Kashi by Terin Miller

Terin Miller’s first novel, Kashi, tells the story of five acquaintances whose relationships spiral between friends, lovers, and enemies set against the backdrop of India in the 1980s. Journalist John Colson is working as a reporter for the wire service in Varanasi when he reconnects with his old friend from the States, Chet Bardus. Together the two revel in the city’s offerings and soon John finds himself involved with a group of Bardus’s friends: local musician Rajan, privileged socialite Meetha Sharma, and American researcher Liz Aven, the latter of whom has ties to Bardus’s romantic past. As the group starts to learn the hard truths of trust, lust, and loyalty, their lives take them across Varanasi, Delhi, and Darjeeling where the tumultuous cultural climate of a conservative India will leave its mark on all of them.

In a slight volume, Kashi's story unfolds in colorful vivacity with a pacing that transitions from introspective to turbulent. The noncommittal, minimalist style of John’s narrative - reminiscent of Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway - wonderfully contrasts the richness of the novel’s overall vision, resulting in a particularly encompassing experience for the reader. An American author, Miller draws on his extensive personal history in India to craft a picture of the country that’s likely rarely so well captured by a foreign writer. Through his vivid depictions of the different locales as well as, in particular, a well-executed attention to the details of India’s culture and cuisine, Miller presents a story of natives and expatriates alike that will draw its reader thoroughly into the nuances of 1980s India.

The novel’s two female characters, Meetha and Liz, are equally interesting and diverse, with each serving as a great illustration of the cultural and social differences – and, for that matter, similarities – between two vastly separated countries. As Liz wrestles with her love for Bardus, hindered by the politics of social niceties, Meetha is a picture of confidence and liberation, a path that takes her into disastrous territory. One of the many highlights of the novel is exploring the bond between the two, how their friendship forms and is subsequently tested by their ties to the men in their lives. Alternatively, John’s narrative allows the reader to view how Meetha and Liz test the friendships between Bardus, Rajan, and himself as lines are crossed, loyalties are tested, and freedom is ultimately embraced – come what may. Sharp and thought-provoking, Kashi is an intriguing combination of literary escapism and social drama set against a remarkably complex and beautiful landscape.

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