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JOINT REVIEW:  Spice and Smoke by Suleikha Snyder

JOINT REVIEW: Spice and Smoke by Suleikha Snyder

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.

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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+.

 

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REVIEW:  Indian Maidens Bust Loose by Vidya Samson

REVIEW: Indian Maidens Bust Loose by Vidya Samson

Sunita had already found this book and started reading it before it popped up on my radar after it was posted to our Author Open Thread for June. We had also just had an “If You Like” post hosted by one of our readers, Kim T, about South Asian romances. So the pump was primed, so to speak.

All the comments for the Open Threads show up in my mailbox and after I read the description of the plot:

“Nisha Desai is a young Indian woman who pines for romance in a country where love is in the same class as malaria, and where mates are selected using a calculator.

Normally deluged with ghastly suitors of her father’s choosing, she suddenly finds herself on the short list for a bride-seeing tour by a rich and handsome nephew of a neighbor. This is the stuff of which dreams are made.

A nightmare materializes when a very un-Indian ruffian moves in next door, complete with beard and obnoxious Harley motorcycle. He might play the bad boy in one of Nisha’s beloved romance novels, but in real life, he terrifies her.

So she tries to ignore the thundering engine of the bike while anxiously awaiting the arrival of Prince Charming–or at least, Prince Rich.

But arriving first are a long-lost black-sheep American aunt and her trouble-magnet teenage daughters. The aunt proves to be a New Age space case, while the cousins’ appetite for disasters threatens to level the city of Ahmedabad. In short order, the demented cousins instigate an elopement, a public protest, and a riot that gets Nisha thrown in jail.

Nisha’s family comes to the conclusion that while East and West may meet, sometimes they shouldn’t. The guests are seen as an invading force, equipped with weapons of mass corruption.

While Nisha wonders how she can hide her now corroded reputation from the dream suitor’s family, insanity marches on. Nisha’s father adopts a pet cow and convinces half the city it’s the reincarnation of a Hindu deity. The two
families are finally united in a common goal: to bilk thousands. The result is Madison Avenue’s idea of a religious experience, which is not a controllable situation.

Indian Maidens Bust Loose is a hilarious romantic comedy set in the land of cows, curry, and the Kama Sutra.”

I sent Sunita an email asking her, “What do you think of this one? Worth investigating or a clusterf*ck from the get go?”

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Her reply: “She has a very nice voice, funny and clever. And the people and setting are spot on, a great example of how characters can be a bit stereotyped but still on target. But it takes forever to get going, and I believe it goes into slapstick territory in the second half.” got me to take the plunge. We quickly agreed that the book was worthy of a dual review.

Well, I finished up a few other books and novellas I was interested in and then dug into “Indian Maidens.” The book is, I think, a prime example of life experiences influencing how a book will “read” to you. To Sunita, who has more experience with India and Indians than I ever will, it might have been as exciting as watching the local news or following a road map to a known destination. To me, it was almost all shiny and new.

Sunita: This is such a great point. That’s why I was so glad you decided to read the book. I immediately took to it because it was familiar, which is unusual for me in romance. But I didn’t know how a non-Indian would find it. I liked it quite a bit. It had weaknesses and the romance could have been dealt with a lot better, but the voice was really appealing to me and I’m impressed given it’s a self-pubbed book.

Jayne: Loved the voice. I think it’s one of the main strengths of the book. I agree about the romance – I think it needed more space, more hints of it earlier in the book. BUT I also think it’s got to be judged by different standards than usual Brit Chick Lit. Based on what I’ve heard and even what the book itself says, Indian women don’t have quite the same degree of freedom and would be judged more harshly if they did a lot of things that European or US women wouldn’t think twice about much less ended up drunk and knickerless after a hen night out.

Sunita: Oh absolutely. One of the aspects that resonated for me was that this felt very much like the life an Indian middle-class woman would lead. My family is upper-class and a lot more liberal, but Nisha’s family and experience are closer to the norm. Also, it’s gratifying that after bitching for so long about how books about India and Indians are frequently not good, this one gets just about everything spot on. Not just that it’s accurate, but in terms of the things the authors decided to talk about.

Jayne: I wondered about this. It was another strength of the book for me to learn – or at least I hoped I was learning – so much detail about another culture and country. It was also nice to get it in the form of the cousins being introduced to the culture instead of boring pages of exposition. I could “learn” it through their eyes.

Sunita: Oh, that’s a great point that I didn’t even think about, because I was seeing it through Nisha’s eyes. But yes, that was a very good device. And realistic; Indian-Americans go back to India with their parents on a regular basis, and while most of them are more clued in than Lauren and Amber, they are definitely visitors. She nailed that experience. I was laughing a lot. But also nodding my head.

