The rags-to-riches tale of an “untouchable” Indian boy who ends up a Canadian millionaire.
In pre-independence India, baby Karam is born into a family of Churas, the lowest caste in a society hidebound by class. They are called “untouchable” because their very touch is said to be contaminating, though this doesn’t stop upper-caste Jats from raping their women. For generations Karam’s ancestors have lived lives of desperate poverty, filth and humiliation, carrying human refuse on their heads. The misery of the Churas is evoked in rich, authentic detail, without self-pity or outrage. The whole clan’s destiny changes, however, with the birth of this boy, who has the blessings of Sant Baba, a monk revered by Karam’s mother. Karam turns out to be not just lucky but enormously so: He migrates to Canada, starts his own laboratory and, after a few giddy years, is worth an eye-popping $20 million. The novel switches between this hangman’s grandson furiously pursuing the immigrant’s dream—Karam and wife drive separately in a Cadillac and Mercedes to pick up their respective parents from the airport—and the political ferment in India. Handsome, humble and generous, this untouchable man who makes love “like a bull” is like a Greek hero—without a humanizing fatal flaw, which is one central weakness of this otherwise heartfelt novel. (Poor editing is the other concern.) The story is also short on conflict, dramatic tension and deep characterization. Readers wait for Karam’s good fortunes—attributed to “kismet,” the bedrock Hindu belief that one’s fate is preordained—to turn, but apart from a few pinpricks, the slings and arrows fail to materialize. There’s one stinging reminder of how the caste system continues to triumph—the high-born of India still refuse to eat in Karam’s house—which Koonar touches on, although the author fails to probe its affect, except for Karam’s final defiance.
What could have been textured social realism remains a touching but unsatisfying chronicle of success.