Friday, January 20, 2017

Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken

I used to so community theater, often on stage and sometimes backstage. There is a certain tenseness that happens when the lights go out in the auditorium. If you're backstage, you can't see it happening, but you can here it. There's a hush that falls over the crowd, followed by a soft flurry of last minute comments, before the curtain rises and the crowd noises change and then silence falls again as the play begins.

The tension remains for a while - until the first spontaneous reaction from the audience. Sometimes it's a little giggle and sometimes an outright laugh. Sometimes it's a gasp.

It doesn't matter what the reaction is, just as long as there is a reaction. It shows that the audience is alive and paying attention and reacting to the actors in a positive way.

The tension evaporates with a long, collective exhale of held breath, and then the cast and crew kind of settle in to doing the jobs they've rehearsed for so long.

That sort of thing happens to me when I'm reading a book. There's a bit of unease as I begin, because I don't know the characters and I don't quite trust the author yet. I don't quite settle in until I read a phrase or a sentence that tells me that the author is taking me some place I want to go.

The terrible thing is that some books never bring that "settling in" moment when I know I'm headed somewhere good. I float along aimlessly with the story, but I don't actually snuggle into to it comfortably. The unease remains.

With Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken by Monica Bhid, that "settling in" moment came on the first page, when I read this sentence, at the beginning of the fourth paragraph:

He smiles as he realizes he may possibly be the only person ever to enter a cooking studio with a monk by his side.

That sentence has so much potential. Who is he? Why is he entering a cooking studio? Is he a cook or an audience member? Who is the monk and why is he there? We don't know any of these things yet, but now we want to know because it's such a compellingly peculiar sentence.

We also know is that this author has that gift of laying out words in a way that draws you in, makes you curious, and makes you smile a secret little grin, all at the same time. You buckle in and know that you're going on a good ride to ... well, somewhere.

While cooking plays a role in this book, it's not all about cooking. It's about love, hope, charity, goodwill, and humor. It's set in India, so the scenes and some of the words aren't entirely familiar, but that doesn't really matter. The story is freaking compelling. And heartwarming. And emotional.

Heck, I read this book weeks ago, and I'm tearing up thinking about it. If I ever need to water my eyeballs or collect tears for a magic potion, this book has the power. I think I cried through the last quarter of the book. In a good way. A very good way.

Unlike some books, this one ends just when it's supposed to. The end isn't telegraphed so far in advance that you slog through the rest of the book knowing what will happen. And doesn't conclude itself but then continue with tedious explanations. And the ending doesn't come crashing in too soon, so you feel like it all wrapped up on the last page because there was no more paper left, even though there was plenty of story that needed to be told.

Nope, this one ends at the end, and you don't know what actually happens until it does. Until then, it could go either way. Either ending could have been just as satisfying, too. Which makes it even better.

Yeah, go buy this book. If you're the teary sort, like me, make sure you've got some tissues nearby. And then settle down in a comfortable chair and spend an afternoon in India.

Monica Bhide is a food blogger and author. Go look for her on her blog, Monica Bhide.

I received an ebook version of this novel from the author, as well as a short ebook of recipes, both at no cost to me. Except, of course, puffy eyes.

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