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In 'Blue Skinned Gods,' Kalki is the incarnation of Vishnu but doubts his power

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Blue-Skinned Gods" brings us into the world of Kalki, who was born with blue skin and black blood and a claim to be the incarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu god. Ayya, Kalki's father, builds an ashram to surround the boy and their family in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where Kalki can bestow miracles of healing for those who come with belief. But when he cannot heal Roopa, a young woman brought to him in distress, Kalki begins to doubt the holiness of his blue skin and all the hopes, plans and prayers that have been laid on his heart and his shoulders.

"Blue-Skinned Gods" is the latest novel from S.J. Sindu, who teaches at the University of Toronto in Scarborough, Ontario. She joins us from there. Thank you so much for being with us.

S J SINDU: Yeah, thank you for having me.

SIMON: And we need to explain it first. There are people whose skin turns blue. It's remarkable and rare, but it happens, right?

SINDU: Yeah, yeah. It's an actual genetic condition.

SIMON: When Kalki is 10, which is awfully young, he's given a set of tests. How does this begin to affect his life?

SINDU: So he has to prove himself, and he's - you know, his belief has always come easy to him. He's been surrounded by people who believe in him. And suddenly, he has to prove that he is a child god. And this starts to weigh on him a lot. And when he's unable to heal Roopa, it starts to churn the doubt that plagues him for the rest of his life.

SIMON: Tell us about Lakshman, who becomes such a pivotal character in the book. He is Kalki's best friend. He is Kalki's confidant. And he's supposed to believe that his friend is also the reincarnation of Vishnu, which has got to test any friendship, I would think.

SINDU: Absolutely. I love the character of Lakshman. He is charismatic. He knows what people need before they articulate that. And it's really interesting to me that Kalki is not very well-suited to his position, but Lakshman is. And, you know, Lakshman is also the one that reminds Kalki to be a child and that fun is important in his life, which is important 'cause he - there's not that much of it.

SIMON: Doesn't take long for a reader to begin to wonder, do even Kalki's parents - his father had been an Indian doctor living in America when he was born - believe in his holiness? Or, if I might put it bluntly, do they see him as a financial opportunity?

SINDU: It's very unclear, and it's meant to be that way.

SIMON: Mmm. I gather you were born into a Hindu family in a place where that could be dangerous. Could you tell us about that?

SINDU: Yeah. I was born in Sri Lanka. I'm Tamil, and my family is Hindu. You know, my early childhood was spent during the Sri Lankan Civil War, and it was fairly dangerous. And, you know, really, the only reason I'm here is an accident.

SIMON: An accident?

SINDU: I mean, you got - you get lucky. You know, some people get lucky...

SIMON: Yeah.

SINDU: ...And they make it out alive. And some people don't. And I don't want to take credit for surviving, something that is really just a matter of privilege and luck.

SIMON: How do you think that helped steer the story you tell in "Blue-Skinned Gods"?

SINDU: I'm extremely interested in issues of identity, especially in this book, how faith can either facilitate or contradict identity and the lies we tell to ourselves. A lot of this comes from my upbringing in Sri Lanka. Some of this comes from being part of an immigrant family in the U.S. And some of this comes from just my own experiences as - navigating the world as a South Asian.

SIMON: Mmm. Does - how has it affected your view of religion and faith?

SINDU: I think that - I mean, I started out writing this book trying to understand faith. I started to lose my faith pretty early on as a teenager, and I started this book trying to understand my family's urge to believe. It did help. I now believe that faith brings them peace, and it's a peace that they've earned. I find peace in other ways. I find peace in nature and my writing and my relationships. But some people need that sense of the divine.

SIMON: Based on your life experience and your artistic imagination, when does intense faith begin to invite a turn towards the dark?

SINDU: I think when you start to put kindness below faith in your priority list, that's when it starts to become a little more sinister.

SIMON: Forgive me if this trivializes the theme of the book - but maybe it doesn't at all - but the message I took out of it is being a god isn't what it's cracked up to be, is it?

SINDU: (Laughter) No, it is absolutely not. And it's a lot to put on a young child.

SIMON: It is the rare child - well, as soon as I get the words out of my mouth, I'm going to regret it - who is acclaimed to be a god. But actually, that's not true. I have acclaimed our daughters to be goddesses all of their lives.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: I mean, there is that parental adoration.

SINDU: Yeah, I think every child thinks that they're a god in some way for a while. And the - when that starts to crack, it's a monumental time.

SIMON: When do we human beings begin to accept that the world doesn't revolve around us?

SINDU: I think it depends on the kid and their experiences. But, you know, even as a kid living through war, I managed to believe that I was the center of the universe for quite a while.

SIMON: S.J. Sindu, her novel "Blue-Skinned Gods," thank you so much for being with us.

SINDU: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.