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Review: A Good Indian Wife by Anne Cherian

I’ve had a rather difficult time coming up with a rating for A Good Indian Wife by Anne Cherian. On one hand, once I got into the story, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and what would happen next. I was also delighted to read about aspects of life in India and the Indian immigrant experience, both of which were depicted so well (having been to India myself and engaged to marry an Indian man.) On the other hand, character development was inconsistent, the portrayal of white women in the United States was disgustingly unfair, the portrayal of Indian men in the United States was, at times, stereotypical, and the ending was reminiscent of the sad trombone that plays when someone loses on a game show – wah, wah, wahhhhhh. Wait, let me start from the beginning.

Suneel “Neel” Sarath is a successful, up-and-coming anesthesiologist in San Francisco. He has a swanky, minimalist condo, an expensive car, a plane which he shares with two other doctors, and a secretive relationship with a beautiful blonde secretary who fawns over him and fulfills all of his sexual fantasies. Neel is also an Indian man, transplanted to SFO from a village in South India, where his family still lives, and where his destiny calls in the form of letters from his pushy Amma who insists he must return to India to marry. Neel can only ignore her nagging persistence for so long because, now, the letters and phone calls that arrive from India say that his beloved Tattappa is ill. When Neel returns to his village, family drama rears its ugly head and, somehow, he ends up engaged to be married – to a girl he’s met only once!

Leila Krishna lives in a small village in South India with her parents and two younger sisters. She teaches English and literature at the local school and tries to placate her overbearing Amma, who insists she continue to meet potential suitors, despite the fact that she’s practically beyond marriageable age and that she’s been rejected time and again – likely due to the scandalizing “situation” she put her family through years ago. She is witty, well-read, kind, and beautiful, but realizes that, without a sizeable dowry, it is likely she will never marry. Then, something astonishing happens. After an awkward first meeting with handsome doctor from America, her parents are informed that the boy’s family has accepted the match, and she is engaged to be married! In one month, she’ll go from single to married, and from India to America. Perhaps her dreams will come true after all!

Back in the United States, Neel finds it very convenient to leave his unwanted, subservient wife at his empty condo, and pick back up with his secret lover, Caroline. He internally agonizes over Caroline’s lack of education, her position as a mere secretary, and his doubt at her ability to ever be intellectually stimulating enough to mix with his well-off, educated, doctor friends. This doesn’t stop him, however, from giving Caroline his BMW, from taking her out for fancy dinners, and from taking her on exciting weekend trips to Reno in his airplane. Most of all, it doesn’t stop him from having sex with her any chance he gets. Dear readers, Neel is NOT a sympathetic or likeable character!

Meanwhile, Leila must deal with the aftershock of leaving all she has ever known to spend the rest of her days with a man she barely knows; a man who “works late” most nights, doesn’t touch her at all, and barely contains his derision when he’s with her, even amongst his friends. She eventually goes on to surprise both Neel and herself by taking things in stride. Despite her new husband’s constant absences and confusing behavior, Leila boldly claims her new life in San Francisco by exploring her new neighborhood, making her own friends, volunteering her time at the local women’s shelter, and writing a children’s book with dreams to be published. She is steady, determined, loyal and loving, despite the poor treatment she receives from the man she’s committed to for life.

Throughout the narrative, we learn that Neel has a bit of a fetish for white women, and that he had heavily pursued a white woman in his university years, who eventually chose her white, well-bred family over him. He is incredulous that his mother and grandfather think they know what’s best for him, and furious at having been “tricked” into an arranged marriage. Well, he will show them all! He won’t shame the family name, no, but that doesn’t mean he has to act like a married man once he and his new bride are back in SFO. Life gets in the way of his best made plans, however, and Neel begins to realize that trying to please two women is exhausting (cue sarcasm), that Caroline is rather annoying and needy (though still gorgeous), and that his Tattappa may have been right after all when he told Neel that it is best to “marry your own kind.”

