This is the first in a series of periodic book reviews. I will be reviewing and commenting on any books that seem interesting, more or less "as the spirit moves me". Some will be "relevant" to what I'm writing, but writers should read a lot of things, so they may not be about science fiction or medieval history, or Neandertals. But if it looks interesting to me, I'll do my best to explain why.
Yesterday, I was browsing around in the local library, after running some errands. The main library in Seattle is always an interesting place --- the floor where they have the newest fiction and nonfiction, has essentially been designed to be a giant solarium. It's all glass, and even on the rainiest and most disheartening days(and Seattle has enough of these at this time of year), it feels full of light. it was here that I found a most interesting book called The Dowry Bride. The author is one Shobhan Bantwal, and this appears to be the only book she's written --- so far.
There are several things that are interesting about this book. The first is, that while the author is of East Indian heritage, she is writing a piece of "popular" fiction, which is quite unusual(as she points out in her Afterward)for an author of East Indian heritage. Another fascinating feature of the book is, that for non-Indian readers, it's a peek into a slice, if you will, of contemporary Indian life. And even more interesting, she wrote it as a (sort of) romance.
The premise may at first seem offputting: a young woman runs away from her husband and his family because they are plotting to tie her up and set her on fire so he can marry somebody else. The reason? Her parents are not rich, but they are trying to cough up dowry money in installments. This does not satisfy the mother-in-law, who is basically the villain of the piece, and quite an unpleasant one at that. Essentially, the woman's parents have themselves been deceived; they thought her husband's family was very well-off, but it turns out they are not only not as well-off as they said they were, but they are excessively "conservative"(in terms of contemporary India, at least), and basically pretty stultifying. But then, as Ms. Bantwal points out, these "dowry killings" are also a part of contemporary India, unfortunately.
When Megha, the young heroine, runs away, she manages to find her way to the very contemporary living quarters of her cousin-in-law, Kiran Rao, who is well-off, well-educated, and has a much more modern outlook. Furthermore, he has been in love with her from the moment he saw her --- at her wedding to her unsatisfactory husband.
Neither of them feel they can fulfill their desires; he has to try to keep her safe from her would-be assassins; she has feelings for him, but has been too "conservatively" brought up to act on them, but would like to. What each of them do about this situation, and how they change their outlook, forms the bulk of the book.
This is not a "typical" romance; there are parts of it that, from a "non-Indian" point of view seem quite odd. There is one scene where an old grandmother confesses to having been molested by an "untouchable" man, and the result was the villainous mother-in-law. But perhaps Ms. Bantwal wanted to show that this was a somewhat old fashioned attitude; in the same scene, she has Megha remark that an "untouchable" man came to their house to do heavy work, and was actually quite nice. Even Bollywood seems to have caught on to this, if some recent works I've heard about are anything to go by, but on the other hand, India is still India, and there's no question that some attitudes take longer --- in any culture --- to change, than others.
While this book is not great literature, and the manuscript could have used an editor in places, it is extremely entertaining. Better yet, it gives some insight into some aspects of India today. And that's a good thing. Many readers fall into ruts in their reading habits, but perhaps if Shobhan Bantwal keeps on writing(she says she's working on another book), and encourages other people of East Indian heritage to do the same, perhaps some of us mentally curious folk will learn more about this extremely old, rich, complex, yet forward-looking culture. For that matter, she should probably encourage people from all kinds of cultures to write about contemporary life for "popular" audiences. Our horizons need to be broadened periodically.