Book review – a good indian wife

If Marrying Anita was a look at the changing mores in arranged marriages in India, a good indian wife by Anne Cherian is a throwback to a social construct that feels anachronistic. I had to check to see if the book was indeed published this year and not a couple of decades ago.

Neil Sarath is an Indian anesthetologist living the American dream in San Francisco, complete with sports car and Caucasian girlfriend. On a visit to India, he gets emotionally blackmailed into marrying hometown girl Leila. Fully planning to divorce her at the first opportunity and leave her in India, he gets manipulated by wily family members into bringing her to “Amrika”. How the newlyweds cope with a relationship that has been thrust on them forms the story. Left to her own devices most of the time by a husband who did not want her in the first place, Leila slowly creates her own identity and earns Neil’s respect.

It is true that I have been away from India for nearly 2 decades now, but this kind of arranged marriage seems out of touch with what’s happening in India today. The social situations, the attitudes of relatives and assorted busybody aunties, all ring false.  Neil’s grandfather and other relatives talk in a lingo that I have not heard outside the movies. Also, as far as I am aware, girls in India today are far more wary of being sent off with a stranger to the US giving up career and creature comforts than they were a generation ago. There have been enough horror stories of abuse and neglect for even the most foreign-obsessed parents to pause before yoking their daughters to an uncertain future. Yes, the situations in this story could have happened but not in this century( or I am completely mistaken and small town India is still stuck in a score-long stasis.)

Despite the implausibility of the plot, what a good indian wife really is is a thinly disguised Indian-American Mills & Boon story. Picture Neil as the “bored Duke” and Leila as the “shy debutante” and you have a perfectly good romance on your hands. Anne Cherian, who grew up in Jamshedpur and graduated from Berkeley, is a competent writer who turns out a competent book. But non-Indians will have a much greater appreciation for this look at how arranged marriages used to be.

3 thoughts on “Book review – a good indian wife

  1. Manish

    What you and most reviewers miss is this: the story takes places circa 1982 so it is 27 years out-of-date. How do you know that it takes place around 1982. Neel’s grandfather mentions that Neel was born right after Independence, meaning sometime in late 1947 and Neel is 35 years old in the book. Do the math and the year is 1982.

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  2. Vidya Pradhan Post author

    Good sleuthing, Manish! Yet the most important quality of literature is to be timeless. Even if Ms. Cherian was trying to recreate a bygone era, some universal truths should have emerged and I did not get that feeling with this book. For example, the movie “Parineeta” was about Bengal several decades ago, but it resonated with us because our hearts were touched by the sorrow of a misunderstood and powerless woman in a patriarchal, feudal society. Another masterpiece is “Pride and Prejudice” which I thoroughly enjoyed in the authentically recreated BBC version even though it was hardly contemporary. Jane Austen began her classic with these words – “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” This sharp, satirical look at the human condition, which does not mellow or diminish with age, is what is missing from “A good indian wife.”
    If I were to be really cruel, I would say that the book panders to the Occidental love of all things exotically Asian. And since modern Indian society is slowly shedding all the quirks that made it fascinating to the Western world, the author had to go back a couple of decades to make it interesting enough.

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