One of the coolest romance related things I’ve done this year is attend a meeting of Lady Jane’s Salon in New York City. Lady Jane’s, founded in 2009, is the Big Apple’s first–and only–monthly romance fiction reading series. The night I went the set of authors reading was, to a woman, fabulous. Laura K. Curtis, Dahlia Adler, and Hope Tarr (I missed the earlier readers) all read from their works and I was intrigued by them all. But the reading that made me aflame to read was that given by Sonali Dev who read from her upcoming (and second) novel The Bollywood Bride. There was nothing for it but for me to seek out Ms. Dev, beg for an advance copy of the book, and ask her—while trying not to seem like a crazed fan stalker—if she’d be willing to let me interview her.
Dabney: You grew up in Mumbai, right? And now you live in the US. When and why did you come to the States?
Sonali: Yes, I grew up in Mumbai which is the most populous metropolis in India, and possibly also the most urban and westernized. Think big, hot, teeming melting pot of all Indian sub-cultures. And yes, I’ve lived in the US for a few months short of two decades, that’s most of my adult life. I came here because I married my husband who came here to go to college. It’s your fairly stereotypical immigrant story: new bride shows up on foreign shores with stars in her eyes, goes to college, starts a family, learns to integrate while staying tied to her culture, etc. Except, my dad’s brother moved here before I was born and I had visited often throughout my childhood and I’m a bit of a nomad at heart and it never really felt much like a foreign land.
Sonali: I’ve written for as long a I can remember but I only started to write fiction about ten years ago with some Bollywood scripts. I finished the first draft of my first novel in 2010 and thus began the long trek of revisions paved with realms of rejection. In 2012, in a fit of frustration-fueled courage I pitched my book to my editor in the middle of a publisher spotlight at a conference and ended up with a request. But I really wanted an agent so I continued to submit and be rejected by agent after agent, revising nonstop for another year. And when I had run out of agents to submit to along with faith that anyone would take on my book I sent it off to my editor and received an offer within a week. That was 2013. In retrospect, three years from a first draft to contract was a remarkably smooth path, as paths to publication go. So, I’ve been very lucky.
Dabney: The leads in your first two books (the hero of A Bollywood Affair and the heroine of The Bollywood Bride) are Bollywood royalty. This makes me think you might just have a serious thing for Bollywood. To me, the woefully uninformed, Bollywood is Hindi films from India. I’ve seen a few and associate them with big production numbers and women in gorgeous saris. I’m sure I’m not doing it right. What is Bollywood to you and why do you keep coming back to it in your books?
Sonali: To me Bollywood is a two pronged concept, one cultural and the other stylistic. Culturally, it’s the popular face of stories centered around Indians and the Indian state of mind — with a history that spans millennia, a culture that holds within itself hundreds of sub-cultures each with a peculiar mix of beliefs and traditions. And against this backdrop you have familial bonds that are so tight they have the power to stifle the life out of you as much as they yank you back from the edge of tragedy.
As for style, to me the ‘Bollywood style’ is reminiscent of the large sweeping family sagas the Hindi film industry tends to make. It’s the dramatic, just this side of melodramatic. It’s thumping rhythms and operatic music anchored firmly in undiluted emotion. It’s love that makes choruses burst in your head. It’s beautiful people in beautiful places, but also the smell of the most wretched sewers. It hops around the world but is tied to an ancient land. It’s the clash of the oldest culture in the world with a very modern hunger for progress.
At a personal level, it’s about writing what I know. This is the world I inhabit, but on steroids. I was raised on a staple of Bollywood films and I have friends and family who work in the film industry, so it’s a world I feel like I have just the right balance of an insider’s and outsider’s view of.
Dabney: And, if you could, what are your favorite Bollywood films? Why?
There are so many. I’ll try and recommend ones I haven’t in other places.
- Life in a Metro– A wonderfully told story about intersecting lives of characters across the cross-section of Mumbai with themes of identity, fidelity, age.
- Kal Ho Na Ho– Set in NYC, this one is stylistically your typical Bollywood canvas, with songs and weddings and broken hearts. But the characters are wonderfully fresh and real and the conflicts really well developed.
- Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam– I feel like this is a visual and emotional masterpiece with two love stories with the same heroine— the man she falls in love with and the man she’s forced to marry who promises to help her find her first love when he finds out. It’s a more rural and traditional story in terms of setting and theme, but beautifully done.
Dabney: You, like the characters in your books, grew up in one land and now live in another. How does that influence your writing? Do see your characters as being more of one world than an other?
