Janine: About the time we had the discussion of diversity in Harlequin’s romances here at DA, Suleikha Snyder made a couple of thoughtful comments on Twitter, and that got me interested in her volume of two connected stories, a novella called Spice and Smoke.
Spice and Smoke is set in the world of Bollywood cinema and features Indian characters. Since I’ve never been to India or even watched a Bollywood film (except for the snippets I’ve caught on the television monitors in Indian restaurants, Bride and Prejudice is the closest I’ve gotten; I’ve also seen a couple of Mira Nair films), I was glad when I spotted Spice and Smoke on Sunita’s goodreads TBR shelf. I shot off an email asking Sunita if she’d be interested in reviewing the book together. While I can review the book from the perspective of someone who is unfamiliar with the characters’ culture, I felt Sunita, who has lived in India, would bring a better informed perspective to the review.
Sunita: I started Spice and Smoke a little while ago and put it aside, but I wanted to get back to it. I should state at the outset that I am not a big fan of Bollywood movies. I have been to my share, both as a child and as an adult, but I never became a devotee. I’ve probably seen more Bollywood films I liked from the 1950s and 1960s (from watching with my Aunties) than I have from the more recent era.
That said, my hometown is Mumbai and as a kid I carpooled to school with the children of a very well known Bollywood actor. It’s impossible to live there and not know the industry at least a little.
Janine: As mentioned previously, Spice and Smoke is a novella-length volume of two interlinked stories. Because of the way this volume is constructed, we’ll review the first story and then the second.
The first story, Bombay Dreams, comprises Part I of the book and features two romances, one M/M and one M/F. The attraction is instantaneous and intense when Avinash Kumar and Michael Gill meet on the set of a historical epic called The Raj. Trishna Chaudhury and Harsh Mathur also co-star. They have known each other, and loved each other, since they starred in the same television show as teenagers.
The rub is that Avi and Trish are married, not to their other co-stars, but to each other. It is a marriage that allows Avi the freedom to take other lovers (often while Trishna watches), but it is not a marriage in name only.
One of the conflicts in this quadrangle is that Avi is partly closeted. He has no problem fucking other men, but he denies that he can love anyone but his wife. Still, he desperately wants Michael, and Michael won’t settle for less than love, nor does he want to see Trish hurt. He’s determined not to sleep with Avi no matter how hard Avi tries to seduce him.
Trish, meanwhile, is suffering in her marriage to Avi. She loves him but feels he is incapable of fully returning her love. Trish has also been in love with Harsh for years. She loved him as a teen yet Harsh did not reciprocate. Thus, Trish, though a glamorous, much desired movie star, feels doubly unloved. She doesn’t realize that Harsh denied himself her love because coming from a working class background, he never felt worthy of a Bollywood princess.
There’s good writing in Spice and Smoke. Here’s a scene between Avi and Michael that takes place early on, when Avi has sought some privacy with Michael on the pretext of wanting a smoke.
“So there’s some history between Harsh and Trishna, yeah?” Michael observed.
“My father-in-law took Harsh under his guidance when he was on A Handful of Star with her.” He shrugged, knowing that Michael didn’t need to hear all about Trish’s years of unrequited passion. “They were just kids, na? He played her brother, Chaudhury-saab helped launch him, but they’re not friends. We don’t socialize.”
“Hmm.” Michael tucked his cigarette behind his ear instead of between his perfect lips. “He wants to fuck her.”
His fingers slipped, and he burned himself on a light. “What?”
“You don’t see it?” Michael’s brows drew together and he tilted his head, as if calling forth images of Harsh and Trishna for himself. “He tries so hard not to look at her, not to notice her. I was surprised he didn’t snap from the effort. When he said she looked great… it was so bloody obvious that he was forcing himself to be casual.”
”Bahenchod!” Avi swore, only realizing the irony when Michael laughed. Sisterfucker. Oh. Right. “I swear to God, if he lays a hand on her I’ll kill him. This is the last thing Trish needs, some asshole messing with her head.”
