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No Life Without Wife

May 24, 2012 10 comments

The Good Indian Wife by Anne Cherian 2008. French title: Une bonne épouse indienne.

The Good Indian Wife is our book club choice for May. The writer, Anne Cherian, is Indian, studied in America and now lives in Los Angeles. It’s important to know.

It relates the story of Suneel and Leila. Suneel is anesthetist in a hospital in San Francisco. He comes from a little Indian town. He studied in America, started his career there and doesn’t intend to move back to India. He’s a green card holder now. Suneel, or Neel as he is named is the USA has a major flaw in the eyes of his mother: he’s 35 and he’s still single. Neel doesn’t want a wife and especially not an Indian one. But his mother is persistent enough for him to dread his trips back home because he knows she will present him young women she considers good bride material. So when she calls and says that he needs to come back because his grandfather is on his death bed, Neel can’t help being suspicious. But he’s fond of his grandpa and knows he would never forgive himself if he missed the chance to see him again before he dies.

Neel flies back to India.

Leila is 30 and lives in the same village as Neel’s family. She teaches English literature at the local university. She has a major flaw in the eyes of her mother: she’s 30 and still unmarried. Several men came to see her but none of them chose her. She doesn’t have a dowry. She’s getting old and her sell-by date as a bride-to-be is approaching. Spinster teacher seems to be her future.

Neel’s family does plan to marry him to a local girl. When he learns the trick, Neel refuses to meet any girl. But his family pushes the right buttons of love and guilt and he accepts to meet one, to save the family’s face in their neighborhood. He chooses to meet Leila: she’s old and poor, which means everyone in town will understand he refused to marry her. He’ll be free and his family won’t be embarrassed.

Things don’t go exactly according to Neel’s plan and one thing leading to another, here is Neel flying back to San Francisco with his brand new Indian wife. However, he has no intention to change his way of life or to break up with his blond girl-friend Caroline. She meets his wish to have an American wife to Americanize him and help him blend in. So here is our poor Leila alone in San Francisco, married to a man who doesn’t want her.

The plot is fairly simple and would be totally flat without the identity issues and the description of Indian customs and Indian diaspora. Have you seen Bride & Prejudice? It’s the Bollywood version of Pride & Prejudice filmed by the British director Gurinder Chadha. This book has the same flavor and the title of this billet comes from the funniest song of the film. The film shows the same marriage customs, this kind of wife market for Indian men who emigrated in a Western country. The novel digs deeper on the identity issue though. How do you live in a country you weren’t born in? You lack all the tiny little details of a local childhood, like knowing popular songs, commercials or news items. To give a personal example, it’s like reading Aiding and Abetting without knowing Lord Lucan really existed and really did what the book mentions. You need subtitles. (Sun)neel is torn between two countries, two cultures. He wants an American wife, eats American food, dresses like an American and sort of turns his back on Indian things. What do you need to do to adapt to your new country and become a real American citizen?

Both he and Leila are oppressed by traditions and can’t resist them in India, among their family and friends. The weight of customs and the education they received which pushes them to obey their parents are too strong in India. Living in America is their declaration of independence. Leila is happy to leave India, to get married at last and to be free to do as she pleases, to go out on her own, to meet new people. In a way, she can be herself without her family watching and judging her. What kind of a life is it for a spinster in India? She dreads it enough to be willing to leave her home to follow a man she met only once.

Of course I wonder to what extend what Anne Cherian describes is true. I’m always suspicious about that kind of theme as it serves the plot to exaggerate the impact of customs and the influence of families. I wonder if what she says about this big marriage market is true, if it is as sordid as what she says about Leila’s feelings. Don’t misunderstand me, Anne Cherian doesn’t judge, she relates something which sounds rather common. As she is Indian and followed Neel’s footsteps, I imagine she knows her subject well enough.

I enjoyed reading The Good Indian Wife but it’s not a great book on the literary point of view. It’s a nice Beach & Public Transport novel. It’s entertaining with a decent style, a nice story to read in a noisy environment or to relax after a difficult book. This seems nasty but it’s not. In my opinion, we also need that kind of novels from time to time.

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