After her grandfather’s death, American Maya learns that her Pakistani grandmother was born in India and is determined to return before the funeral, in search of a ring left behind when the family fled during Partition.
Sixth-grader Maya and her sister naively blackmail their grandmother into letting them join her, and when forgotten medication lands Naniamma in the hospital, the sisters decide to continue the journey alone. Then Maya is pursued by a group that runs a crime syndicate of street orphans, leading to an epic chase, a night in the Taj Mahal gatehouse, and Maya’s kidnapping (they want to ransom her); she escapes thanks to the help of a (plucky) street orphan. While the intent is clearly to shed light on serious issues in overpopulated, often poverty-stricken India and Pakistan, the adventure sequence amid grief and discovery comes across as contrived, much like the many conversations in which characters clumsily relate things they already know in order to educate Maya and readers. Maya’s exposition-heavy journal provides a similarly didactic purpose, and Naniamma’s harrowing back story (she is one of a handful of survivors of a train massacre during Partition), stroke, and rediscovery of her childhood best friend are not enough to carry the novel emotionally.
Facts outshine the trappings of fiction here, leading to a book that is important and educational—but not very satisfying. (Fiction. 9-12)