Book Review: A Bollywood Affair, Sonali Dev (2014)

January 28th, 2015 12:45 pm by Kelly Garbato

A Fun, Sometimes Over-the-Top Madcap Bollywood Romance

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program. Also, there are clearly marked spoilers towards the end of this review. Trigger warning for rape and child abuse.)

Like tens of millions of her peers, Malvika “Mili” Rathod is a child bride.* In a bargain struck by her grandmother and the groom’s grandfather, Mili was married off at the age of four; she has spent the past twenty years waiting for her husband to return to Balpur and claim her.

Unfortunately, hers was not a meeting of the minds, in even the loosest sense of the term: a year after the marriage, her betrothed’s mother packed up Virat and his younger brother Samir and moved the family to Nagpur, away from the clutches of their abusive and controlling grandfather. Not long after, Lata sent notice to the Balpur village council to have the marriage annulled; unbeknownst to the Rathods, grandfather retracted the paperwork. For the next two decades, he led Mili and her naani on, milking them for her dowry in exchange for empty promises that this would be the year that Virat – now a Squad Leader in the Indian Air Force – would send for her. Grandfather passed away several years ago, and naani is starting to panic: when she’s gone, who will care for her granddaughter?

On the bright side, Mili is able to leverage her status as an officer’s wife to pursue an education. (“I suppose an officer will want his wife to dress like a city girl. I suppose an officer will want his wife to read those books. I suppose an officer will wants his wife to…” ) Though Mili bears the dubious distinction of being the youngest bride in her village, she also just might be the most well-educated. As a kid, she biked ten kilometers (each way!) to attend St. Teresa’s English High School for girls; and when she was twenty, she left Balpur for college in Jaipur. Now she works at the National Women’s Center in Jaipur, helping victims of domestic violence. When we first meet her, Mili is headed for the United States, on sabbatical from her job to study applied sociology (with an emphasis on women’s studies, natch) at Eastern Michigan University.

Meanwhile, Virat – believing in his bachelorhood with every fiber of his being – married another woman. He and Rima are expecting their first child when the legal notices start coming: apparently he’s already married, and his first wife is claiming abandonment of both her and the family haveli in Balpur. The situation comes to a head when the unthinkable happens: Virat’s plane is shot down, breaking both his legs and sending him into a week-long coma. Angry and frightened, Samir tracks Mili down in Ypsilanti, Michigan in order to persuade her to sign the annulment papers.

What comes next is a sort of madcap romantic comedy with a decidedly Bollywood spin, complete with mistaken identities; not one, but two road trips!; a family reunion; and a traditional Punjabi wedding in Ohio. Posing as a neighbor, Samir finds that this supposedly backwards, gold-digging village girl is really a kind-hearted romantic who holds the cure to his writer’s block. What was meant to be a quick, down and dirty mission turns into a month-long adventure, as Samir nurses a freshly injured Mili back to health, reluctantly helps her right two star-crossed lovers, bangs out a new script, and falls in love – hard – with his would-be adversary. On her end, Mili struggles to balance her much-cherished traditions with her burgeoning feminism – not to mention, her growing attraction to this man who is most certainly not her husband.

A Bollywood Affair is a wonderfully diverse read; though the bulk of the story transpires in America, most of the characters are Indian, or of Indian descent. Dev further explores issues of race and identity through Samir, who is biracial. Virat and Samir share a father: when Virat was very young, Mir-chand traveled to America to study; there he met and fell in love with Samir’s mother, Sara Willis. He died in a car accident when Samir was just a few years old; distraught and suffering from bipolar disorder, Sara gave Samir to Lata, Mir-chand’s first wife, to raise.

As a child, Samir suffered the brunt of his grandfather’s abuse. While much of this was misdirected blame for his son’s death, there also existed a racial element to it; echoes of “white bastard” still ring through Samir’s troubled head. A former model and unabashed womanizer, Samir’s light “European” skin became a prized commodity later in life.

Cultural conflicts also abound – not between the Indian cast and their American landscape, but rather between the characters’ differing Indian backgrounds. As Mili notes, “Isn’t it amazing, Samir, how we’re both from India but our Indias are so different?” She, a rural villager who embraces old traditions while also yearning for more: travel, education progress; he, a wealthy urban filmmaker-slash-playboy. Both take comfort in the familiarity of the other, so far from home – even as they marvel at the many differences between them. This clash also plays out in the relationship between Mili’s roommate Ridhi and her boyfriend, Ravi; while the couple hopes to wed, Ridhi’s parents are dead set against it, preferring that she marry a nice boy (doctor?) from Punjab, rather than someone from South India.

* begin spoilers *

While the story does have its fair share of overblown, over-the-top moments (it strains credulity that anyone could be as dangerously clumsy as Mili; and who in her right mind decides to lose her virginity down the hall from her partner’s long-lost mother, with whom he’s just been reunited, and is dying of cancer?), it’s a rather fun ride. You can almost picture it playing out on the big screen.

* end spoilers *

That said, Dev initially does too good a job of painting Samir as a callous, trifling playboy. He treats his girlfriends like garbage (and we’re not talking one-night stands, free of expectations; he blows off a girlfriend of six months rather breezily when she declares her love for him) and doesn’t think much of women (save for his mother and sister-in-law) as a whole. He frequently uses sexist language (bitch, horse, uppity blonde) – as does, disappointingly, our heroine (witch, bitch, cow), who really should know better since she’s a women’s studies major and all (!). While he does rescue a teenager from an implied gang rape, he then goes on to blame the victim (“she was too stupid to know what kind of bastards guys were”). He acts jealous and possessive towards Mili. Samir becomes such the villain that I had trouble shipping him and Mili – intellectually, at least. By the end of the story, I suppose I was swept up in the romance well enough – which is a testament to Dev’s dramatic flair, if nothing else. Yet I still think that Mili – for all her flaws, not the least of which is being a ginormous butt-insky – deserved better.

Dev also succumbs to the alarming “love redeems” trope – all Samir needs is the love of a good woman to heal the scars from years of abuse and get him to open up emotionally. In reality, Samir has problems (including possible PTSD) that only years of intensive therapy can fix.

3.5 stars, rounded down to 3 where necessary.

* A “child bride” is someone who was married before the age of 18. According to ICRW, “One third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18 and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15.” And “In 2010, 67 million women 20-24 around the world had been married before the age of 18.” UNICEF estimates that more than 700 million women alive today were married as children.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Even though the bulk of the story takes place in America, most of the characters are Indian or of Indian descent. Samir is biracial – his birth mother was white, but she left him with his father’s family in India after the untimely death of Samir’s father. He was raised by his father’s first wife, his half-brother Virat’s mother. Samir was verbally and physically abused by his grandfather, at least in part because of his light, “European” skin. Ridhi’s parents don’t want her to marry Ravi, who’s from South India vs. Punjab. Sara is dying of cancer. Samir has possible PTSD due to childhood abuse.

Contains a scene of female masturbation.

Animal-friendly elements: Mili is a vegetarian, and describes in passing an “incident” at the university caf where she was accidentally served meat (“Yuck!”). Food – mostly plant-based – is evoked in a sensual manner.


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