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Naming Maya

Naming Maya

by Uma Krishnaswami

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West meets East

Although Maya has done her best to avoid it, she is spending part of her summer in Chennai, India, with her mother, who is trying to sell her grandfather's old house. Soon Maya is drawn into a complicated friendship with eccentric Kamala Mami, who has been a housekeeper and cook for years in Maya's extended family. At the same time,


West meets East

Although Maya has done her best to avoid it, she is spending part of her summer in Chennai, India, with her mother, who is trying to sell her grandfather's old house. Soon Maya is drawn into a complicated friendship with eccentric Kamala Mami, who has been a housekeeper and cook for years in Maya's extended family. At the same time, Maya is thrust into an ocean of memories, all coming at her too quickly for her to understand. In particular, she is forced to examine the history of her parents' divorce -- all the more painful because she believes the trouble began with the choosing of her name. For years the tension has simmered in a cauldron of anxiety, secrets, and misunderstandings. It is only with the help of Kamala Mami and Maya's cousin Sumati that Maya is able to see what happened to her parents.

In this compelling first novel, a young Indian American girl finally learns that she can choose which memories to keep and which to let go.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this sensitively wrought novel, Maya, the daughter of divorced Indian parents, leaves her home in New Jersey to accompany her mother to Chennai, where they must sell Maya's late grandfather's house. After their arrival in India, Maya's mother stays busy making arrangements with a realtor, and Maya mulls over the upheavals in her life. She misses her best friend and she longs for her father, who has moved to Texas. On the other hand, she enjoys the company of her sympathetic cousin Sumati and "Mami," the old family cook and housekeeper. However, when Mami's memory starts to fail and she begins acting strangely, Maya feels another sharp pang of loss. Out shopping one day, Maya witnesses how "pandemonium erupts" when the hem of a woman's sari gets caught in an escalator. The image of the panicked woman becomes a metaphor for Maya, who also feels pulled in different directions. Maya is torn between two cultures, two parents who have drifted apart and even two names (her mother's side of the family chose the name Maya, but her father's relatives always called her Preeta). While vivifying the sights of India and offering a glimpse of the country's history, Krishnaswami (Monsoon) creates a heartfelt story. Maya's release of the past is convincingly reluctant; her tentative steps toward the future movingly portrayed. Ages 10-up. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Maya is an adventurous young girl, who by unusual circumstances leaves New Jersey for India. Her parents have just undergone a divorce. Her father has left for Texas, and her mother decides to go to India, where her closest relatives are. When Maya first arrives in India, she feels out of place and awkward. She realizes some things are going to change, including the way she dresses and acts around people. Maya and her mom are living with Mami, Maya's grandma. Mami is about 80 years old and is a very wise and intelligent woman. Maya is faced with many challenges throughout the book, and each challenge she overcomes with ease. She is always the heroine who comes up with solutions. Naming Maya will be enjoyed by many young adults. It is a great opportunity for a young adult to get a greater perspective on the world and its different customs. Since it is set in India, many Tamil words are used throughout the story, which can encourage young adults to want to learn a different language. The book also encourages independence with responsibility. 2004, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 192 pp. Ages young adult. Reviewer: Jennifer Greenband
