Om Shanti, Babe
Frances Lincoln, 2012.
Fourteen-year-old Cassia has just arrived in Kerala with her mum, who’s on a buying trip for her Fair Trade craft shop back in London. It’s her first visit to India and she’s very excited. However, things don’t quite fit in with her pre-conceptions, and she is shaken by the discovery that the shop is facing closure and her (divorced) mother has a boyfriend.
Gradually, however, Cass becomes less self-absorbed and defensive. An eventful train-ride to the coast leads to an injection of romance into the plot. She becomes caught up in a campaign to save the village and the ecologically important mangrove swamps from being destroyed to make way for a luxury holiday resort. After a shaky start, Cass and fashion-designer-to-be Priyanka become friends. When they discover that their shared idol Jonny Gold will be recording the video for his latest song Om Shanti Babe on their very beach, they swing into action to get him to back their campaign – and Cass concocts a plan to save Mum’s shop while she’s at it. However, two discoveries undermine all their plans and Cass finds herself back where she started, feeling unloved and rejected. Now, however, she is no longer an outsider. With friends to depend on, as well as her own resourcefulness, all is not lost…
Author Helen Limon brings the sights and sounds of India alive through Cass’ eyes – the traffic and the trains; the scents of perfume oils and beeswax; and the textures and vibrancy of Indian fabrics: but also some shocking vignettes that remind Cass (and readers) that she must respond to each new experience according to how it is and not how she expects it to be – for example, a stray dog she is about to pet, when she realises it is covered in sores. Limon skilfully portrays Cass’ transformation from a self-centred girl with rather shallow ideas of India as split between Bollywood glamour and abject poverty with nothing in between, to a team-player with a deeper appreciation of the validity of cultural differences and a shared humanity, minus the stereotypes. Cass is not the only character who has to reassess her views, however, and the deft way in which Limon addresses stereotyping from a variety of viewpoints makes Om Shanti Babe the worthy winner of the 2011 Frances Lincoln Memorial Diverse Voices Award.
At the beginning, Cass is difficult to like with her self-centred brashness and insensitivity, although it soon becomes clear that this stems from low self-esteem and unhappiness – and it says much for Limon’s skills as a writer that even when her narrator is less than empathetic, this is a real roller-coaster ride of a story. Cass’ honesty as the narrator and the thread of humor that runs through the whole book right from the opening page and often at her own expense, draw readers on even when Cass is at her most prickly. By the end, Cass has transformed into a more caring and likeable individual. As the various plotlines come together for a satisfying climax, readers will have just enough breath left from this fast-paced page-turner to raise a cheer for Cass and her new friends.