he minute I spotted Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary on the “New Reads” table at Chapters, I was intrigued. I’d always loved fictional diaries, and this one, about a neurotic British 20-something on a journey to find Mr. Right, seemed right up my alley.
I picked it up. A few pages later, I was on the phone with my boyfriend, alternately reading him whole passages and dropping the phone because I was laughing so hard.
Fielding’s unstoppable wit and well-honed sense of absurdity made Bridget Jones into what she was—a hilarious but eminently relatable heroine. As more and more Jones knockoffs came out, I devoured each with eager anticipation, hoping for another that successfully emulated Fielding’s magic formula. Unfortunately, none of them did.
Thus, I have mixed feelings about chick lit, that breed of books spawned by Bridget Jones. While they all follow the “conventions” of the original book—urban working girl finds a guy, keeps losing him due to a series of hilarious misunderstandings, then is finally united with him at the end—none stayed true to the sassy, zany spirit of the original.
That’s why when nirali asked me to explore how South Asian writers were making their mark on this genre, I was a bit wary. Looking at the pile of South Asian chick lit books on my bedside table (which I affectionately termed “Masala Chick Lit”), I wondered if they would be any different from their watered-down Western counterparts. Would I find some gems that were not only funny and feisty, but also portrayed the South Asian experience in a fresh way? Or would the mixture of chick lit cliché with South Asian stereotype just lead to tired, predictable stories where neurotic young heroines met patriarchal Indian husbands? As I dug my way through the pile, I found a bit of both. Some highlights:
One of These Books is Just Like the Others…
nirali staffers have noticed that almost all book covers by South Asian authors have a few elements in common: The ubiquitous sari patterns (usually red and gold), the bottom-half-of-the-face photo of a traditional Indian woman dressed in Indian clothes and jewelry, mangoes, and the jars of Indian spices. It’s like a neon sign on every book that says “FOR DESIS ONLY.” Note to book publishers: Time to freshen up the image a little, don’t you think?
Book number one, Sonia Singh’s Bollywood Confidential, is probably the most classic example of chick lit. It opens with a bang: Our heroine, LA-born Raveena Rai, is hiding on the floor of a Bombay slum as police storm the building.
From there, we learn how Raveena got there in the first place. A D-list actress from Orange County, Raveena decides to take up a popular Bollywood director’s offer and star in his next film after he spots her in a Japanese commercial for a super-absorbent tampon the length and width of a toothpick (“The Vagistu!”). One by one, Raveena’s dreams of stardom deteriorate as she flies to Bombay (on—gasp!—coach), moves in with her reclusive uncle and works under a lecherous and obnoxious director. The only redeeming part of the experience is her co-star, Siddharth, the most famous actor in Bollywood. …Cue romance here.
Singh’s take on chick lit works because it doesn’t take itself too seriously—she slips in plenty of witty one-liners to ensure the reader knows that her ridiculous twists of plot and wacky characters are all written with tongue in cheek. And the true-to-life details she incorporates (such as Raveena’s growing addiction to popular Indian soft drink Thums Up or the street kids hawking copies of Harry Potter) add color and life to the story and keep it from feeling like a cardboard cut-out. It’s a great book to take on vacation—although you might read the whole thing while you’re waiting to board the plane.
Would I find some gems that were not only funny and feisty, but also portrayed the South Asian experience in a fresh way? Or would the mixture of chick lit cliché with South Asian stereotype just lead to tired, predictable stories where neurotic young heroines met patriarchal Indian husbands?
Compare that to the second book on my list, The Village Bride of Beverly Hills by Kavita Daswani. While the writing was compulsively readable, this book took the standard conventions of chick lit and threw in all the conventions (read: millstones) of South Asian writing: overbearing in-laws, patriarchal husbands and arranged marriages. Delhi bride Priya Sohni moves to the Silicon Valley to live with her new husband and the big, bad in-laws. Her husband, Deepak, assures her that all she has to do is “obey them, keep quiet, smile and everything will be great,” which means that she cooks, cleans and caters to their every need. When her job as a receptionist for a gossip magazine leads to a promotion as celebrity reporter, she keeps it a secret because her in-laws won’t approve. What follows is an extended series of mix-ups and misunderstandings until Priya’s new job is revealed. Problems ensue, sending her running back to Delhi with Deepak running after her.
The problem? Daswani hasn’t added anything original to the typical desi/chick lit love child that hasn’t already been done. The plot—Indian girl marries American guy and moves to the U.S.—is nothing new, and although the launch of her gossip career had potential, it was completely improbable and there were none of Singh’s one-liners to help suspend my disbelief. Not to mention that the strong romance novel overtones throughout the story also put me off: The poor village girl is exploited by her in-laws and ignored by her boorish husband until she finally takes a stand, at which point her husband runs back to her, tail between his legs: “I’m so clueless … Things don’t come out of my mouth the way they’re supposed to … we are equals. Actually, you are better than me. I need you to teach me how to do this.” The verdict? Heavy on the trite and predictability, light on the wit and absurdity.
