the scent of chai

A Good Indian Wife by Anne Cherian

I’m smack in the middle of arranging a week of festivities based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (part of the library’s campus-wide reading project), so I’ve been looking for inspiration everywhere. And, as “everywhere” usually involves some sort of book, I started looking for anything and everything on or about Italy, India, and Indonesia. A Good Indian Wife was one of my many finds, and one that I absolutely had to read at once.

Cherian’s novel explores the emotional and psychological aspects of the immigrant experience among the Indian community in the US, particularly sexism, racism, and the reasoning behind arranged marriages. What she does not do is glamorize or lend any sense of exoticism to her characters or the choices they make, resulting in a believable and complex plot that allows the reader to glimpse the awkwardness of marriage between two total strangers who are not quite sure how they found themselves together in the first place.

The novel follows the lives of two very different individuals as their paths converge and they are into a relationship that puts them both in an unfamiliar situation. Suneel Sarath, doctor and Stanford alum, wants nothing more than to become as American as possible, shedding every trace of Indianness that he can in his desire to become a true American. For self-conscious Neel, the American Dream means becoming a well-to-do, educated, American citizen with a white wife who can compensate for his cultural deficiencies. It is a Dream he cultivates every day, ignoring his family’s invitations to come home and most especially his mother’s insistent pleas that he settle down with a good girl from a good Indian family. Meanwhile,  Leila Krishnan teaches at a local college in India, earning her place in her home as she waits for a marriage offer that she is certain will never come. The eldest of three daughters, Leila feels she is a disappointment to her family, failing to do that which she is meant to do–get married to a good Indian man and have children. Well-educated and desiring nothing more but a happy life and the ability to do right by her family, Leila has long suffered under the weight of convention and her mother’s efforts to marry her off.

When Neel reluctantly agrees to travel to India to visit his ailing grandfather, it means a whole new set of possibilities and complications for him. Caught up in the whirlwind of customs he has tried to forget, Neel is unwittingly drawn into an arranged marriage with Leila. Suddenly married, he feels his American Dream slipping away and yearns to hold on to it all the more. Neel’s efforts to remain the All-American doctor he tried so hard to become challenges Leila and places her in an awkward position, that of burdensome, unwanted wife. It is a long and difficult journey for Leila and Nee,l as they learn to get along and overcome the insecurities and emotional baggage that they both carry.

Both Neel and Leila are flawed characters who suffer for their hopes and dreams. Neither is quite without fault in their hasty, unwanted marriage, though Neel’s egocentric personality and inability to ever own up to his own mistakes often make him seem the villain of the piece. However, Cherian does a great job of ensuring that Leila never becomes a victim of circumstance. Leila is aware of the challenges that can accompany an arranged marriage and is quick to act when she realizes that Neel is not the man she thought him to be when they met. Instead, she tries to make the best of a bad situation and takes control of her side of the relationship, making her presence known and gaining what independence she can in her new home.

At times, Cherian’s sudden changes between first and third-person narration is somewhat jarring, but they provide insight into Neel and Leila’s actions, making them all the more believable.

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