When I first began reading romance, India was a popular setting for books. A lot of the books had to do with English characters of the British Raj falling in love, such as Mary Putney’s excellent Veils of Silk. Others were sweeping historical sagas detailing the occupation of India like The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye. The descriptions of the lush, hot land beguiled me as a reader. I became an armchair traveler, visiting exotic temples, cool palaces filled with tinkling fountains and of course, devouring information on the Kama Sutra.
When the Regency domination of historicals began, exotic books were dropped in favor of glittering ballrooms. India became a casualty of the Napoleonic Wars. And perhaps evolving attitudes toward colonialism have made the British Raj look a little less romantic as well.
Recent years have seen a return of India to romantic fiction, but this time many of the books are contemporary. The books are also about Indian people, not British, and the location is America with the occasional trip home. I’ve loved these new novels and have been impressed with the offerings I’ve seen so far.
My favorite book of this the new crop has been A Good Indian Wife by Anne Cherian. Published in 2009, this is a classic romance novel complete with alpha jerk hero, tricky and interfering grandfather, scorned American girlfriend, and a traditional, virginal Indian bride. Suneel “Neel” Sarrath may have been born in India but he has completely embraced American culture. With a blonde, pretty American girlfriend and flourishing career as an anesthesiologist back in San Francisco, Neel is certain he can resist his family’s request/demand that he marry a “good” Indian girl. But when he goes home to visit his sick grandfather, he is tricked into an arranged marriage. Leila, a young school teacher, seems quite nice but she is not at all what Neel had in mind for himself. Once in San Francisco and away from his grandfather’s interference he hopes to ditch his new bride and reclaim his life. But complications arise. This story looks at what it means to be a stranger in a strange land and how much of ourselves we sacrifice when we try to change the essential nature of who we are. It is also a traditional romance novel that captures the essence of what it takes to reach an HEA. I loved the blending of the two cultures and the look at love and marriage from two different world views.
Another look at traditional Indian courtship versus modern American dating is Shoban Bantwal’s The Full Moon Bride. Soorya Giri, has been raised in America by her Indian parents. To her, arranged marriages are part of another culture and place. But while she has been able to progressively move forward in her career as a lawyer, her love life plateaued at thirteen. Desperate for a home and family of her own, Soorya agrees to try the traditional route. Her first bridal viewings are as horrific as she feared. Chunky and decidedly plain, she makes no lasting impression on the men who meet her. There are no follow up phone calls. She expects the same from her bridal viewing with Roger Vadepalli. Handsome, intelligent, charming, and accomplished Roger can’t possibly want her. Or can he? Just as she is figuring out whether or not she wants him back, Lou enters the picture. A kindly, attractive widower, Lou is the type of man Soorya thought she would marry. Will she choose tradition and compatibility? Or will she take a chance on something new?
The Full Moon Bride is a wonderful look at the first generation immigrant experience. Soorya is a child of both the old world and the new and tries to balance this very carefully in her life. The compare and contrast between the two cultures – India and America – and her deep desire to have the best of both in her life really highlight what it means to have a foot in two worlds. Ms. Bantwal often writes about abuses within her own culture but this chick lit style romance achieves a perfect balance between serious and sweet.
Specifically for my challenge I read Haunting Jasmine by Anjali Banerjee. This is the third “chick lit with a hint of magic” novel that this author has written. I’ve loved every one of them.
Divorcee Jasmine Mistry returns to Shelter Island, WA at her beloved aunt’s request. Jasmine is to watch over auntie’s bookshop while her aunt returns to India to “fix her heart”. Her first several days as a bookseller are a disaster, but an encounter with Connor Hunt and the magic of the shop itself slowly work to heal Jasmine’s heart. As she releases the bitterness of the past, sweet possibilities open up in her future. Can she restore her faith in love, humanity and books sufficiently to take a leap of faith?
The magic of this book is that it shows that “good books are all about departing from the ordinary”. Once Jasmine allows herself to imagine a future different than she had always pictured, she is able to get in touch with a part of herself she had long been denying. Once she is able to open her heart to Connor, she realizes how her ex had been able to sap her of her ability to love. Connor has the maturity, heart and compassion to be just what the wounded Jasmine needs. The magic within her allows her to be just what he needs, too. Being together gives them both the power to step into a tomorrow brimming with promise. There is a twist at the end of the story that is a bit of a surprise but it is one familiar to romance fans. I would strongly recommend all three of Ms. Banerjee’s books to fans of Sarah Addison Allen. They contain that same level of magic and love, set within a beautifully written story. Ms. Banerjee has a book coming out this month entitled Enchanting Lily which I am very much looking forward to.
I would love to say that Indian and Indian American romances are easy to find but that would not be quite true. There are many Indian American novels which are women’s fiction, some of them romantic such as The Splendor of Silence by Indu Sundaresan and some of them deep and depressing such as The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar. While Indian/Indian American romances are hitting shelves (2011 saw the publication of five Indian American romances that I founds), it is a far from a burgeoning market.
It is one I strongly recommend, though. The writers I’ve discovered are outstanding and the fact that the authors are all Indian themselves allows them to bring an element of personal experience that can make for a strong reading experience.
I’ve listed my three favorites above but two others I can recommend are The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and The Hindi Bindi Club by Monica Pradham. Both are excellent stories that contain sweet romances.
So now it’s your turn. Have you read any of the books I discussed? Do you have any recommendations for historicals set in India? Romances with Indian characters? General fiction novels you’ve loved with Indian characters?
– Maggie Boyd