Amulya Malladi introduced me to a new style of chick lit that loosely follows the conventions, but with more complex characters, intricate plot development, and a generous dose of reality thrown in. This is Chick Lit 2.0, and it’s where I found the most satisfying reads.
Matters didn’t improve with my third selection, Anjali Banerjee’s Imaginary Men. Although funny and entertaining in places, the book falls prey to the same tired Indian stereotypes and predictable plots. Heroine Lina Ray, a professional matchmaker in San Francisco, buckles under the pressure at her sister’s wedding in Kolkata and announces to her family that she is engaged in order to prevent an arranged marriage to an odious suitor. Back in San Fran, Lina has six months to dig up a phantom fiancé for her Aunt Kiki to approve. Several wacky dates and unsuitable matches later, Lina ends up falling for the same man she met at her sister’s wedding—a Bengali prince, natch. His questionable comments (“She must be an excellent cook, hardworking, willing to care for children and my mother”) are smoothly glossed over as she realizes he is Mr. Right and attempts to get him to call off his arranged marriage to a Bengali princess. Gee, I wonder who will get him in the end?
Sure, the story is mildly entertaining, with episodes from Lina’s matchmaking business forming a nice subplot, but this book also falls victim to too many Indian stereotypes and not enough originality.
I finished Imaginary Men a little perplexed. I’d had enough of the traditional chick lit fluff to be devoured in one sitting. I was tired of the recycled plots and themes, the sexist husbands, the overblown weddings. Most of these books had about as much novelty as a third-rate Bollywood movie. Where were the deeper, more original reads? Didn’t “Masala Chick Lit” have more to offer than this? Fortunately for me, the next book on my list, Serving Crazy with Curry by Amulya Malladi, introduced me to a new style of chick lit that loosely follows the conventions, but with more complex characters, intricate plot development and a generous dose of reality thrown in. This is Chick Lit 2.0, and it’s where I found the most satisfying reading for this piece.
Serving Crazy with Curry was a good place to start. The story begins with a heaping dose of reality as protagonist Devi Veturi tries to take her life by slitting her wrists in the bathtub. After being rescued by her mother (which Devi sees as both a blessing and a curse), she moves in with her parents to begin the long road to recovery. Unwilling to speak after the incident, Devi discovers that cooking helps her unlock the feelings she has bottled inside. She uses the fantastic and unusual meals she makes to express her grief and guilt about the secret ordeals that led to her attempted suicide. This is a well-paced read with a surprising twist at the end, and while it does touch upon traditional Indian topics (arranged marriage, overbearing mothers, etc.) it deals with them in a thoughtful and original way.
Serving Crazy with Curry also introduced a popular theme amongst these second-gen chick lit books—heroines using art in some form to deal with the tragedies of their lives. Just as Devi uses cooking to get her past her issues, Nina Savani uses art to deal with her best friend’s suicide in Preethi Nair’s Beyond Indigo. Fulfilling her parents’ dreams by working as an art lawyer, Nina walks out of the pretentious world of art and into her apartment to find her fiancé cheating on her. Feeling lost and confused, Nina eventually discovers painting as a way to deal with the uncertainty of life as well as the grief she still feels from her best friend’s death a year ago. As her work starts to gain recognition in the art world, it becomes harder and harder to keep the secret of her new career from her family. The complex emotions Nair deals with in the novel as well as her sharp sense of humor make it a compelling and satisfying read.
The final book in this generation of chick lit is the more literary Bharti Kirchner’s Pastries. This is a much slower, quieter book, centered around baker and café owner Sunya Malhotra’s battle against corporate giant Cakes Plus in her friendly Seattle neighborhood. Though Kirchner’s writing has a quiet, reflective tone to it, it belies how much is actually going on at once. At one point in the novel, Sunya is fighting Cakes Plus while getting over her boyfriend who moves in with another woman while she is starting to date a Hollywood director in town to shoot a movie about the WTO conference while a blond-haired loiterer drops off a card for a mysterious bakery located in Japan while her mother plans to marry a man Sunya detests while Sunya searches for her biological father who left her at birth while an obscure Buddhist sect in Japan is trying to search her out. Whew! Due to Kirchner’s artful writing style, the myriad plots aren’t often overwhelming, but there are points in the story where I just needed to take a breath and backtrack. But that’s a minor point in comparison with the really lovely aspect of this novel: No arranged marriages, relatives from the homeland or recipes for mango chutney. In fact, the story probably focuses more on Japanese culture than any South Asian one. And the change is refreshing.
Looking back on my stack of Masala Chick Lit, I realized I was glad that I gave chick lit another try. Sure, I came across plenty of old standards in my reading, but I also found some funny, fresh writing that tackled age-old South Asian themes in charming, thoughtful and original ways. Despite this, my heart still lies with traditional fiction—and this is where I think South Asians have made their biggest mark. So watch out for my review of South Asian fiction’s more literary side in the December issue.