SJ Sindu has imagined a fascinating premise for her novel exploring identity, family, community and the tensions that arise among them: A boy born with a rare medical condition that causes his skin to turn blue is raised to believe he is an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu. His parents set up an ashram outside a village in Tamil Nadu, India, where pilgrims from all around the world can come to worship him. The boy, called Kalki, believes he has the power to heal the sick, and indeed many ill people appear to be healed by his prayers.
At the novel's opening, Kalki is 10 years old and is called upon to complete three miracles to confirm his godhood: to heal a girl named Roopa, to call white horses from Heaven to the ashram, and a third healing which tests his faith. However, as his fame grows, Kalki begins to doubt his own godhood. He does not feel his own power and wonders if other factors might be at play. His controlling father refuses to answer his questions. Instead, over the years, his father conspires to keep Kalki in ignorance, first driving away his longtime companion and cousin, then the young woman he loves, and finally Kalki's mother.
The novel really takes off when the adult Kalki finds the courage to leave his father and to pursue his own dreams. In the brilliant final third of the novel, Kalki finds himself in New York City, where he has a full-blown identity crisis.
Here Sindu is at her inventive best, with wild juxtapositions of people and situations, from a post-punk band that takes in Kalki, to hipsters of various gender identities who try to seduce him, to new-age worshipers who refuse to believe he is not a healer, to gangsters who want to bring him back to the ashram. These witty episodes allow Kalki to try to define himself as well as to understand the world around him.
Kalki even runs into another former child god, a young woman from Nepal named Sunita, at a house party in a Brooklyn brownstone.
When a video of Kalki goes viral, groupies flock to him again, reminding him of his days as a god. "Isn't it still wrong?" he asks Sunita. "I'm tricking all these people."
"You can't trick someone who wants to be tricked," she answers wisely.
Sindu's previous novel, "Marriage of a Thousand Lies," won the Publishing Triangle Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and was a finalist for a Lambda Award.
May-lee Chai's latest collection of short stories, "Useful Phrases for Immigrants," won a 2019 American Book Award. Her next book, "Tomorrow in Shanghai and Other Stories," is forthcoming next summer.
By: SJ Sindu.
Publisher: Soho Press, 336 pages, $26.