December 15, 2006

The Darker the Bird, the Sweeter the Song?

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Jeeta is not like the rest of her family in Mumbai (Bombay), India. She's the youngest of three daughters, and has two brothers, too, and her whole life, unlike her mother's, does not revolve around finding a suitable husband and marrying well. She's watched her mother barter off her oldest sister, with her bad eyesight, to an orphan -- which is not an adventageous match, but the best they can do, since her sister has a degenerating eye condition -- and her beautiful middle sister to an American whose only good qualities are that he's an American -- nobody knows him well enough to say much else, and Jeeta's mother, Purnima, is anxious to make a good match for her daughter, and will not hear questions on the matter.

Jeeta isn't sure what she wants out of life, but she's sure it's not to just be married - pouf! - and out of the house. After all, she can't even bring her mind to thinking about marriage: she's dark, and too dark to marry well, in her mother's opinion. It's an opinion that has colored her own perception of herself. "Your tongue is too sharp, and your skin is too dark," is the constant refrain ringing through Jeeta's ears. She doesn't want to live at all the way her mother wants her to, and no wonder, with such a narrow chance of success, in her mother's mind, pushing her to make her daughter wed just anyone. "Say yes to the first one," she warns her daughter, not realizing, perhaps, that she is crushing her feelings with her blunt tongue. But Jeeta has been gifted with a strong backbone. If nothing else, she is going to have her say before she lives the life her mother is pushing her to lead.

When she befriends Sarina, the daughter of an ophthalmologist and a judge, Jeeta begins to see the fuzzy shape of a life ahead of her. She could do better in school, she decides, and begins to study with great seriousness. She could maybe be a judge, a lawyer, someone other than a wife -- like Sarina's mother. Her mind begins to reach for new heights even as her heart is tugged toward Sarmina's cousin, Neel, who is both smarter and kinder than any other boy she's met. Her mother, she knows, would never, never, ever let her out of the house again if she knew that Jeeta was meeting Neel at Sarina's house. So, is there any hope for them? Is there hope for Jeeta's life at all?

When things come crashing down for her sister in America, Jeeta's focus is refined, and she has just one more secret to keep from her mother. But how long can it last? Can she force her distant father to come to the rescue and speak up for once? Will her darker skin and outspoken mouth drive anyone who wants to marry her away? Does she want to marry anymore? And how long will the family meekly submit to what their mother wants, and what their caste and society say? With its beautiful cover picture and deft descriptions, Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet explores the line young adults from every culture must walk between obedience, obligation, and independence as they find their own way through the world.

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