So let me begin by saying that I am an Indian woman (living in U.S.) who was quite annoyed by the way Mili clings to (to what seems to me) an obtrusively parochial way of thinking. Let me also say in the very next breath that I loved Sonali Dev’s A Bollywood Affair.
It’s not quite a leap from one to the other because while I may have started out being annoyed by Mili, Miss Dev’s characterization makes it possible for me to understand why Mili clung to a marriage-in-name for as long as she did. She is also one of the cutest heroines I happened to have come across recently. Lest my description of the heroine as cute turn you off I would caution you against jumping to conclusions! Yes, dear reader, Miss Dev, manages to imbue her ingénue with an authenticity that went straight to my heart! I guess what I am saying is that Mili is for sure one of my favourite things about this book!
Here’s a synopsis:
Mili Rathod hasn’t seen her husband in twenty years—not since she was promised to him at the age of four. Yet marriage has allowed Mili a freedom rarely given to girls in her village. Her grandmother has even allowed her to leave India and study in America for eight months, all to make her the perfect modern wife. Which is exactly what Mili longs to be—if her husband would just come and claim her.
Bollywood’s favorite director, Samir Rathod, has come to Michigan to secure a divorce for his older brother. Persuading a naïve village girl to sign the papers should be easy for someone with Samir’s tabloid-famous charm. But Mili is neither a fool nor a gold-digger. Open-hearted yet complex, she’s trying to reconcile her independence with cherished traditions. And before he can stop himself, Samir is immersed in Mili’s life—cooking her dal and rotis, escorting her to her roommate’s elaborate Indian wedding, and wondering where his loyalties and happiness lie.
Samir, as well, appealed quite a lot to this reader. He’s smart, sexy, and successful, without being obnoxious. And he can cook! (what can I say? An alpha hero who can cook just turns me turn into a big puddly-pool!) Plus, the issues he has to grapple with from his past, rounds out his otherwise sigh-worthy perfection.
Miss Dev’s depiction of first-generation and second-generation immigrant milieu and experiences are also spot-on (and also, quite funny). Sample this:
But even though Ravi was Indian he came from South India, while Ridhi’s family hailed from the North Indian state of Punjab. Ridhi’s father took such pride in his Punjabi heritage that the idea of his daughter associating herself with a South Indian boy had quite literally given him a heart attack.
While times are changing, I know that the above still holds true for a vast majority. On the very same page, one of Miss Dev’s character also says:
“Daddy’s stuck in the seventies,” Ridhi had told Mili. “That’s when he first came to America.”
As someone who’s been baffled by some of the conversations that I’ve had with my older relatives, who moved to U.S. a decade or so earlier, I have had the exact same thought cross my mind. I guess it can be hard to imagine that the country you left behind might have moved on, and changed, as well.
Then there’s the scene where Mili is trying to tell a man that he shouldn’t put his bicycle near the dumpster. She has trouble communicating with him even though they’re speaking the same language. Mili’s formal words and the man’s colloquialism makes for two almost different languages.
This attention to detail is evident in scene after scene. And not just the ones that deal with a diaspora-like element. For instance, I was touched by the way Samir handles Mili’s embarrassment when he realizes that she doesn’t really have the money to pay for her doctor’s bill. Or the scene where Mili “hurries” Samir into finishing his tea:
He took a long sip of the tea. “Are you going to walk to college then?” he asked lazily.
She unfroze. “Nope. You’re driving me.” She smiled and pushed the teacup to his lips to hurry him up. The moment he was done, she snatched the cup away, put it in the sink, and dragged him out of her apartment.
There’s something achingly intimate about the way she just “hurries” the teacup to his lips, without giving it a second thought. And I guess that’s the other thing I loved about the book—this slow building-up of the romance between our hero and heroine.
I am a sucker for stories where the romance grows organically, of-course-sly, right in front of my eyes. And no I don’t feel that that’s how it happens in all the books belonging to the romance genre. Most of the times I end up feeling slightly cheated—as if the romance is unfolding because the author decreed it so rather than because of anything that the characters say or do. So a story where romance seems like the natural next step just fills my heart with gladness.
I’ll end this with a scene that caused me to laugh out loud. Literally. In a plane. Next to a sleeping husband. Who couldn’t stop laughing either once I read it out to him:
She [Ridhi] was dressed in an ankle-length tie-dye skirt with a heavy embroidered border and a heavily embellished tube top.
“Wow, you look, umm stunning,” Mili said.
It wasn’t untrue, but it was kind of risqué for your wedding day, even for Ridhi. . . .
Before Mili could respond, there was a loud gasp behind her.
“Ridhika. Sagar. Kapoor! Has your brain taken a complete trip to Timbuktu?” . . .
“Mummy, have you gone completely mad? What are you freaking out about now? . . . What’s wrong with this? You told me to wear something casual for the henna ceremony. So I wore casual.”
“I said casual, not Chandini-Chowk-whore slutty! Brainless daughter of an oaf.” . . .
Ridhi yanked her ankle-length skirt all the way up to her thighs and looked down at it. “How is this slutty? It touches the floor. You can’t even see my toes.”
Her mother pinched the half of her breast that pushed up from her tube top. “What about these? You want your in-laws to see your mangoes? Save those for the man who’s going to eat them,” she hissed.
And that dear readers is just one of the many funny scenes from the book. In case it isn’t clear let me say it out loud: A Bollywood Affair has become one of my favorite reads of 2014. Go, grab it for yourself!
P.S. It is also, ahh, so ripe for movie adaptation methinks! Big Bollywood-Hollywood producers, are you listening?