The other advantage of having Amber and Lauren be thoroughly American is that it makes sense that the family is speaking English. There is quite a bit of dialect English in the book, but for the most part it is well done. It reflects the way Indians who are competent but not fluent speak Indian English, and the different characters have different (and appropriate) levels of fluency.

Jayne: I actually looked up information about the city while reading the book to see some of the places mentioned and get a feel for it. That’s one of the things I love about reading books set in different countries. For a native I could see how this part could be either boring or a sore spot if the author got it wrong. It did make me think of the comments to the South Asian post that native Indians might be less likely to read M&B books set there just because to them it’s “same old” stuff. But to me it was different and fascinating.

Sunita: I wasn’t bored. I was impressed. Others might be bored (for example, I liked the Indian M&B set in India last year), but I really like seeing my experiences on the page. I’m glad it came across well for you.

Jayne: You warned me that the book took a while to take off for you, I think because the first section of it involves setting up the main characters and where and how they live. Nisha and Vinita are daughters of the house and a very unhappy house it is. Papa and Ma obviously don’t get along though. They are doing what they consider to be their duty in setting up meetings with potential suitors for their daughters – both of whom have advanced degrees and are getting a teensy bit on in age. Meanwhile Nisha and Vinita loathe these meetings as they generally consider the suitors – and their parents – to be losers. As such, they’ve worked out “suitor repellent” clothes and make no effort to be attractive. Nisha views the whole proceedings with a slightly cynical eye and can judge to a nicety how things are going – almost as if she’s watching a chess match or political negotiations.

Sunita: Great summary.

Jayne:The family lives in the house of Ma’s mother who slides her observations on the situation in as if using a stiletto yet who also has the world weary air of someone who’s made her share of mistakes in the past and who assumes she’ll have to live with them. Their neighbors share with them the inconveniences of crowded Ahmedabad life including water shortages and the close confines of their community and include a chronic gossiper named Gita who delights in spreading discord and a rough-around-the-edges nephew with a loud motorcycle who’s staying next door.

Sunita: This depiction of the “society” (which is essentially like a private neighborhood) is really well done. They are similar to urban neighborhoods, or tight-knit suburban communities, but with water problems.

Jayne: As I read the book, I vacillated on what to call it. Is it Chick Lit? Or just (Indian) women’s fiction? Or a romance? At first it didn’t appear to really fit into any category as I was used to seeing books fit into these categories. It was only after finishing it that I could look back and see that it’s more Chick Lit but in this case it’s Indian Chick Lit. We have the single young woman (check) who hopes for romance (check) but who spends a lot of her time not actually dating anyone (check) and who has to deal with romantic losers (check) as well as longing for a job – instead of the usual she’s in a crappy job (check). It’s first person POV but instead of the heroine suffering from pratfalls as a way to make it funny, Nisha has a delightfully deadpan, wicked sense of humor. A lot of it is in her descriptions and word choices which lead me to sly grins and happy chuckles. Response to humor varies widely so I hesitate to say that this is a reason to search the book out but readers who enjoy subtlety might appreciate the book more.

Sunita: I really liked the author’s voice. As you say, she can be dry and deadpan, but the frustration as well as the hopefulness comes through too. With first person POV, the voice matters so much. There are otherwise good books that I’ve bailed on because I got so tired of the narrator. That didn’t happen to me here.

Jayne: A great deal of the story involves Nisha’s American cousins, how they view India and how they change Nisha – and Vinita’s – view of their world and their possibilities in it. Things Nisha is used to take on new dimensions as seen through her cousins’ eyes and things the cousins do – and goad/urge Nisha to do – change Nisha in fundamental ways, which will have a major impact later in the book. The two sets of cousins don’t always get along but I enjoyed how neither American nor Indian ways are portrayed as “right” or “wrong.” Both learn something from the way the other half does things and both sides come away with a new “world view” and blended approach to life.

Sunita: This relationship is well done too. Nisha and Vinita don’t want to be American, but they can’t help but take note of both the material things their cousins have, which they can never afford, as well as Lauren and Amber’s seemingly boundless confidence and sense of comfort in the world.

Jayne: I wasn’t quite sure how to take the subplot about Nisha’s father’s religious fundamentalism – it seems that all religions have to have them – and how a cow will move the various threads of the plot along. This section is so Indian that it probably could never take place outside of the country yet it also mirrors, to a degree, things seen in America where people can get worked up over whether or not the face of Jesus or the Virgin Mary can be seen in a piece of buttered toast.

