Melting Pot Challenge: India and Indian Characters

Haunting Jasmine 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

34 thoughts on “Melting Pot Challenge: India and Indian Characters

  1. In addition to these books, I remember reading back in 2010 or so that Mills & Boon was seeking Indian authors to write books for Mills & Boon India. I would be curious to see if some of these make it to the UK or US markets.

    • I hope they do make these available to UK and US markets. The one Harlequin book I read about a Bollywood actress was written by an Irish author and while it was certainly good it lacked some of the depth that I think having an Indian writer would have added.

    • I too am curious to see what Mills & Boon will publish from India. I read somewhere that they were only interested in urban Indian settings, so most of the books will likely be set in Mumbai, Delhi, and similar cities.

      Shobhan Bantwal

  2. Maggie,
    Thank you for the great comments about my book, THE FULL MOON BRIDE, and for recommending it to your readers.

    I’m a big fan of Anjali Banerjee’s books myself, so I’m delighted to see my friend and fellow author showcased here. I’m also a Chitra Divakaruni fan, so it’s good to see her books here as well.

    Shobhan Bantwal

    • Shobhan,

      Thanks so much for posting! I didn’t get a chance to read “The Reluctant Matchmaker” before writing this blog but I have it on my TBR. It looks like a wonderful story.

      Ms. Banerjes’s books are great aren’t they? They always leave me with a positive feeling after putting them down. I think of them as “happy” books – you feel happier after reading them.

  3. Thanks Maggie for the recommendations. I really enjoy Sarah Addison Allen’s books so I am definitely intrigued with Ms. Banerjee’s books.

  4. There are two books set in India which are fimly on the keeper shelf. The first is Zemindar, as already mentioned, and the second is Parson Harding’s Daughter by Caroline Harvey (Joanna Trollope). See my review on amazon.com as Susan Smith. It’s a real treasure of a book. I am due for a re-read …………….

  5. You can find my DIK review of Shadow of the Moon on AAR. I much prefer it to The Far Pavilions. An interesting fact about The Far Pavillians is that one of her major supporting characters is based on a relative of her husband. He’s a very endearing character.

    Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet is not a happy set of books. Watch the series if you must, but romance fans might find the books much too unhappy.

    Not a romance, but there is a delightful children’s book set in modern India, Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelen. It’s about a very young bride (aged about 12) who is dumped by her husband’s parents when he dies. How she survives this situation is very inspiring, since she has no social standing as a widow, is cast off by her own family, and has no means to support herself. (And the cover of the book is beautiful.)

    • There are also many children’s books about India and/or Indians and Indian-Americans, written my Indian or Indian-American authors. You can find a list of books on Mitali Perkins’s website (her novels are great): http://www.mitaliperkins.com/bookshelfr.html. She reviewed my first novel, MAA RUNNING, which is about growing up as an Indian immigrant in Canada.

      Uma Krishnaswami is another great children’s book author. She reviews children’s books as well: http://www.umakrishnaswami.com/

      For adults, Indian authors I’ve enjoyed are also Anita Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala… And I loved Rumer Godden’s stories about growing up in India (The River, and so on).

      • @AAR Lynn et al
        Yes yes yes! Shadow of the Moon is at the top of my DIK list. I first read The Far Pavilions and then “found” Shadow. Another much enjoyed title with an Indian main character was Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Mrs. Ali was wonderful – and even more enjoyable in audio format…wait, I should be posting with Lea on AudioBooks!

  6. MM Kaye was a master wasn’t she? I wish more people would be exposed to her mystery series. The Death In books are among my favorite reads of hers.

  7. Another vote here for MM Kaye’s books set in India! Loved Shadow of the Moon as well as The Far Pavilions. I haven’t read the other books you mentioned but am eager to try them now.

  8. Bangs hand on head, with apologies … of course, FOUR VOLUMES of the Raj QUARTET, that’s why they call it a quartet! They are bricks though …

    • I’ve been meaning to read these but am intimidated by their size at this point. Hopefully soon??

