, and Kalyana has suffered ever since, blaming her for her own destroyed self-confidence – until she realizes that her mother may have been speaking from her own experiences. Kalyana’s trauma is part of a cycle of abuse, made more shameful by her time and place – but still a universal problem for women.

This novel is about female empowerment and the importance of education for girls and women.  Kalyana’s mother weaves Indian mythology into their everyday lives, including the importance of Kalyana’s name, which means blessed and auspicious – although she does not always feel that way. Kalyana resents the fact that her mother didn’t prepare her for the modern world, but eventually she realizes that she cannot be free until she deals with the weight of the past.

Kalyana feels very much like a memoir, with its first-person narration and very personal, relatable issues. The political issues between the native Fijians and the Indian nationals living on the island were intriguing as well, and I knew very little about it beforehand. The disturbing content is authentic and believable, and it was fascinating to witness Kalyana’s growth into the woman she dreamed of being as a child in Fiji.

I received this book from Second Story Press and the author in exchange for an honest review.

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