Sunita: This subplot is both serious and funny. It’s serious because Hindu fundamentalism has fueled religious divisions and conflict in Ahmedabad and other parts of India. The asides about Muslims and what can happen to them are true. But it’s funny because sometimes the way fundamentalists behave makes you laugh.

Jayne: Here Papa has decided that a specific cow is the goddess Kamadhenu, companion of the goddess Lakshmi. Neither Nisha nor Vinita is wild about taking on cow care responsibilities especially when their father decides that the devoted will want to purchase certain cow … products as a sign of devotion. The four cousins quietly decide to dupe Papa even as the Americans bring their marketing savvy to the whole enterprise. Yet in “proving” the cow’s bona fides to the faithful, Nisha takes another giant step towards independence and gaining the eye of her eventual suitor.

Because is there a romance for Nisha? I’m used to Chick Lit books taking almost the entire length before the heroine finds her true love and finally gets together with him. However this one went almost all the way to the wire before coughing up a hero – or at least until he was revealed as the hero. This might be a deal breaker even for those used to the time frame of the romance of Chick Lit books. Usually there are noticeable hints of the true hero from early in the book and a main faux hero for most of the book. But then I had to remind myself that this is an Indian Chick Lit book and thus I had to look for less overt romance and certainly no sex.

Sunita: There is definitely more freedom for dating and premarital sex in India than there used to be, but there are still families that are quite conservative, and daughters are under the most constraints of all. So yes, I found this to be quite realistic and well depicted.

That said, I think the *story* could have introduced the hero earlier and given them some scenes together, even in this more conservative context. This lack of interaction is one of the flaws of the book for me.

Jayne: The rejected suitors serve in the role of the faux hero. The real one … yes, he’s there … took until the end to begin to reveal his emotions and intentions but just in a different way than what I’m used to.

What was purpose of the lost child Chikki, who the cousins insist on taking into the household, and the search for her parents?

Sunita: I wondered about Chikki too. One aspect of Indian society her storyline emphasized is the linguistic and cultural diversity of the country. Chikki spoke a language that no one in Nisha’s family understood, even though they spoke two Indian languages and English. India has nearly two dozen distinct languages divided between two unrelated language families. Many of the languages even use distinct and mutually unintelligible scripts.

Jayne: How realistic is Nisha’s hope for her Aunt to pay for a college education in the US?

Sunita: It’s actually pretty realistic. The exchange rates and the visa requirements make it impossible for anyone but the wealthy to go to American colleges and universities as undergraduates. And the exchange rates also make it seem to many Indians that even middle-class Americans are rich by comparison.

Jayne: Nisha and Vinita don’t turn into bra burning activists yet, in their own way, they do break free – break loose. The book has lots of plot threads and most get finished off yet a few are left open. What will happen to Ma now that her secret is out? Will Papa face the music for his actions or is good fortune what people make of it and Kamadhenu merely an inspiration for people to pin their hopes on? Will Vinita reunite with the rest of the family now that she’s turned (slightly) rebel and sought out her own happiness? And the (potential) romance for Nisha is barely started yet her future is actually wide open now.

Sunita: I thought the story tried to tie up too many loose ends in the last quarter, but that’s a common occurrence in early books by authors. And the tone of the book wobbled a little, sometimes verging on slapstick, at other times having to deal with extremely serious issues. But this is an impressive self-published book, overall.

Jayne: I thoroughly enjoyed what was essentially a trip to India for me. The city of Ahmedabad, it’s people both good and bad, the food, the religion, the customs and issues all came alive. Despite it being a first person POV book, I had no trouble discerning what the other characters were thinking when I needed to know it. To those more accustomed to it, it all might be as exciting as yet another cowboy romance set in Texas would be to me. But for those looking for something different, I recommend it as a funny, more Indian style romance that manages to entertain and yet avoid fetishization. The author takes certain universal stereotypes – strangers in a strange land, repressed younger people yearning to break free from strict parental control, trying to come home again, authoritarian parental figures, bitchy gossiper/meddler – and makes them Indian yet also leaves them accessible to non-Indians. She also makes me want to try mango shrikhand!

Sunita: I’m so glad you saw it this way. For me, this was really a trip to a familiar place. Part of my family lived in Ahmedabad when I was growing up (and still does), and I’ve done fieldwork there for years. So I had no problem picturing what the author was talking about. It’s very well done, and I think it’s a great introduction to the India that a lot of Indians live in.

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Currently this book is part of the Amazon KDP Select program which makes it exclusive to Amazon.