Laughter quickly faded into something more somber. “What are you doing out here with me, Avinash, if not playing games? I don’t want to be some pawn in the middle of your marriage. I don’t sneak around, I don’t do that bullshit.”
This scene illustrates a lot of what I liked about Spice and Smoke. The dialogue feels real. So do the characters who have flaws and/or vulnerabilities. The three relationships introduced in Bombay Dreams, Michael/Avi, Avi/Trishna, Trishna/Harsh, are intertwined and a development on each front impacts the others. And the story doesn’t always go in the expected direction. I especially liked that even though Avi strikes me as more gay than bisexual, he still feels irate at the news that Harsh is hot for his wife.
Sunita: I agree with that assessment; he truly loves Trishna, but he isn’t interested in women in general. Being gay, as an identity, hasn’t been an option for Indian men until very recently and it’s still quite difficult. In his sexual preferences Avi seems almost exclusively drawn to men. I interpreted his character as making an exception for Trishna.
Janine: That’s how I saw him too. Aside from the pluses I mentioned above, I also loved the moviemaking milieu and the fact that Spice and Smoke dared to be different. I don’t believe I have read another contemporary romance set in India.
At the same time, there were also some things that got in the way of my enjoyment of the story. I’m not sure if it’s a fault in the novella or a fault in me, but some of these were due to my unfamiliarity with the cultural context.
Early on in Spice and Smoke, the characters fantasized themselves into scenes from Bollywood movies. Since I was unfamiliar with these movies, I found this jarring and disruptive to my enjoyment. I imagine that a Bollywood fan might enjoy these little homages, but for me they chopped up the flow of the story because they didn’t move the plot forward. Since more than one character fantasized him or herself into these scenes, it also felt more like an authorial hand at work than like a natural outgrowth of any one character’s situation and desires.
Sunita: They’re well known, even iconic films, so Bollywood fans should recognize them easily. But for someone who isn’t familiar, I can see how their use might be disruptive to the reading experience.
Janine: Later on in the book, these fantasies are replaced by scenes from the movie the foursome are filming. This worked much better for me because The Raj had a storyline I had been introduced to in Bombay Dreams, and also because the movie was the characters’ work project.
The dialogue includes some words in what I assume is Hindi. I liked the flavor that this added, and in many cases I was able to work out the meaning from context. Still, there were times I couldn’t figure out the meaning and wished I knew exactly what the characters were saying.
Sunita: Yes, it’s Hindi. It’s always difficult to integrate a second language into a story when you don’t think most readers will understand it. I think the choices made here didn’t work. Almost all the Hindi is repeated in English. This means that the characters repeat the words in speech or in internal monologues. If you don’t know Hindi, you may not realize that the repetition is occurring, in which case you won’t know that you’re not missing anything. For those who do understand, it’s a weird echo. I think an author’s note explaining the translation choice would have helped.
A second problem I had was that the integration of Hindi and English didn’t always work for me. Some of the words and phrases rang true, but at other times it didn’t sound to my ears the way bilingual Indians talk. It sounded more like the VJs on MTV India, which is a stylized type of speech. I also wasn’t sure if they were supposed to be speaking Hindi most of the time and that was the reason for the high proportion of Hindi phrases and sentences, or if they were supposed to be mixing Hindi and English. If they were supposed to be mixing, then they were using certain words (like Amrika) that one would use when speaking an Indian language, but not when speaking English (“US” is more common).
Janine: It didn’t even occur to me to wonder about that. In my case, my ignorance of Indian society’s social mores hampered my enjoyment in places. For example, I gleaned from things said in the story that there is less acceptance of openly LGBTQ people in India than there is in the US. I would have liked to have a better understanding of what the repercussions of coming out might be for male Bollywood star, since this was one of the things that kept Avi closeted.
Sunita: Historically not only has there been no place for LGBTQ people in Indian society, failing to assume the role of spouse and parent is a rejection of a major part of Hinduism and raises all kinds of religious and societal complications. There is a well-studied caste of trans* Hindus, called hijras, but they are a distinct category and separate from lesbian, gay, and bisexual Indians.
