The main character, Ali, swings back and forth between reminiscing about life in Kenya and his current life in Los Angeles. Ali had moved to Los Angeles, lured by stories of a newer, freer life - sexy available men and the ability to live his life openly. He finds, however, that lessons he learned in childhood starts repeating in his relationships.
The story starts out slowly with memories of his mother talking about her and Ali's father's amazing love for each other. As the story unfolds, those memories and Ali's childhood are colored by stories of horrible abuse by the father against Ali's mother and the fact that Ali's father died at the hands of a jealous mistress. The relationships around him (mother/father, grandmother/grandfather) do not provide lessons in functional, healthy relationships. Instead Ali's own story is intertwined with his parents' dysfunctional relationship and the film music that he grew up with - Bollywood's eminent singer, Lata Mangeshkar. Lata's hopelessly romantic music is the soundtrack that Ali pursues love and Ali realizes that the lessons he learned on the Bollywood screen are playing out in real life - he has become one of the martyred heroines who wait sorrowfully for the free-spirited hero to come home.
Once in Los Angeles, Ali starts looking for "Mr. Right" to alleviate his loneliness. But he seems destined for unhappiness and abandonment. He and a superficial group of friends party with drugs and drink in dance clubs and after-hour sex-clubs. Ali tries to meet men through club-hopping but ends up with a string of superficial sexual relationships and has borderline unsafe sex with strangers. In at least a couple of situations, the question arises of whether the protection used was good enough. With the AIDs epidemic still going strong, and with other sexually transmitted diseases around, this was very surprising to read about. In the beginning of the book, Ali barely discusses even the possibility of disease. This is even more perplexing in that, in the middle of the book, he is involved in community outreach to provide AIDs information. It is not until closer to the end of the book that he talks about the fear of disease.
Ali latches onto a man, Richard, to be what his father could not be - someone who will never abandon him or be unavailable. Unfortunately for Ali, the man who he chooses is unattainable. Richard, his biggest love is emotionally abusive -- using him for support, love and understanding while providing not-quite platonic friendship in return. Richard continuously pretends that things will change, that he will stop seeing other men, that something permanent will happen between the two of them but it never quite occurs. When Ali finally moves on, he finds that the other men in his life either ignore him or betray him.
His mother knows that he is gay but hopes that it is simply a stage. She leaves interminably long messages on his answering machine including discussions of grandchildren and how other friends are already grandparents. She asked him when he will be ready to settle down and give up his current lifestyle. Her visit to Los Angeles opens Ali up to questioning his childhood, its effect on his life and where his life is going. Atypical of traditional Indian parents that this reviewer is familiar with, she is more accepting of his sexuality and tells him that if he was happy then she would be able to handle any comments or questions back home in Kenya. Also unusual are the frank discussions that Ali and his mother have about sex.
In the book, Ghalla does touch on the closeted gay men whose parents are aware of their sexual activity and yet encourage them to conform by marrying and have children. One of Ali's friends, a semicloseted gay man who indulges with dangerous sexual partners, fights with his family over his behavior. However, his desire for his family inheritance speaks louder to him than remaining true to himself and he shuns Ali, choosing instead to play obedient son.
Ali has a very diverse background - Muslim Indian from Kenya. While his ethnic background is different from many of his friends, he learns to accept who he is and the realities of contemporary gay life in Los Angeles. Ode to Lata is an honest, sometimes brutal look at one man's journey in life.
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