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