Janine: That’s fascinating and I wish I’d known it going in. Similarly, since Harsh’s motive for keeping silent about his feelings for Trish was the difference in their background, I wished I knew more about the degree to which class consciousness impacts couples in India today. I didn’t have that much sympathy for Harsh’s “I’m not worthy” reasons for keeping away from Trish for years, even though he loved her. It’s not a favorite romance trope of mine because I don’t find it particularly believable. In my experience, when you love someone, you’re willing to fight to be with them. It wasn’t until late in the novella that I realized my unfamiliarity with the social/cultural context might be impacting me in making that judgment against Harsh.
Sunita: They’re from different states and different sub-castes, but the way I read his hesitation was as the standard “she’s a star, I’m a self-made man” thing. Conservative Indian parents have historically balked at their children marrying out of the accepted caste categories, but Trishna’s parents are anything but conservative if they’re Bollywood royalty who allowed their daughter to become an actress.
Janine: Avi’s comment to Michael about Trishna’s father aiding Harsh made me feel her parents would have accepted Harsh, but Harsh had stayed away from Trishna for so long that I wasn’t sure whether there was a real social barrier there making him feel unworthy of her, or just an inferiority complex keeping him distant.
This brings me to the biggest issue I had with Spice and Smoke, one that has nothing to do with my ignorance of India: pacing. I feel that a slower pace would have allowed the author to communicate more information about the social context to readers as well as to flesh out the characters and their relationships.
Even though I wasn’t that fond of Harsh, I liked the other three quarters of the quadrangle/foursome and was especially fascinated with the way Trish and Avi’s marriage functioned. I would have liked to know a whole lot more about it, since Trish and Avi had both complexity and charisma. I also wanted all the relationships between the four develop more slowly. The actual falling in love, one of the best things in a romance, felt rushed to me.
Sunita: I liked Harsh more than you, but I think his character had a pretty thankless role here. He’s the straight guy pining for the married woman and he’s too upright to do anything about it until he’s basically pulled into a relationship. He’s consistently the voice of moderation, and we only have one scene where we see him lose control.
Janine: Agreed. He was just too goody two shoes for me! Avi was my favorite of the guys.
Sunita: I agree that while there was a lot of mental lusting and anguish, the fulfillment of the relationship was basically done through a few sex scenes.
Janine: We’re on the same page about the way the relationship issues were resolved, but the mental lusting felt fresh to me, which is no mean feat.
Sunita: I would have preferred less bickering, more honest talking as they got to know each other.
Janine: Yes! When I take the second story into consideration as well, I really feel that a novel’s worth of material was compressed into Spice and Smoke, with the result being that the characters and their relationships were somewhat shortchanged. The stories both felt like they were jumping hurdles quickly to get to the resolution, without allowing me as a reader much breathing room in the form of quieter moments.
I wouldn’t complain about something like this if I didn’t like the characters and the setup. I read a lot of sluggish books that make me feel less is more. Here, the problem was the reverse – I wanted more. I feel there was a great deal of potential here and I would have loved to see it developed to the fullest.
Sunita: I agree. Once the relationships were resolved, everything was fine. I found that hard to believe. And even if it were the case, it would have been rewarding to see more of how they worked out their interactions. Four strong-minded people do not achieve an emotional equilibrium that works for all of them without effort.
Janine: You’re right. The resolution didn’t feel complete.
Part II of Spice and Smoke, cleverly titled Monsoon Bedding, is shorter and starts about 57% of the way through. Monsoon Bedding takes place after the foursome from Bombay Dreams have figuratively (but not literally) worked the kinks out of their relationships. Now happy, they want others to be happy as well. But two new arrivals on the set, Sam Khanna and Vikram Malhotra, are miserable.
Sam and Vikram had a relationship years before, but Sam’s addiction killed it. Now fresh out of rehab, Sam knows he has to remain clean in order to pull off the acting role he has been given in The Raj, but Vikram’s presence on the set threatens his emotional equilibrium. The attraction between them has always been volatile, and neither has forgiven the other for the pain of their breakup.
