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Naming Maya    by Uma Krishnaswami order for
Naming Maya
by Uma Krishnaswami
Order:  USA  Can
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2004 (2004)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This is a story of conflict between mother and daughter - fueled by misunderstandings and by the parents' divorce - and of the involvement of an old woman (an almost grandmother) in its resolution. What makes it especially striking is the exotic setting of Chennai in southern India.

Maya did not want to spend time in India, but she had to accompany her mother from their home in New Jersey, in order to sell her grandfather's old house. The day after their arrival, a tiny, but formidable, old woman, Kamala Mami, shows up at the door. She used to work for Maya's grandfather, asserts that she has come to cook for them, and serves superb feasts. Maya is angry and sad at the same time - about her father's departure from her life, and about the preoccupations that prevent her mother from giving attention to her daughter.

The old woman fills the gap, as does Maya's cousin, and close friend, Sumati. Mami teaches Maya that 'People aren't always as they seem to be' and shares stories about her mother's childhood. Sumati tells her that she was named after a goddess. Then Mami begins to behave in ways that worries Maya, and she can't find an opportunity to talk to her mother about it. After she and Sumati research at a local Internet café, and suspect that Mami shows signs of dementia, they tell their mothers. Together, they help the old woman who has been such a presence in all their childhoods.

Maya's help is especially important to Mami, who gives her a very special gift in return, one that breaks the ice that has formed between Maya and her mother. When they part, Mami tells her that 'Sometimes people leave our lives. It isn't a thing to cry about.' I enjoyed Naming Maya as a gentle story of a girl caught between two cultures, bridging the mother/daughter gap which is common to that age, but intensified by the family situation.

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