When first love collides with tradition
Fans of romantic comedies love a meet cute, and in her young adult debut, Sandhya Menon adds an Indian tradition to this time-tested trope: Her characters’ parents have arranged their marriage.
As When Dimple Met Rishi opens, 18-year-old Dimple Shah has graduated from high school and been accepted to Stanford. She loves iced coffee and coding, but not her mother’s incessant harping about her appearance and future wifehood. She’s thrilled when her parents send her to Insomnia Con, a summer program for budding coders at San Francisco State University. On the first day, Dimple sits on the SFSU campus, eyes closed, sipping iced coffee and feeling hopeful that maybe, just maybe, her parents were “finally beginning to realize she was her own person, with a divergent, more modern belief system.”
But her tranquility is shattered when she hears a friendly male voice say, “Hello, future wife.” A horrified shriek and an iced-coffee-flying-through-the-air later, Rishi Patel is left dripping, and Dimple (fleeing at a dead sprint) is worried she has a stalker.
This doesn’t seem like an auspicious beginning to a beautiful relationship, but—thanks to Menon’s warm, funny characters and a story that sensitively and evenhandedly explores what happens when traditional values and modern ideas collide—readers know better.
At first, though, Dimple doesn’t. She’s spent so many years defending herself against her relentlessly overbearing mother that’s she’s understandably twitchy about dating. Besides, she’s at Insomnia Con to code! Rishi, who’s been accepted to MIT, is there to code, too—but also because his and Dimple’s parents plotted to throw them together and nudge them toward marriage.
“I think arranged marriage is still fairly misunderstood in America,” Menon says from Colorado, where she lives with her husband and two children. “On TV, you usually see really old guys marrying helpless, vulnerable women, but that’s not what it’s like in my family and the families I knew growing up. I wanted to portray arranged marriage as it’s more commonly found in middle-class India.”
Menon grew up in India and came to America at age 15. While her marriage wasn’t arranged, she says, “Pretty much all of my relatives’ were, so it’s pretty normal for me to think about it.”
In Dimple and Rishi’s case, the two have more in common than they realize: Just as Dimple always feels like she’s not good enough for her parents, Rishi feels distant from his own. His dad urges him toward a practical business education, despite Rishi’s love for drawing comics.
However, Rishi is more in tune with his parents when it comes to marriage: He trusts them and believes in the importance of tradition. Of course, because he’s male, he hasn’t experienced a lifetime of being told to wear more makeup and to stop caring about school so he can focus on becoming marriage material.
Menon notes that in Indian culture, especially for daughters, it can be “hard to see past your mother constantly telling you how you should be, how things should be, what you should change. It’s hard to see that as coming from a place of love, or that it’s the only way they know how to communicate [that] they want you to end up in a good place in life.”
For Menon, this divide was a crucial addition to the story. “It’s a very universal experience for anyone with a controlling parent,” she says. “In the end, Dimple’s mom was really proud of her and wanted what was best for her, even if that was communicated in a convoluted way.”
As in any good rom-com, time passes and the two get to know each other, allowing perspectives to shift and defenses to weaken. Dimple realizes that Rishi is a good, talented person who stands up for her when it matters. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s handsome, too.) And Rishi acknowledges that fierce, lovely Dimple has been experiencing arranged-marriage pressure in a very different, demoralizing way—and that perhaps it’s OK to pursue something he’s passionate about.
Menon’s own experience of feeling torn between Indian traditions and American social mores is one of the main reasons why she loved writing this book. “I know what it’s like to grapple with the question, how much Indian am I?”
She explains that it got easier in college. “People came to assume I’d been born here . . . and I started to find my place a bit more. I started writing more and expressing myself through art. It was a really freeing thing for me to do—to feel like there’s this thing I can share with people, and they can accept that, even if they can’t accept every part of me just yet.”
When asked if she’s more like practical Dimple or romantic Rishi, Menon laughs and denies being a romantic. “I love to write [romance] and read it and watch it in Bollywood movies, but in my personal life I’m much more practical,” she says.
“I do think there’s a kind of magic to love. My super-logical brain says it’s all chemistry . . . but there is a magic to true love and finding the perfect person. Even if your parents preordain it—that still helps you find love.”
This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.