“A Good Indian Wife” (W.W. Norton & Co., 320 pages. $23.95), by Anne Cherian: For first- and second-generation Indo-Americans, the exercise of courting a mate can be fraught with cultural conflict.
In parts of traditional India, casual dating is still almost unheard of. When children come of marriageable age, generally about their mid-20s, parents and matchmakers collaborate to arrange a wedding for the “boy” and “girl.”
But what happens when an Indian man, long assimilated into American culture, is confronted by fiercely traditional parents who insist he marry a woman of their choosing? It’s a story that has played out countless times—in real life, in Bollywood and now in fine literary form by fiction newcomer Anne Cherian.
Raised in India and educated in part in California, Cherian has written a tale that will be familiar to Indo-Americans and intriguing to Westerners.
In “A Good Indian Wife,” Cherian tells the story of Neel, a Stanford University-educated doctor who is proud of the American life he has carved out for himself. He never told his parents about the blond vixen he dated in school, nor of the white secretary he’s been seeing for the past three years.
His mother frets half a world away, bowed under by social pressure from a community that wonders why she and Neel’s father are shirking their parental obligation to marry off the boy. So they lure Neel back home on the pretense of a family illness and then insist he meet one of their marriageable acquaintances. Neel grudgingly agrees.
The “girl,” Leila, is beautiful and well-educated. But suitors have repeatedly rejected her, put off when her destitute family can’t offer a lavish dowry. So she’s unsure what to expect from Neel.
After the two finally meet, the ensuing scene is fascinating. Through a series of cultural misunderstandings Neel’s family thinks he has agreed to marry the girl. Neel is stunned when he discovers that both families have fixed a wedding date for two weeks hence.
Neel, who still loves his secretary, feels trapped. He can’t violate family honor by backing out so he figures he’ll go through with the wedding and then get a quick divorce back in California.
Here the story becomes an absorbing tale of contrasts.
Leila, oblivious to Neel’s plan, wonders why her new groom barely acknowledges her. But she’s a traditional Indian woman so she tries to please him with her dutiful ways—hence the book’s title.
Neel, meanwhile, continues to see his secretary on the side. In his heart, he wants to do right by Leila but he still plans to get divorced if only life would stop getting in the way.
Cherian tells the story with quiet strength. Her scenes are less action-packed than laced with a hint of suspense that keeps the tale intriguing. She also endows her characters with a depth that renders both as likable figures—even Neel, whose cheating ways a reader might overlook given the sudden manner in which he was thrust into a marriage he never wanted.
“A Good Indian Wife” also provides a glimpse into Indian culture that non-Indians may appreciate. Cherian sprinkles the tale liberally with references to Indian customs, food and religion, although Western readers may get frustrated by the terms that aren’t always explained.
That’s about the only drawback.
The rest of the book is both interesting and well-written. Her inaugural effort may lack the lyrical prose of fellow Indian author Jhumpa Lahiri, but Cherian tells a compelling story that will hold the reader’s attention throughout. It’s the written equivalent of a Bollywood film, but even without the costumes and dance numbers, “A Good Indian Wife” is worthy entertainment.