While Neel is see-sawing between the two women in his life, Leila eventually wises up to the fact that he is seeing another woman, which is confirmed twice over, once when she sees them together, and again when she receives a confessional phone call from Caroline. She contemplates leaving Neel, even going back to India, but knows that she would be turned away from her parent’s home if she broke her sacred marriage vows. Instead, she chooses to carry her burdens like a “good Indian wife” is expected to do, and confides in no one about her troubles. When Leila shares life-changing news with Neel, and he receives another phone call from India, it looks like things might start to turn around for the two strangers-turned-life partners. But is it all too little, too late?

After all of that drama, dear reader, can you see why I couldn't stop reading until the end? I just had to see if Leila would ever confront Neel about his infidelity and poor treatment, or if Neel would realize how dishonorable he was being, not just to himself, but also to the two ladies in his life and to his family. I wanted to know if things got better!

I really liked Leila’s character. Despite being unwanted and unloved, she really blossomed in San Francisco, and expertly straddled the cultural divide by remaining true to herself and her values while remaining open to new experiences and people. I loved her wit and the ease with which she related to others. Her situation demands sympathy, and her reactions and behavior are credible. I do feel she may be too perfect a character, but knowing that she was raised under very strict rules about how a woman and a wife should behave, I’m willing to give her some leeway.

Neel’s character made me want to throw the book against the wall. He was so arrogant, shallow, selfish, manipulative, and most of all, he was a cheat and a liar! When he initially returns to India, he does so with a superiority complex, looking at everything through his Americanized eyes. He refuses to eat with his hands, he bemoans the lack of a proper shower, and he mentally corrects and criticizes the speech and grammar of his loved ones. He does some really rotten things to rid himself of his newly-acquired “baggage” - that is, his wife. Then, he carries on an affair with a woman he does not love or respect, a woman he keeps in hiding, a woman he knows without a doubt is not the woman he will marry.

That brings me to Caroline (pronounced “Caro-leen”), Neel’s mistress. I alternated between feeling sorry for her for being the woman who is not “good enough,” and despising her for knowingly being “the other woman.” Caroline is Neel’s blonde, beautiful secretary. We learn through Neel that she never completed her college degree, that she is a very sexual individual, that she is both clingy and willing to do anything for him, and that he never takes her out in public in their hometown. Alternatively, his former white girlfriend, Savannah, is depicted as beautiful, successful and educated, but when her family refused to accept her Indian boyfriend, she dropped him like a hot potato. So, there you are, dear reader: white women in the United States are either sexually promiscuous, uneducated bimbos or their families will not accept a man from a different ethnic or cultural background.

Speaking to Neel’s characterization, I’ve seen many white women write depressing letters to Alex of Madh-Mama, saying that their long-term Indian boyfriend has gone off to India to get engaged or married to a proper Indian girl, leaving them high and dry. Now, this obviously does happen, but it doesn’t mean I like to see Indian men portrayed as such unfeeling, unthinking characters in fiction. Perhaps I take it more personally because I am a white woman engaged to an Indian man? Make of that what you will, dear readers. My point is, Neel’s character seemed extreme in its carelessness, and I wish he had been depicted in a more balanced manner.

That brings me to the end of the book. As the page count started to thin, I found myself desperately wondering whether Neel would ever fully ‘fess up to his nasty behavior, and whether there would be enough time for some deep introspection on his part as to the role he played in the grand scheme of things. I am torn between feeling rather disgusted at the ending, and begrudgingly admitting that such an ending may very well be reality for the type of situation Neel and Leila found themselves in. If any of my fellow book lovers has read A Good Indian Wife, I’d love to discuss this with you!

A Good Indian Wife is, first and foremost, a story about an arranged marriage. It is also about the evolution of life for Indian emigrants in the United States, and the importance of honor in Indian families. Finally, this is a story about the existential struggle of many young people in India: the struggle between pursuing their desires and conforming to the expectations of their family. Overall, I enjoyed the time I spent with this story. I feel that I am more understanding of the role that family honor plays in the lives of many South Asians, and I can appreciate the (more often than not) sincere intentions behind arranged marriages.

If you’re looking for a good weekend read with a bit of dramatic Indian flair, and you’re willing to not look too deeply into both the cultural and relational implications in A Good Indian Wife, you may very well enjoy this book, too!

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