Just Married, Please Excuse (by Yashodhara Lal)

So, I’m in India. It is super cold in New Delhi. By that, I mean it’s 50 degrees, but since everything is made of marble and there’s no central heating, you feel every one of those degrees. Also, there is a pack of pariah dogs near my parents’ flat that likes to chase me.

But, in my few short days here, I’ve already discovered one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I was browsing the spines in a bookstore and I saw a very familiar wavy, girly lettering style. At first, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. But, when I pulled out the book, the bright colors and outsized, cartoony iconography of the cover could not be ignored. I’d found Indian Chick-Lit!

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On the one hand, it seems like a no-brainer that there’d be Indian Chick-Lit. Not only does India have more English-language readers than the rest of the world combined,* but it also has a substantial population of well-educated, upwardly mobile India who are struggling to manage romantic and career expectations.

But, on the other hand, this is kind of mind-blowing. Because Indian society is very, very different from the American society that gave rise to Chick-Lit. Something like 95% of marriages in India are arranged. Even in upper-class, very-educated households, the vast majority of marriages are arranged. There’s very little casual dating in India. There’s not much “searching” for Mr. Right. Even in so-called “love marriages” most partners come to the table with comparatively little romantic experience, by Western standards.

This is not necessarily a problem for the sort of fanciful love stories that form the staple of, for instance, Bollywood. For instance, medieval bards had no trouble singing about romantic love to a noble audience that would, most likely, have only experienced arranged marriage. Art does not necessarily need to reflect life.

But I do think it’s a bit of a difficulty for a chick-lit novel. I feel like these novels depend, for their bite, on a certain gloss of verisimilitude. Their heroines are, basically, people you know (at least if you’re a yuppie). The disjunction between chick-lit genre conventions and the reality of Indian life seems like it’d be difficult to reconcile in a novel.

Anyways, I browsed the chick-lit novels until I found following opening (the ellipses are me eliding some descriptive stuff that doesn’t matter):

“Accha, I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Vijay said casually, over the phone. “When do you think we should get married?”

…I paused for a moment to give it a considered response.

“Eh?”

I looked at my phone with raised eyebrows as if Vijay could see my questioning expression. Considering that we had been seeing each other for only three months, and I was in my early twenties and just out of management college, I was completely unprepared for even the mention of marriage. But here it was – an unmistakable, undeniable, definite mention.

Totes bril. Author Yashodhara Lal just plops a heroine with chicklit novel expectations into Indian society, and has her constantly act surprised when Indian things happen to her (her mother-in-law wants to know her caste; her servant doesn’t get along with her boyfriend; her husband keeps making unilateral decisions about their life without consulting her; etc. etc.)

In a lot of ways, the novel reminded me of Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, which is also about a slightly clueless woman who is carried along by the current of a society that she doesn’t quite understand.

There are many, many wonderful things about this book. I will start, however, by mentioning one bad thing. It is not well-written. A line like “I looked at my phone with raised eyebrows as if Vijay could see my questioning expression” is just terrible. And the whole book is rife with the same kind of over-writing. Normally, I can handle terrible writing, if the writing has that immersive quality that terrible writing sometimes does. But in this case, it did not. I wonder if the terribleness is the result of some kind of Indian cultural expectation. Indian English definitely has a number of quirks to it that read as mistakes to speakers of American English.

Unlike most novels by Indian writers (the Amitav Ghoshes and Aravind Adigas and Salman Rushdies), this novel is clearly not meant to be read by non-Indians. Although all the narrative is in English, it does have a bunch of fairly long scenes where the dialogue is in Hindi. Some characters only speak in Hindi. Although the Hindi is less than 5% of the book, it is definitely an odd effect. It reminds me of Tolstoy (who includes a fair amount of untranslated French dialogue in his novels). It’s odd that the book is written for such a bilingual audience. There are a fairly large number of people in India (especially in South Indian areas like Bangalore, where much of the novel is set) who read English but do not read Hindi. Actually, it’s not uncommon for even English-speaking North Indians to have poor Hindi literacy, if they were educated in an English-medium school.

Anyway, the point is that this novel is not for furriners. But that’s exactly why it’s so exciting! There are very few English-language Indian novels, up to this point in history, that weren’t written with a white audience at least partially in mind.

This is yet another example of how genre literature is POPULIST and DOWN TO EARTH and RETURNS THE POWER TO THE PEOPLE. Even if those people are…err…brand managers at PR and advertising firms in Mumbai and Bangalore. POWER TO THE UPPER MIDDLE CLASS PEOPLE!

One final note re: this book – I honestly cannot figure out if it is fiction or not. The characters in the book have the same name as the author and her husband and her daughter. And the main character has the same biography as her. And there’s no “these characters bear no resemblance to anyone living or dead, blah blah” disclaimer. And her dedication says “Thanks to my family, for providing such good material.” And nowhere in the cover copy is this book referred to as a novel.

Buuuuuut, they don’t call it a memoir either. And everything about it feels very novelly. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. But it is an interesting example of how publishing and marketing differ from country to country.

*I made up that factoid, but if it’s not true right now, it someday will be.