A Holly Jolly Diwali
Niki Randhawa, heroine of the rhyming A Holly Jolly Diwali by Sonya Lalli, has always been risk-averse. She chose a practical career, lives with her parents, and dates only steady, proper men. This has not paid off, as she finds herself both single and unemployed. She decides to take a break from practicality by traveling to India for her friend’s wedding, where she meets an impractical match, musician Sam Mukherji. Is Niki’s flirtation with risk-taking nothing more than a vacation fling, or is she going to change everything to make it last with Sam? This is a solid (if not distinguished) romance with a strongly developed setting.
As a heroine, Niki is different in ways that both work and don’t. I enjoyed her reflections on being an American-raised, Anglophone, dark-skinned, Sikh woman of Indian descent returning to India for the first time, wondering how she fits into the concept of ‘Indian’. A heroine who is timid is atypical in romance, and I appreciated that this characterization was consistent. Once in India and having met Sam, Niki doesn’t throw caution to the winds but remains the indecisive waffler she was back home. She can’t even decide whether or not to have a fling with Sam, let alone conclude what a fling would entail or what to do after her friend’s wedding.
However, this character-type can be grating (you just want to shake her sometimes) and Sam’s willingness to stick it out when Niki runs so hot-and-cold is occasionally eyebrow-raising. Even a multi-day Hindu wedding isn’t enough for them to get it together – Niki needs a fortunate bout of food poisoning to delay her from visiting her family and ultimately allow her to join Sam on a group honeymoon to Goa. The separation device ‘He’s in London and I’m in Seattle and it will never work’ sounds less credible when Niki has neither property nor a job in Seattle, they’re meeting in Mumbai, and he went to college in California. Also, Sam has an odd, out-of-character panic that triggers the obligatory separation stage.
Niki’s family is richly developed. Her parents are complex and accurately reflect many immigrant experiences, especially in their conflicted desire to both see their daughters ‘it in’ in America and meet the value standards of their own Punjabi Sikh upbringing. I liked that the parents are in love, and the author develops their income struggles sympathetically and honestly. Niki’s sister Jasmine is especially well-rounded as the opposite of Niki, someone impulsive who follows her heart and seems, frustratingly to Niki, to have received all of the benefits Niki’s prudence hasn’t.
The development of the India setting is lovely. The descriptions of the Diwali celebrations, Niki’s friend’s wedding, and the beaches of Goa are vivid and lively without feeling touristy. The author mentions more serious issues, like gender bias and colorism, and sometimes this is effective. Niki gets frustrated by rude fellow guests behaving in a classist way towards the waiter at a dinner, then spends the next scene talking to Sam about how her family’s background is working class. This is a smooth transition to a scene that fills multiple narrative purposes. Unfortunately, other such scenes are not well integrated. You know how sometimes a celebrity realizes for the first time that bad stuff happens and they post a few sentences on instagram before going back to their regularly scheduled life? That’s Niki. For instance, after being followed by street-harassing men:
“I was one of the lucky ones. I’d only been followed, and in broad daylight at that, and I had the privilege and the means to order myself a ride back to the hotel, to pay for accommodation, where I could fall asleep feeling safe. What about all the women and girls who didn’t have that option? And not just here in India, but even in the US and the rest of this whole damn world? My head spun, thinking about all of them. Wondering if the world would ever fucking change.”
“I wasn’t in the mood to go to a party, but when I got back to my hotel room, I changed into the midnight blue lengha I’d brought… and threw on a bit of makeup. The wedding itself would be religious, so tonight’s party would be the equivalent of a reception… a chance for all of us to drink and celebrate, as well as to enjoy performances by musicians and dance groups.”
Niki may get over not being in the mood to go to a party, but the reader doesn’t. You show me the heroine being stalked through the streets, then send her to flirt with the hero at a wedding bash, and I get whiplash.
The romance, as you can see from how little time I’ve spent talking about it here, is not the strongest part of the book. A Holly Jolly Diwali is at its best when it’s the story of Niki growing into herself as an adult, a woman at a career turning point, an Indian-American, a daughter, and a sister. Based on where the author’s skills lie, I wish this book had been more ‘fiction with romantic elements’ than contemporary romance, but I still found it engaging.