Most of the stories are set in the suburbs of Boston, with the exceptions of one in Kansas and another in India. However, there is no cultural overload, just small but solid images of the values of the Indian culture, their importance to the elders and the willingness of younger generations to compromise and change those traditions to adjust to the American way. Each tale is uniquely woven and easy to read, yet their themes are interconnected.
In “Devadasi,” Uma is a 16-year-old budding beauty, struggling with how she should handle her physical and mental transformation into a young woman. On a family trip to India, she’s torn between how tradition would want her to behave and the expectations of her American boyfriend back home. Through the guidance of her wise dance instructor, Guru-ji, she gathers some insight on how to make these choices.
Lakshmi is a submissive and obedient housewife and mother. Now that her children are grown, she’s restless with living her traditional Indian life in Modern America. In “Lakshmi and the Librarian,” she befriends the local librarian, Elias Filian, who appreciates her friendship and attention, unlike her husband who seems to be taking her for granted. After flirting with the danger of a possible affair, she sees the safety and comfort in the simple life she’s chosen.
Justice Shiva Ram Murthy would like all of his friends and family to think that he’s easily adjusted to living in Boston. What he simply cannot come to terms with is that, here in America, he’s not a renowned and respected judge, but just another Indian immigrant with an accent that’s difficult to understand. In this story, titled after the main character, we see Mr. Murthy twist a simple misunderstanding out of proportion demonstrating his frustrations with living in America.
In each of the seven expertly crafted tales, Rishi keeps us balanced on the fence, where we can clearly see both sides, and feel the push and pull from the green grass of both. She provides us with gentle truths and emotional debates that open our awareness, empathy and understanding of the fear that change can bring, along with its exciting possibilities. Her Westernized characters are light headed from their fresh existence in a new world, while the ones who cling to tradition are quietly stubborn and respectfully steadfast in their cultural beliefs. You can’t dislike any of them, which creates a great struggle for the reader, and a good reason to read on. In fact, we want to handle each of them with an intimate delicacy, and in the end we want them all to find a satisfactory compromise. We root for a respectful neutrality, an ability to agree to disagree. After all, don’t we each grow up trying to beat our own path in life, rebelling against all we’ve been taught, and believing what our own minds and hearts tell us is correct?
Indian blogger Jabberwock has a long, positive review of Karma and Other Stories, and concludes:
[N]one of these stories amount to pat generalisations about a community of people. Yes, they all deal with Indians living and adjusting in the US; in fact, one can particularise this further and observe that they are mostly about members of a Telugu community in relatively less cosmopolitan places in the US (so much so that some characters recur from one story to the next; the effect is like being at a cosy fireside chat where a narrator is telling us anecdotes from the lives of people we’ve seen in our neighborhood). But one can also step back, look at the larger picture and observe that these are believable human beings, facing different types of conflicts and responding in different ways.