I was ten-years-old when Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham was released. It fast became one of my guilty pleasures. I didn’t think it was a masterpiece at all – the acting wasn’t great, the characters were annoying and the plot was clichéd – but Chadha had made a movie with cultural aspects I understood, recognised and, in a small way, related to.
My immediate family are far from stereotypical. My Dad was raised in Africa and my Mum was born there, and both moved to England early in their lives. I was raised to have faith in a higher power, but I don’t practice any religion. I hate Indian food (my Mum cooks like a Kenyan instead of like an Indian so I think I’ve been spoiled!) and I can’t speak Punjabi. I’ve never been to India and, to be honest, have no interest in going. I’m more African than Indian, more Indian than African and more British than both.
But my extended family and friends? Let’s just say Chadha had them pinned down perfectly. Not only did I know the locations she had filmed in, I, too, had the distant relative or twelve who questioned my single status no matter what my age, who thought I should be a doctor or marry a doctor instead of following a career in the arts, and who tutted when they discovered I can’t cook anything other than the odd Italian dish.
When I switched from film to literature, I never thought I would find a book I could connect to on the same cultural level as Bend It Like Beckham. There I was searching for young adult novels, and the only books with Indian protagonists I could find were by Meera Syal (an idol of mine who also happened to write the screenplay for Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach). Finally, last year, Sandhya Menon, released her first novel: When Dimple Met Rishi. Suddenly, there was a YA novel with not one, but TWO, Indian-American protagonists.
The novel dealt with the age old idea of arranged marriage, something I’ve witnessed time and time again. Like all relationships, sometimes the proposed ‘rishta’ would end perfectly, with the couple falling madly in love and living happy lives; at other times it would end messily with divorce and arguments and drama worthy of a Bollywood movie. But it was the revolving door of suitors I always hated the thought of. The introductions, the interviews, the acceptance on one side but rejection on the other.
Like me, Dimple Shah found the idea backwards. The narrative starts with her having graduated and now desperate to put all thoughts and family pressure to find an IIH (an Ideal Indian Husband) behind her and focus on winning the opportunity of a lifetime after attending a summer program for aspiring web designers. The goal is her dream career. Rishi Patel, on the other hand, is all behind sticking to tradition and when it’s suggested he join the same program to woo Dimple and convince her he is the IID hoping she will accept the relationship their parents have arranged for them, he does it without question. His goal is to win his bride.
Despite it being rather predictable, I loved When Dimple Met Rishi for the same reasons I loved Bend It Like Beckham all those years before. The plot embraced its clichés, the humour was constant, and the added Hindi and everyday Indian aspects such as fashion and food, gave it a personal touch I loved. But it was the characters I felt were the selling point. While there were family members (Dimple’s mum in particular) that reminded me somewhat of the overbearing parents of friends of mine, Dimple and Rishi demonstrated the two sides to my own feelings towards the stereotypical culture I was born into verses the unorthodox life I was leading. Dimple wanted to break away from tradition, seeing certain aspects of her culture as backwards, and to focus on her career instead of becoming the Ideal Indian Wife; but Rishi loved the tradition and wanted to follow in the footsteps of his parents, and their parents and their parents before them, believing it was all tied to something far bigger than any of them.
When Menon then announced the release of her second novel, From Twinkle, With Love, I jumped at the chance to pre-order it. As a writer myself, I live by the belief that your writing gets better with every page, every chapter and every novel. I had no doubt in my mind that From Twinkle, With Love would surpass When Dimple Met Rishi.
This time, the protagonist was Twinkle Mehra. She has two dreams: one) to break away from wallflower status by dating the most popular boy in school, Neil Roy, and win back her best friend, Maddie; and two) to fulfil her dreams of becoming a filmmaker, using her talent to challenge views of patriarchy, cripple sexism and become a world famous Indian-American female director. But when Neil’s twin brother, Sahil, asks her to direct a movie for their upcoming summer festival, something she initially sees as the perfect opportunity to get closer to Neil and the new her, Twinkle finds herself falling for the wrong brother and ruining all her plans.
Again, the story, despite being predictable, was charming and the romance between Twinkle and Sahil, like that between Dimple and Rishi, is sweet. Regardless of having enjoyed it though, I found myself unsatisfied by the end. I wonder if this was due to the lack of culture playing a part in the narrative. Although there were a few chapters that dipped briefly into the life of the poor in India who moved to first-world countries to give their children a better chance at life than they had, Twinkle’s difficulties are less to do with being an Indian-born-American, and more to do with typical teenage problems where her culture didn’t actually play a part.
My dissatisfaction could have also been more to do with the format. The narrative is told through letters Twinkle writes in her diary to her favourite female filmmakers, but the structure was unrealistic and would have worked far better had it been written like When Dimple Met Rishi and even from Sahil’s point of view, the language was ‘childish’. The characters are meant to be around seventeen but they often act as if they’re thirteen.
It was Dadi, however, that stole the show for me and made the read worthwhile. The wacky old grandmother not only handed out fantastic lessons throughout the story, but her superstitious, experiment-clad storylines had me in stitches and were great comic relief. Especially the idea that her husband had been reincarnated in the form of their dog.
All in all, neither When Dimple Met Rishi or From Twinkle, With Love are break-through books, but they gave me something a lot of YA novels currently can’t: cultural connection, and I cannot wait to get my hands on There’s Something About Sweetie. So perhaps no one can bend it like Beckham, but Menon is coming up quickly behind him.