Sonali: I actually feel almost no immigrant angst. Consequently, I feel like my stories don’t explore immigrant angst. The issues I feel like I grapple with are those of societal expectations especially as a woman, like the balance between personal freedom and familial duty, and all the roles society, irrespective of geography, places on women. Motherhood, stigmas, our right to our bodies, conditioning and choice. I feel like my characters are more concerned with these issues than with feeling displaced.
Dabney: I loved The Bollywood Bride. It was an powerful read for me. Ria, your heroine, is in so much pain when the novel begins and for reasons that are genuinely tragic. Despite all the success she’s had—she’s a major Bollywood star—she is shaped, even limited, by her past. There is, in her family, severe mental illness. (I saw it as schizophrenia.) Why did you pick that story to tell?
Sonali: Thank you. You know how you grow up with these whispered stories? Family-legends that elders share when they think you aren’t listening but that you soak up. One of my father’s boss’s wives became severely mentally ill in childbirth. While doing research for the book, I figured her postpartum depression had probably triggered a severe form of psychosis that she didn’t get the right treatment for. But the story I heard as a child was how the poor lady went ‘crazy’ in childbirth and was locked up in an asylum for the rest of her life. I never met their daughter, but I always wondered what it must be like to have been the cause of losing your mother that way. That combined with this homogenous world I grew up in, where we wore uniforms to school and followed an extensive set of rules and any child outside of the norm was openly regarded as a freak, I think that’s where Ria took root. And I so badly wanted her to work through her wretched experiences.
Dabney: After I read The Bollywood Bride, it made me wish I could experience the gorgeous and moving Hindu celebrations you describe in the book. And yet I can see my wish as offensive to some—a Twitter friend warned I was guilty of cultural appropriation. I get that and yet I still want to wear a sari at some point in my life. I have always loved the way they look and their mutability. Are you a frequent sari wearer? Are they as comfortable as they look? And what in the celebrations that you were raised with (I’m assuming that’s where your descriptions came from which could be completely wrong.) have you incorporated into your here in America life?
Sonali: I’m not a frequent sari wearer but I am a very proud sari wearer. Basically, I love them and horde them. I’ve worn them for every RITA Award function I’ve attended and also wore one to the RT Awards last year. And of course at weddings and festivals and Indian holidays (which yes, we do continue to celebrate here in America). Women across India have worn them every day for centuries, so, yes they can be comfortable, but I think of them as party wear, so they’re comfortable in the way that evening gowns are comfortable (which is to say, not very but it’s so worth it). As for appropriation, of course I don’t want them turned into a fad without any true appreciation for the art form they are. Some saris like the Paithani, which Ria wears to Nikhil’s wedding in the book, can take a year to weave and only trained artisans can weave them. The flip side of this is that because of how specialized some of these weaving skills are and how the number of women wearing saris on a daily basis is reducing, some of these traditional textiles are dying out. So, more people being interested in them is a very good thing- especially if you take the trouble to support the indigenous designers and weavers.
Dabney: Ria believes her gene pool makes her an unfit partner for her first and only love, Vikram. Ria hasn’t seen Vikram in years but when she returns to Chicago (she spent her summers there while growing up), she and Vikram are again together and the connection between them is impossible for her to deny. Ria’s agonizing is, of course, a common trope in romance wherein the hero/heroine refuses romance in order to protect the one he/she truly loves. You do it really well. Are there other tropes that call to you? Is there a trope you can’t ever see yourself writing?
Sonali: I only became conscious of the concept of tropes in romance when someone read A Bollywood Affair and remarked on how it was the Rake and Virgin trope. I was appalled at first, but then I realized that it was true. Then I started thinking about how such a thing could have happened unconsciously. I guess given that romance is such a prolific and voracious genre and that we’ve analyzed it for so long, every type of conflict and situation has been labelled, and no matter the story you write it will fall into one of those categories. To me it’s more about the issue the characters are dealing with. That’s where I start from and as I said earlier the issues that call to me are personal freedom against the need for family, and personal choice against conditioning. Having said that I love reading about second chances at first love.
Dabney: You are an architect by training and have written professionally in other fields. If you weren’t writing romance, is there another genre you’d write?
Sonali: Even if I did choose to write in a different genre, I suspect the love story within would inevitably end up taking center stage.
Dabney: What are you working on now?
Sonali: I’m working on revising book three and speaking of tropes, one of my critique partners just referred to it as a Dead Ex story. I groaned. But it’s the story of a man who witnessed the death of his wife two years ago and is unable to get past the tragedy, when a woman comes up to him and tells him that she received his wife’s heart in a transplant and now his wife is talking to her from the other side and she wants him to find the evidence to put away her killers.
I am also chewing my nails waiting for Ria and Vikram’s story to hit the shelves.
Dabney: Thanks so much for talking to me.