If Sam’s stability is endangered, then so is Vikram’s heart. Years ago, Vikram loved Sam with every ounce of that organ, but Sam dumped Vikram when Vikram tried to tell Sam to clean up his act. Sam has a son, Jaidev, who was like a son to Vikram as well, but Sam has forbidden contact between them. But when Jaidev calls Vikram because he’s worried about his father, Vikram is pulled back into Sam’s sphere. Will Sam fall off the wagon and shatter Vikram’s heart again, or stay sober, admit his feelings, and mend it?
Monsoon Bedding was a simpler story than Bombay Dreams – only one relationship was front and center here – but I felt that it, too, was too short and consequently felt sketchy.
Sunita: I liked this story a lot, but I agree that it felt rushed. I was surprised that it comprised over 40 percent of the total length of the novel, because it felt much shorter than the first one when I was reading it. It was less choppy, perhaps because it had only one relationship.
Janine: Yes, or perhaps (in my case at least) because it had no classic Bollywood scene fantasies interspersed with the narrative. This was another story that made me wish I knew more about what coming out of the closet might entail for a Bollywood star. Like Avi in the earlier story, Sam seemed reluctant to admit to romantic feelings for another man, but in Sam’s case this was partly due to having been hurt by Vikram in the past, as well as to being afraid a relationship between them would mess with his sobriety. I wasn’t sure if fear of the social stigma of being identified as gay was also a factor, and if so, to what degree.
Sunita: I got the feeling that his homosexuality was an open secret in Bollywood, so he was as out as it was possible to be as an Indian actor. Think of it as comparable to gay actors in Hollywood before the 1970s and 1980s.
Janine: I see! I didn’t pick up on that. I liked Sam for feeling a blend of confusion, mixed motives and attraction. I liked that he had to fight to stay sober, and that he could sometimes be a little mean. It was cruel of Sam to forbid Vikram to remain in his son Jai’s life, but I think that happens in a lot of breakups. Still, I would have liked to see Sam’s motives for that fleshed out more – in fact I would have liked to see every aspect of Sam fleshed out more.
Vikram wasn’t as dynamic a character as Sam and I had less interest in him, but I could still sympathize with his helpless love for and vulnerability to Sam. I should note that the love scenes in Monsoon Bedding (and to a slightly lesser degree in Bombay Dreams as well) were well-written, filled with emotion, and moved the plot forward.
I had mixed feelings about Michael, Harsh, Avi and Trish’s meddling in Sam and Vikram’s relationship. At first I thought it was cute that they wanted Sam and Vikram to be as happy as they were, but after a while I got to feeling that Vikram and Sam required a little too much outside aid to mend their relationship. I would have liked to see them work out more of their conflicts by themselves.
Sunita: I found Sam more interesting than Vikram as well, but again, I thought that was as much a function of their character roles as anything. Vikram was the stable, rational one, and it’s harder to make that type as compelling, especially with a short wordcount.
Janine: I couldn’t agree more that it was a function of the character roles. Each pairing, Avi/Michael, Trish/Harsh, Sam/Vikram had one partner that was more emotional and volatile and another who was more reasonable but less compelling. I liked Avi, Trishna and Sam better than their more restrained counterparts.
I would have liked to see Michael, Harsh and Vikram given more issues of their own, but the novella wasn’t long enough for that. As you note, it’s tough to put a character in the moral, upstanding role and keep them entertaining. Michael was my favorite of these three but even with him I wasn’t fully engaged.
Another thing I would have loved to see more of in Spice and Smoke is more details about filmmaking. The more I think about it the more potential I see for these six characters’ stories to have been told well in a novel format.
Sunita: I thought the filmmaking aspects were really interesting. I know little about the actual filmmaking process, but it felt authentic and full of convincing details. I would have happily read a longer story with more of that context.
Janine: Me too. My grade for Spice and Smoke is a C/C+.
Sunita: My grade for Spice and Smoke is a B-/C+.