Krishnaswami's entry into young adult literature is welcome for its lyrically sparse prose exploring rich matters of culture, family, and loss. Twelve-year-old Maya returns to India with her mother to sell the ancestral home. They are greeted at the doorstep by Kamala Mami, a housekeeper and nanny who inexplicably insists on staying with them. Maya is soon swept up in familial reunions and female bonding with a girl cousin, but tension between Maya and her mother concerning her father's desertion slowly builds throughout the novel. As Maya grows estranged from her mother, she rekindles a friendship with Mami, only to find that Mami holds secrets of her own. Maya's resolution lies in finding a way to let go of her anger, hurt, and preconceived ideas of others. Slowly simmering like a good masala, Krishnaswami's novel combines elements of American and Indian life through Maya's eyes. She carefully sprinkles Tamil words throughout the text and includes a glossary. Nevertheless she does not portray India as "exotic" for Maya, and global similarity is typified in an encounter with Maya, her cousin, and the cool girls—wearing tight jeans and black lipstick, naturally—down the block. Neither does she gloss over the difficulties of straddling dual cultures, equally depicting American-borne racism and India's economic and safety issues. This book is a welcome addition to an ever-growing collection of global young adult literature by diverse authors and is a recommended buy for public, middle school, and high school libraries. VOYA Codes 4Q 3P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined asgrades 10 to 12). 2004, Farrar Straus Giroux, 192p.; Glossary., Ages 12 to 18.
—Lora Morgaine Shinn
Children's Literature
The newest generation of children is being raised with one foot in America and one foot in a home country far away. Once again, two cultures mix and blend and collide. Maya has been growing up in New Jersey but has come to India for the summer while her mother sells the old family home. Any American child who has traveled to an ancestral home overseas, especially one where extended family members are still living, will identify with Maya's emotional journey, right from the opening conversation between Maya's mother and Mami, the longtime family housekeeper, "a blend of honey and chili powder fighting for room on the tongue." Maya is protected by Mami but finally becomes her protector, "my soul connected to hers with an invisible ribbon woven of stories and fragments of memory." Mami is the chili powder, but also the honey that ultimately brings Maya closer to her mother. Their relationship is a strained thread throughout the book because of her mother's divorce and their lack of communication about either the divorce or Maya's Indian heritage. Maya's beautifully written, heartwarming story will surely become a "two-gift" for young readers—you keep some, you give some away—whether they share Maya's experiences or simply empathize with them. A short glossary of Tamil and Hindi words is included. 2004, Farrar Straus Giroux, Ages 10 to 15.
—Karen Leggett
School Library Journal
Gr 5-8-New Jersey-born Maya goes to India with her mother, who must sell the family home in Chennai after her father's death. Like many children of divorce, Maya feels responsible for her parents' separation. The title refers to her belief that Mom and Dad's dispute over naming her was somehow her fault. By the end of the book, she knows that her parents' unhappiness had nothing to do with her. The other life lesson she learns comes from an old and loving housekeeper, Kamala Mami, who returns to take care of Maya and her mother during their stay. Mami, who is in the early stages of dementia, shows her that memories remain even while everything else changes. Other supporting characters include a helpful aunt, a kind cousin, and a weather-obsessed neighbor. These elements should make for an interesting and compelling story, but somehow it doesn't quite get off the ground. Where readers might hope for an evocation of the Indian setting, the novel disappoints.-Laurie von Mehren, Cuyahoga County Public Library, Brecksville, OH Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In a narrative redolent of spices, an American-born Indian girl sorts out memory and identity in the house of her grandfather. The day after they arrive in India from New Jersey, the family's ancient cook arrives to take care of them; a character in the truest sense of the word, Mami nevertheless begins to exhibit behavior that makes Maya think there may be something more going on than simple eccentricity. Maya's concerns are complicated by her own grief at her parents' divorce; she cannot trust her busy mother with Mami's secrets. Maya's first-person, present-tense narrative brings her grandfather's southern India town vividly to hot, dusty, crowded, vibrant life. Her heritage swirls around her as she strengthens her relationship with her extended Indian family, worries about Mami, and puzzles through her reactions to the dissolution of her family. Krishnaswami has a little too much going on here-a subplot involving Maya's father's family never develops as thoroughly as it should-but her language is lush and Maya's observations are piercingly honest. Both setting and protagonist are entirely memorable, and difficult to leave behind. (Fiction. 10-14)

