Finding one's true self

Sita Sinclair lands a job in an advertising agency in Sydney. She has just had a break-up and is looking at a new beginning. It’s her first day at work, and the expected question follows: “How did you end up with such an exotic Indian name?” Because Sita’s mother did her PhD in religious literature. India, spirituality, chai, and yes, even a tarot card reader...In many ways, it’s a naive, simplistic novel full of predictable threads. And eventually, by quirk of fate, (rather predictable again), Sita Sinclair comes to India to discover herself. All thanks to a neighbour, Ms Sharma, an Indian who often invites her home for tea. And that probably explains the title of the novel, Chai for Beginners.

The chai is the beginning of a journey to India, in more ways than one. A real physical journey and also a spiritual one. A generous sprinkling of Indian subzi, talk of karma, pictures of deities Rama and Sita, intricately carved Indian furniture, gaudy pictures from Indian legends on the wall are all woven into the description of Ms Sharma’s home, just to underline her Indianness. Sita even manages to learn to wear the sari, the ultimate Indian symbol, and rather naively asks Ms Sharma if “Hindus believe in Jesus?” And then, Christmas arrives, and New Year’s Eve and Sita is lonely. She has her trusted friend Gerome, who takes her to a party to which Callum, the art director she is in love with, is also expected to arrive.

Life goes on, and Sita learns to recover from her heartbreak. And then comes the turning point of the story. Ms Sharma suffers a heart attack, and Sita goes to India to scatter her ashes in the Ganga. First Delhi, and then Varanasi, the “ancient and timeless” town.
Then, Mt Abu, also Ms Sharma’s home after she got married. And Sita has many moments of introspection and epiphany about her life, her break-up with her boyfriend Mark. “I felt myself begin to merge with the eternity of the land...I too was eternal and there was, after all, nothing to fear. All the sorrows and joys of life were contained in this eternity and in this eternity was the peace and love I had been craving for so long.” And then, Sita goes home. In more ways than one. She has found herself.

Written from the perspective of a Westerner looking at India, this is one that will appeal more to her milieu than an Indian audience. What could be a cliché and a stereotype for an Indian reader might well be the beginning of a discovery for a non-Indian readership. The story itself, though, fails to hold interest, shorn as it is of drama. The writing itself is overly simple, bordering on the bland. If you have nothing else to do at an airport terminal or a railway station platform, you could pick this up, and breeze through it before you start your journey. This one won’t leave a strong aftertaste after you are done reading it. As easy as sipping a chai.

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