The soaring trees and dense plants and creepers inhaled him, then blew him out in some other deep forest in another time and place. He stopped, paralyzed. There was a beautiful girl about then yards in front of him. He could only see the girl’s profile, but there was no denying she was a goddess. Jaya blinked hard. When he looked again there she was in the same spot. This brown-skinned girl. This was a girl who belonged in the stadium’s extravagant VIP suite. Not in the cheap bleacher seats. Not anywhere near someone like Jaya, an awkward transgender boy.
Title: Jaya and Rasa, A Love Story
Author: Sonia Patel
Young Adult Fiction ♦ 289 pages ♦ Cinco Puntos Press, September 2017
**Disclaimer: I received a copy of this title from the author and publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review**
Sonia Patel, author of last year’s smash debut Rani Patel in Full Effect, does not disappoint in her second novel, Jaya and Rasa, A Love Story, which chronicles the very different lives of two young people living with dangerous secrets on modern-day O’ahu whose chance meeting catalyzes events far beyond their control.
The story begins with Rasa Santos at seven years old, spying on her mother Kalindi through an open window. Kalindi’s trade is prostitution, and as Rasa begins growing older, she begins to think of Kalindi as a black widow spider, seducing men with her beauty and magnetism before trapping them in her erotic web. Rasa is the oldest child, and feels personally responsible for her younger siblings’ welfare, so when Kalindi begins spending more time away from home and the children are on the verge of starving, Rasa discovers that her mother’s gift is hers also. She begins to sell herself to older men to feed her siblings: at the tender age of 12 years old.
Jaya Mehta’s world could not be more different from Rasa’s. The only child of a high-end condo developer, he and his parents live in resplendent wealth in a Honolulu hilltop mansion. His every physical need is fulfilled, his wishes granted, his future secured. But there’s just one problem–his traditional Gujurati parents think they have a daughter, not a son. They scold him for cutting his hair, for wearing androgynous clothing, for not taking his future marriage plans seriously, for not connecting with the “right” kids at his uppity elite prep school. In addition, his parents’ marriage is a sham with his father sleeping with multiple women behind his mother’s back, his mother developing raging bulimia to cope, and drunken screaming matches nearly every night of the week. In the midst of the chaos, Jaya the person, the child, the individual is mostly ignored and left to raise himself.
Flash forward several years, and Rasa and her siblings are on their own. Kalindi walked out one night and never came back, leaving them homeless, but not before Kalindi herself took an active role in training her daughter in the art of seduction. It’s not long before Child Protective Services steps in and places the children in foster homes, seventeen-year-old Rasa in one, and the three younger children in another. Rasa’s foster parents seem like great people, until she realizes that they’ve groomed and sold her to one of their friends in exchange for money. High-rolling Romeo pimp Xander is wealthy, snazzy, and violent, and Rasa quickly realizes that in order to keep her siblings safe from Xander’s rage, she has no choice but to comply with his increasingly demoralizing and aggressive demands.
Jaya’s life is much the same as before, except that he’s identified his true gender to his only friend from school, a gay boy named Alika who not only allows Jaya to be himself but offers a level of protection from the school bullies who sneer and threaten him with sexual violence. Jaya’s father’s arrogance has only grown worse in recent years, bribing local officials to let him build on sacred lands, becoming more brazen in his sexual affairs, and Jaya vows to never, ever be like his parents. He will be a gentleman, IF he can ever find a girlfriend.
And then the day comes, a day like any other. Rasa has escaped the busy city to return to her childhood home in rural and beautiful Hau’ula, just for the day. And on the trails of the hills, she sees Jaya. And Jaya sees her. And the connection that flies between them is undeniable, instant–and alien. Rasa’s only ever known men to be sexual and predatory. Jaya’s never known a girl to be into him ever. But their connection only deepens as they realize that they can be completely themselves around each other, and both begin to fantasize separately about building a life together, far from the violence that defines their daily living.
But all is not sunshine and roses. Rasa cannot bring herself to tell Jaya about her situation, for fear of harm to herself, her siblings, and Jaya himself. As her protective defenses fall away, she begins to yearn for a life beyond prostitution, and she vows it will happen–
Yet in the world of calamitous circumstance, fate has a different idea.
This book, guys. So much here. I tore through it. Once again, Sonia Patel does not hold back from confronting the dirt and scars defining so many young people’s lives today. Her years of experience as a child and adolescent psychiatrist shine through the pages of this book as she deftly handles themes of isolation, desperation, and redemption.
What is striking is that she writes her characters like real teenagers. Rasa is old and wise beyond her years when it comes to survival. But she’s still a teenager. Many adults would say, “She should just call the cops! Or tell someone!” But Rasa’s sexually traumatic background at the hands of her own mother means that her brain literally cannot make that connection as it links to her own survival and the survival of those she loves. Think about that. Her mother was her first pimp. And this family-style solicitation is a lot more prevalent than what people care to admit. My years working with teens in the mental health system taught me more than anyone would ever be comfortable knowing about how many parents, grandparents, older siblings, uncles, aunts, and family friends willingly and forcefully sell these children to others before they’re even old enough to understand the concept of consent. And these experiences alter brain chemistry and neural pathways enough that a girl like Rasa is nearly physically incapable of making positive changes on her own. This reminds me of a major theme my students studied this past year of “What Survival and Bravery Mean,” in that not all heroes act heroically in the eyes of the outside world.
Jaya, too, walks a confused line. He takes solace in the depressing world of 90s Seattle grunge icon, Kurt Cobain. His blooming relationship with Rasa is fraught at times. He knows she’s lying to him about where she goes when she’s not with him, but his inherent class and social privilege blind him from knowing the depths of the near primal desperation to survive when one’s physical safety and needs are constantly threatened. Instead, he falls deeper into the self-loathing so recognizable to the LGBTQ community: “I must deserve this hell because of who I am.”
My biggest critique is that I would have liked to see more development of the class issues facing Jaya and Rasa’s relationship. It was referenced multiple times but not in the complexity I would have personally enjoyed. Also, I would have loved to know more about Jaya’s self-discovery process. What books, websites, magazines, etc did he peruse to learn more about gender identity?
The Hawaiian paradise in which this book is set is a beguiling facade to the underbelly that permeates every community. People do not come out looking good and holy in this book. No one is immune. But through it all, both Jaya and Rasa retain their resilience and their belief that love can make a difference.
About the Author:
Sonia Patel’s YA debut, Rani Patel in Full Effect, was a finalist for the Morris Award, was listed on YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, and was named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Teen Books for 2016. Patel is a psychiatrist who works with children and adults. She was trained at Stanford University and the University of Hawaii. She lives in practices in O’ahu (taken from Cinco Puntos Press).