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
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326 KB
Age Range:
12 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Naming Maya
MamiThe day after Mom and I arrive in India from New Jersey, I watch the number 45B bus screech down the road. It clatters to a halt outside my grandfather's old house that we have come here to sell. Passengers tumble out. Another few feet and the bus will have gone crashing into the tea-and-soda stall that sits at a tilt against the tree on the corner. A narrow escape. The traffic hurries on.Someone squeaks our front gate open. I look out the window again, and I see a tiny figure with gray hair pulled into a little braid so tight the end of it curls up and sticks out at a defiant angle. I grin to myself, and throw the door open for Kamala Mami.She pretends to be all formal. "I hear you need a cook," she says. And then she's whooping with delight to see me, grabbing my face in hands as hard and rough as a coconut shell. She taps her hands against the sides of my head and kisses her fingertips, smacksmack! "Ayyo," she cries. "Kutti kunju yenna periya rajakumari ayittal!" Me? A baby bird who has grown into a princess? "Yes, yes!" she insists. She is quick and restless. She does not ask, "Do you remember me?" She assumes--and she is right--that I cannot possibly have forgotten her."So, Prema?" she says to my mother. "Why are you so thin? Don't they feed you properly there, in America? Good thing I'm here to cook for you."I know well from my last visit two years before, right after my grandfather died, that Mami is just a cook the way the monsoon is just a little drizzle.We missed my grandfather's funeral, because in the Hindu tradition you cremate dead people very soon after they die. Mom says it's probably because Hinduism is a religion born in a hot place, and the heat doesn't allow anyone the luxury of waiting till relatives arrive from far away. My mom's cousin Lakshmi and her husband took care of everything till we got here, and then we all observed thirteen long days of ceremonies. Priests invoked the blessings of the ancestors, and we kept an oil lamp lit to guide my grandfather's soul to its new life. During this time relatives I had never heard of arrived to stay and mourn, and gossip. And eat. Mami kept us kids happy with an endless stream of delicious food. Dad didn't come and Mom couldn't forgive him for that.Now it seems only minutes before Mami takes possession of the kitchen. She scrubs the floor and pours buckets of water everywhere, and looks like she's been doing it forever. She's also moving pretty fast for someone who appears to be about a hundred years old."I don't know about this," says my mother under her breath. But there is no time for discussion. Mom stares at Mami, who is now sloshing at a small flood with a broom that is nothing more than a skinny bunch of reeds tied together."Come, come," Mami says to us. "Come and talk to me."Mom says, "Mami, it's such a surprise to see you! I have to ask, how did you know we were here?"Mami pauses in her mopping. She says simply, "Lakshmi told me."Mom looks thoughtful. Mami adds, "I go to see her every now and then. For old times. And to help out when she needs me."Mom murmurs, "It's good of you, Mami, but we can manage. You shouldn't go to all this trouble.""Nonsense," says Mami. "I've come to help." And you can't stop me, says her chin. "And to see this old house again," she adds."I have to sell it.""You have rented it out for the past two years," says Mami."Yes, and look how much trouble that's been for Lakshmi," says Mom. "I'm so far away. She's had to come running every time there's been a problem. Anyway, after the last tenants left, no one else wants to rent it. It's too old and too big.""It's your house." Mami shrugs."Yes," says Mom. Suddenly, the tension between them is as brittle and dry as the broken branches of the old lime tree outside the window."It isn't my place to give you advice," says Kamala Mami, "but what would be so wrong with coming back here? To live. What have you got in America now?""Mami, we've been through all that. My life is there now. There's no question of coming back." Their talk is a blend of honey and chili powder fighting for room on the tongue."All right," says Mami, jutting a bony chin in my direction. "All right, then what about this one? You should think about her.""Er ... I think I'll go out in the garden," I say. I snatch up my camera and escape.Among the tangled bushes and weedy flower beds outside, I make little piles of rocks and think about my parents. The anger feels familiar. It has simmered so long it has become a friend. I knock the rocks over and lay them end to end in a long line that bends and curves about like a river. I get my camera ready to take photos of my river of rocks.There is a picture I hold inside me, as close as I hold my resentment. It is a picture of us, back when us meant "three." Mom and Dad, and me. The timer on the camera has triggered flash, image, and smiles, all in one quick click. My parents' heads are turned toward each other, but they're looking at me. I'm holding both their hands tightly, like a magnet gripping steel. On my face is an openmouthed, gap-toothed six-yearold laugh.That was before Mom packed up and left our house in New Jersey, and took me with her. Before she and Dad sold the house. Before Dad moved to Texas, to a new job and what he said was a glittering hi-tech future.The father in that picture has planted himself in my head. He talks to me often. Sometimes it's practically a conversation. It's been happening ever since he went away to Texas and didn't come back. Oh, he came back for the divorce settlement. Then he went away again. I kept thinking that at some point he'd come back for me, but he didn't. At first he called often, and his parents, my grandparents, called too. The calls upset my mother. Over time, they became less frequent.Here in this wild garden, I step back and take a look through the lens at my river of rocks. My camera feels comfortable, like an extension of my hand. The silver brand name on it is still bright, but the smaller red and white letters on the left-hand side are faded from use. Only the slashing red X of the model name, Radical X, remains. My stomach feels tight as I look at the rocks, and the years of sadness in my family come washing over me.A mother and daughter should be a team. It isn't that way with us. We don't understand each other. Sometimes I think Mom wishes she could have had a different kind of daughter. She doesn't exactly say so, but I can tell by the way she looks at me that I make her nervous. When I was younger I used to wish I had some magic spell that could change things in my family. Fix them. Make them simpler. The Dad voice in my head says, A mom and a dad should be a team too, right?My oldest memory is of climbing on the arm of a great wide sofa in our house in New Jersey, and gripping the soft fabric with my fingers and toes. I was standing on tiptoe to look up at a framed print that hung on the wall above the couch. It was a scene from the Ramayana. In it the prince Rama and his beautiful wife, Sita, have been exiled to the forest by Rama's jealous stepmother. A row of smooth round rocks curves about like a river, winding through the grounds. Rama's heart is so good and Sita's is so gentle that all the animals of the forest gather around them in peace. Lions and deer, tigers and sheep and peacocks, play and rest together in that picture. "See," they say to Rama and Sita, "while you are here, we can't fight with one another."Dad came up behind me, and lifted me high so I could look right at the print. The red and yellow and black shapes in the picture blurred into pure color as I got closer. I didn't have to turn around to know Mom was there too. I could hear her laughing.But I am not a strong enough glue to hold them together. Looking at the river of rocks I have made in this warm, bright garden, I know that what I want, more than anything, is for that image of my family to be whole again.Copyright © 2004 by Uma Krishnaswami

Meet the Author

Uma Krishnaswami was born in New Delhi, India, and now lives in Aztec, New Mexico. She is the author of several books for children, including Monsoon.

Uma Krishnaswami is the author of several books for children, including Naming Maya. She was born in New Delhi, India, and now lives in Aztec, New Mexico.

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