As the only Bengali girl in a small Canadian town, 13-year-old Maya chafes at the crossroads of two cultures. She doesn’t identify with her Indian roots, but at school she’s ridiculed for the color of her skin and the strange-smelling food she brings from home. She just wants to belong and to be liked by a certain boy named Jamie.
“I don’t want to be ethnic,” she complains in Maya Running, Anjali Banerjee’s debut novel. “I want to run on the tundra beneath the northern lights, make igloos or snow angels, write to Anne Frank in my diary or clean my closet and find a door into Narnia.” Maya’s problems seem to be magically solved when her cousin Pinky arrives from India with a statue of Ganesh. The elephant-headed Hindu god comes to life, asking for Jelly Bellies to satisfy his sweet tooth, then granting Maya’s wish for a perfect life. She wakes up the next morning to find her skin free of blemishes, her faultless teeth no longer needing braces. Her parents agree to Maya’s every whim. Jamie trails her in a lovesick trance.
Perhaps Maya should have paid closer attention to the warning that the Remover of Obstacles is also a trickster. By the time Maya realizes “my wishes were a river with an undertow,” Ganesh is gone, returned to India in the suitcase of her cousin Pinky.
Maya must make a journey of both body and spirit to find Ganesh and beg him to make her world as it was before. When she overcomes the greediness of her own yearnings in sacrifice to another’s greater need, she discovers the true gift of Ganesh. The removal of what she thought were her obstacles also strips away illusions that were holding her back. Now, she understands, “I am special in a way that is bigger and older than this town.” In Maya, Banerji has created a character with an authentic, engaging voice and a poignantly familiar yearning to belong. Teenage readers will find much to identify with in her captivating journey of self-discovery.
Belinda Anderson writes from West Virginia.