The Chai Factor
Given it’s set in the multicultural city of Toronto, it’s no surprise that Farah Heron’s début, The Chai Factor, delves into some serious issues such as racism and cultural and gender equality. Yet even so the author maintains some nice comedic flair and tells a sweet opposites attract romance making this an enjoyable read from start to finish.
Amira Khan is just a few weeks away from delivering her masters thesis in engineering, and is looking forward to some quiet writing time in her grandmother’s basement. On the train trip home from her grad school, she is harassed by a creep who figures an Indian woman is an easy target. To her surprise – and admittedly, her annoyance – a bearded lumberjack type tries to come to her rescue. She’s perfectly capable of taking care of herself, thank you very much, and only grudgingly comes to realize her would-be knight was just trying to be helpful. Hoping to put the whole thing behind her, Amira arrives home only to discover that her grandmother has rented out two of the two rooms in her basement suite to, of all possible options, a wannabe barbershop quartet!
Sameer, the grandson of a friend of her grandmother’s, is trying out with some singing friends he met online in a local competition, and they needed a place for their newly formed group to practice prior to the event. Her Nanima hadn’t been expecting Amira back from college so soon and had rented the rooms out to Sameer but this puts Amira in an awkward position – she doesn’t pay rent so she can’t complain about her Nanima renting out the rooms, but she had been looking forward to a quiet place to finish writing her thesis. And as luck would have it, one of the members of the quartet is none other than her train hero, Duncan Galahad (a name certainly befitting his actions). Compromise is the key, and also the start of an interesting friendship for Amira and Duncan, which eventually leads to more. Will these two people from very different cultures and backgrounds find the right threads to tie them together?
The premise that brings Amira and Duncan into each other’s orbits is certainly amusing, and while the story is told all from Amira’s point of view, there is definitely a lot about Duncan’s character that shines through. He’s a very decent guy; a peacemaker and a gentle giant. At first Amira thinks he’s gay, because she’s heard through the Indian grapevine that Sameer is gay (though he’s officially closeted to his communty and doesn’t know about the rumours) and she assumes he and Sameer are together. In fact, of the four members of the quartet two, Sameer and Travis are a couple, Barrington has a fiancée and Duncan is the only one who is single.
Amira grudgingly admits to herself that Duncan is kind of attractive, both inside and out. While they clash on more than one occasion, they also have some heartfelt conversations that lead to kissing and then more. Interestingly, there is some discussion between them of power dynamics when it comes to sex, as Amira likes to take charge, and Duncan likes to be bossed around. While you’d think this would lead to some hot BDSM type sex scenes, we don’t know – because they are closed door scenes. So hot kisses – check – but the rest is left to the reader’s imagination, which I confess I found somewhat frustrating and a bit of a tease. It seems an odd choice to go into discussions of kink but then not follow through on the page. But they both seem quite satisfied with whatever they end up doing and in a short period of time, Amira finds herself getting quite attached to her lumberjack.
As I alluded to in the introduction, there is more meat to this story than just the romance. Amira’s Indian culture is strongly represented in terms of cuisine and fashion, but like any traditional culture, the conflict between the older and younger generations is unavoidable. Her Nanima’s thoughts on homosexuality are negative and while one of Sameer’s purposes in bringing the quartet to Toronto was to introduce Travis as his partner to his own grandmother, that’s easier said than done. For a time, Amira ends up pretending to be Sameer’s girlfriend, his ‘beard’ to hide the fact that he and Travis are a couple. It’s not ideal, and the secondary romance between Sameer and Travis takes all sorts of twists and turns before being resolved. Amira’s own mother, divorced for a long time from Amira’s father, is going through her own issues relating to sexuality and acceptance. Amira’s relationship with her mother, her Nanima, and her much younger sister Zahra are explored in depth alongside her romance with Duncan.
But that’s not all. Amira is also dealing with the effects of a racial profiling incident a year earlier at the US border where she ended up becoming a news item, an event she’s still trying to put behind her. She’s angry – angry that her identity as a muslim and an Indian make her a target for online trolls (she ended up disabling her social media) and that anger seeps into her daily life. It’s not helped by the fact that her workplace – where she’d hoped to return after her master’s degree is finalized – seems to have regressed to a more misogynistic time. Her new male boss clearly doesn’t respect her capabilities, and the man she’s warmly thought of as her mentor may not be as delighted with her skills and intellect as she’d thought. And just when she and Duncan are finally getting along so well, another ugly incident reminds her that trusting people can incur a big cost.
The author covers a lot of heavy topics but makes them real by showing them through Amira’s eyes. Life is not fair, especially if you’re not a white male, and Duncan is the perfect foil for Amira’s anger. But his ability to try to understand and empathize, accept his own culpability where necessary and be a backbone and support for Amira show his willingness to be a true partner, one whom Amira soon realizes she wants in her life permanently, and their happy ending is sweet and believable. The Chai Factor is an enjoyable and thought provoking character driven romance and is definitely worth the read.