  9. I too read THE FAR PAVILIONS when I was in high school and loved it, so I would definitely recommend it, and second Meredith Duran’s DUKE OF SHADOWS, as well as the Willig. Now, as for Mistress of Spices, Aishwarya Rai, the stunning Indian actress, is in a fairly decent film version of it. But for a great film starring Rai and in fitting with the theme here, everyone ought to watch BRIDE AND PREJUDICE, a Bollywood-style version of Austen’s classic that’s also a musical! Really, a delight. And finally, if you’re not up to slogging through all SIX! volumes of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, I recommend the television series, THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN, a love story at its core, albeit a tragic one, but masterfully done. Beats (GASP!!) Downton Abbey (though I love it) for history, atmosphere, romance, acting! (except for Maggie Smith, of course) hands down.

    • I almost mentioned Bride and Prejudice in my post! but this is a book blog.:-) I do love that film though and re-watch fairly regularly. I love that dance scene when they first arrive in India. I have seen sever of Ms. Rais’s films including, the movie version of Mistress of Spices. I didn’t love that movie but the book is fantastic. A really refreshing and original paranormal.

  10. Maggie,

    Thank you for this informative and fascinating post, and thank you for the lovely review of HAUNTING JASMINE – and for recommending my books. My current release, ENCHANTING LILY, is a departure from the Indian-American theme, focusing instead on the way a cat helps a young widow emerge from her isolation. Part of the book is narrated from the cat’s point of view, and the romance element is actually secondary to the main storyline, which is more about a woman recovering from grief.

    However, I love the books you’ve mentioned. I recently blurbed a novel called AND LAUGHTER FELL FROM THE SKY by Jyotsna Sreenivasan, and I also endorsed SECRET DAUGHTER by Shilpi Somaya Gowda (a mainstream bestseller!). There are so many good books out there. So many books, so little time. Thanks again!

    • Thank you so much for posting! These two books look really good, I’ll be sure to pick them up.

  11. Olivia and Jai by Rebecca Ryman
    The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott
    Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran
    The Betrayal of the Blood Lily by Lauren Willig

    • I have all the Lauren Willig books on my TBR. I plan to get to the first one sometime this month!

      • Lauren’s books are great, she has a fantastic sense of humor which shines through all her characters. I am a Pink Fan from the get go and it’s been such fun reading her series. Don’t dally, get reading!

    • Lauren, I have Zemindar on hold at the library. And thank you so much for the list, it looks great!

    • Zemindar is my favorite book and when I get homesick for it, I re-read it. I can’t count how many times I’ve read it. It grieves me that Valerie Fitzgerald seems to have never written anything else.

  12. Loved The Far Pavilions (as well as M.M. Kaye’s other book set in India, Shadow of the Moon) as well as Veils of Silk.

    Liz Carlyle’s newest, The Bride Wore Pearls, has a heroine who is from India who moves to London with her two sons after her Scottish husband’s death.

    Deanna Raybourn’s Dark Road to Darjeeling was set in India. And large parts of Lauren Willig’s The Betrayal of the Blood Lily were set there too.

    • I will have to try The Bride Wore Pearls. And Shadow of the Moon is an old favorite. I also loved Death in Kashmir, another of her books set in Inida.

  13. I did read ” A Good Indian Wife” but I have to be honest and say that the Alpha Jerk Hero – was just too much for me – I personally wanted to hit him over the head and slap him around for a while – I didn’t think he deserved the HFN/HEA he got at the end – I did however love the heroine of the story – I just think she deserved a much better hero. I don’t read a lot of Indian romance – mostly because we don’t have a bookstore close anymore where I go to browse – I do most of my shopping online. I’ll have to read Haunting Jasmine by Anjali Banerjee and her other books you’ve recommended…it sounds as if I would enjoy those a lot.

    • Do try the Banerjee books. I am certain you will like them.

      And I do agree about Neel – he made me want to slap him around for much of the book!

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