Lalitha Subramanian, June 2, 2013, DHNS: 19:51 IST
In an interview to an American blogger Dianne Ascroft, Indian-American author Shobhan Bantwal reveals that her romance novels, written for a wide audience of varying ethnicities, are primarily aimed at the non-Indian reader.
The Indian-American woman is already living the immigrant experience, and hence not the target audience. But, funnily enough, Bantwal’s books have apparently found takers among the second-third generation of Indian-Americans, well-rooted in the US cultural soil.
And most importantly, Bantwal herself refers to her fiction as ‘Bollywood in a book’. She differentiates herself from ‘serious Asian authors who write serious literary novels’. Bantwal’s novels offer fun, romance, plot and colourful characters — in short (my take), a Karan Johar flick in a book.
The caveat above is being offered to forestall easy dismissal of a book that wears a basic Desi-Indian chick-lit robe, and yet manages to evolve into a decent page-turner with some fine characterisation (particularly Akka, the feisty old liberated Indian grand-aunt who helps in the story’s resolution).
Initially, the Indian edition of this 2012 US publication did not particularly entice me. The US edition had an intriguing (though irrelevant) cover — a painting of a woman in a haveli. The Indian edition portrays two hands cupping a red rose. Could it get more boring? Well, the heroine likes red roses, true; but this office-romance deserves a more edgy and apt cover.
To get on with the book — protagonist and narrator Meena Shenoy, 31, petite (5 feet), single (to the dismay of her frantic Indian parents), employed with an Indian firm that looks very much like a Karan Johar film scenario (set in America, employing many Indians and a token American or two) — this New Jersey-based heroine is in for some heartbreak — for she has fallen literally and headlong in love with her six-and-a-half-feet-tall big boss, the strong and silent Prajay Nayak. The two actually collide physically at the workplace, result being a painful sprain for our little lady. Mr Boss ferries her to and from work for a few days (probably afraid of being sued by the employee) and what results is a beautiful friendship which is surely transforming into love, as far as Meena is concerned. Meena’s parents too are well-pleased with the state of affairs, since the two lead characters both happen to be (conveniently enough) Gowd Saraswat Brahmins. Which is why it gets amusing for the reader, and shocking for the heroine, when boss-man makes his strange request — could Meena play matchmaker and help him find a tall Indian-American woman to suit him? He would pay for her pains.
What follows is a Mills & Boon tale set in a US-based Indian software company; add-ons include side-stories about a brother’s discomfiting romance, a calculating IIT alumnus colleague named Deepak Iyer, a fun and empathetic friend called Ajit Baliga, a doctor mother who is still too traditional for our girl’s taste, and of course, the story-saver — the cool aunt, wise, old, young at heart, a good piece of characterisation.
The story hops on to its expected culmination, but one does not get bored. It’s a suitable book for a longish trip. Along the way there is much that adds value to a mundane tale — some intriguing similes (A phone call from Prajay has Meena’s heart “leaping like a toad”); perceptive pen — portraits of young Indians in the US (Meena contrasts Deepak — “petty, covetous and a bit vicious” — with the big-hearted average Anoop); warm family scenes involving traditional parents trying to understand their bred-in-America kids; some bits of much-needed humour (the perennial health food lists of a caring gay partner), but to me, any value in the book lies beyond the love story — which comes across as just about all right.
Even the love story is ok, but a few lines rankled; I liked the character sketches overall, but was disappointed to read this rather regressive-ageist thought from Meena, about her older colleague, Pinky (Priyanka) — “Besides, as a forty-year-old mother of two young boys, Pinky didn’t really need to look chic. She’d bagged her man sixteen years ago, and he apparently loved her, spare tyres and all.”
Really Ms Bantwal, that wasn’t a great thought from a modern Meena; even in your old home country India, a mother/grandma tries to look chic — for herself, not others. Thankfully, Meena’s attitude gets redressal, when she is ticked off by her mother — for speaking insensitively — about ‘FOB Indians’ (new arrivals in the US).
The love story rushes on to a climax, quite convoluted and filmy, but acceptable.
What is not acceptable though is a poorly constructed/edited line like the following: “I ate vegetable soup and sandwiches made of mint-coriander chutney and sliced tomatoes with my parents”.
Still, the book works — as a slice of NRI life. It’s also a potential Bollywood film.