No Life Without Wife

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.

  1. May 24, 2012 at 7:09 am

    I was wondering about the style and quality of writing, whether this was literary or not. I suppose the cultural elemenst are fairly accurate. There still are very traditional families in India. I’ve been working with several Indians from all sorts of background and a lot sounds familiar from what they say.
    I’m not sure I would pick this. When reading books from other cultures I prefer them to be more literary. And I have an Indian TBR pile which is quite high.


    • May 24, 2012 at 8:11 am

      The style is ok, not very literary (and it doesn’t pretend to be) but not bad either.
      A nice book to pass the time on a train.


  2. May 24, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    Not my thing, but I bet it would make a good film.


    • May 25, 2012 at 9:57 pm

      Not your thing indeed and probably not your kind of film either.


  3. May 25, 2012 at 3:20 am

    I like that phrase, a Beach & Public Transport novel. It does sound a bit nasty, to be honest, but I know you didn’t mean it that way 🙂 You’re right, we do need books like that. How did the Book Club discussion go? Was there enough in the book to talk about? Hey, at least it wasn’t remarkably boring 🙂


    • May 25, 2012 at 10:02 pm

      I have a category “Beach & Public Transport” Have you seen it? It’s the books you can read with one eye on the book and the other on the children playing in the sand. They’re good to know too.

      Book Club discussion was: It’s a “livre de plage” (a beach book, and that didn’t come from me) and “I read it on a train, it was good for that” (not me either) I swear it’s true: it’s definitely a Beach & Public Transport book. 🙂
      Otherwise, we thought the beginning interesting because it explained cultural differences and got into describing India. The rest of the book was pleasant (no one was bored) but a bit predictable.


      • May 28, 2012 at 12:31 am

        That’s funny that other people gave those descriptions – it definitely fits into that niche! I hadn’t noticed before that you have that category named on here. In fact you have a LOT of categories!! Was good to explore them. I particularly liked “Sugar without cellulite” 🙂


        • May 28, 2012 at 9:24 pm

          I have a lot of categories, yes. I think it’s easier to find something and check on a writer you’d like to try. I don’t know if visitors use them or not.
          Glad you enjoyed your tour!


  4. May 26, 2012 at 8:35 am

    Hi Emma,
    I’m from India, and I just wanted to address your question, about whether this stuff actually takes place in India. To a great extent it does. Parents arrange matches for their children, keeping caste and stuff in mind, and it is a taboo for anyone, especially a woman, to remain unmarried after a certain age (the age varies from state to state). A woman who stays unmarried beyond, say, 32, does not do so out of choice, but because she is unable to catch a husband. If a woman chooses willingly to remain a spinster, people pity her and wonder what is wrong with her.
    While all this is true, it is also true that a lot has changed, particularly in the cities. Young people are encouraged to find their own partners, and parents stay out of it. Spinsterhood and bachelorhood are accepted too, though moms, being moms, continue to nag at kids to get married.

    Loved your review, and your pert classification of this book as beach and public transport literature.
    You have a lovely blog. Following you now.

    Do visit my book blog, and if you like it please do follow! thank you!


    • May 28, 2012 at 9:12 pm


      Sorry for the late answer, I was away and off line.

      Thank you for visiting and for your enlightening comment. I’m trying not to take stereotypes for the truth, so I’m always a bit suspicious with that kind of stories. I’m glad things are changing. It’ll take a long time though. Just yesterday I heard a mother complaining that her thirthy-four years old daughter is still single and that as her mother, people enquire after why she isn’t married and why she doesn’t try to meet someone on the internet. I’m not sure she’d have such comments if she had a son. The idea a woman’s life is incomplete without a husband and children is difficult to smash.


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