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Karom Seth should be dead by now, three times over. Throughout his life, he dodged one disaster after another, through sheer luck and quirks of fate. As a child, he escaped the brutal aftermath of the Bhopal gas leak in India, and later, as an adult, he ought to have been in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He wasn’t there. And, neither was he with his family, vacationing at a beach resort in Kanyakumari, India in December 2004, when the tsunami struck and took their lives.
Where Earth meets Water is a story about Karom’s quest to make sense of a world that is at once cruel and magnanimous. Cruel for orphaning him and magnanimous for sparing his life. In this debut novel, author Pia Padukone examines Karom’s seeming invincibility by offering up the life experiences of the people who are guideposts in his quest for making sense of a senseless world.
The novel begins with Karom and Gita, his girlfriend of Indian and Norwegian heritage, taking a trip to India. While there they stay with Kamini, Gita’s grandmother from the Indian side of her family. Karom finds out that Kamini is a novelist and that she shares some of her deepest pains through her novels. The narrative then breaks to Lloyd, his college roommate in Boston, who harbors a secret, a longing that inextricably links him with Karom, but also eventually severs their relationship.
Mohan and Rana Seth, Karom’s parents, have a secret, which they reveal to Karom through a series of letters. Karom stumbles upon the letters when he is clearing up their home in Brooklyn soon after they are killed by the tsunami.
Gita is so deeply affected by Karom’s life experiences that she goes to India without Karom to better understand his past. The novel ends with Karom finally coming to terms with his life and destiny. From Kamini he learns that one cannot control destiny. Destiny controls you.
The author employs different narrative styles such as the inset story and letters, perhaps for a change of pace. The narrative style with the back and forth story arc, the multiple character histories and the attempt to collapse three real-life natural disasters into one grand narrative have the unintended effect of “character” overload.
It is after all a work of fiction, and a fictional work should be allowed to take liberties with actual events and weave stories that bind them together in a fictional world. While the chosen premise of the book is ambitious, one is left with the sense that the burden of the ambition is too heavy for the prose and the characters.
And, the book loses itself in the breadth and depth of its ambitions. The story and characters seem unmoored, jostling for the reader’s attention. As soon as the reader sinks in to Gita and Karom’s relationship, one is hurled into Kamini’s past. And then on to Lloyd.
And then on to Mohan and Rana. Where Earth Meets Water may have been better served by limiting its range to fewer life changing events or fewer characters, affording these very real-life events the expansive narrative they fully deserve and thereby allowing the reader to grasp the larger-than-life effects of these events on individual and his near and dear.
It has to be said that of all the people in Karom’s life, Lloyd and his characterization are the most endearing. Lloyd’s internal conflicts can almost contend with the severity of Karom’s experiences. Notwithstanding the limitations of the narrative style, Where Earth Meets Water is an insightful commentary on what binds humans-shared histories, tragedy and the redemptive power of love.
Girija Sankar lives in Atlanta and works in international development. Her writings can be found here: www.girijasankar.com