“An absorbing tale of contrasts. . . . Cherian tells the story with quiet strength.” —San Francisco Chronicle
Anne Cherian on her novel A Good Indian Wife
When I started writing A Good Indian Wife, I was determined not to exoticize India or Indians. I hoped very much that Indian readers would react with a “Yes, this is a plausible story” and non-Indians would come away knowing that they had more in common with my characters than previously imagined.
I also wanted to create characters like the educated, intelligent, witty Indians I had met while studying at UC Berkeley. These were individuals who spoke English, who were extremely well read in a wide variety of topics, and who were already cognizant of America via movies and books. Thus, Leila finds America easier to understand than her own husband. Though Leila has been raised to believe that a good marriage is the goal for women, as a young girl she knew that she had to keep herself “tidy,” the same way that Princess Diana once famously said of herself. It is precisely because Leila is innocent regarding the ways of men and husbands that it takes her a while to figure out that Neel is seeing another woman. When Caroline reveals all, confirming her suspicions, Leila finds herself in a situation shared by women the world over. She stands in a long line of women who have dealt with a cheating husband and, like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards, has to make the decision of stay or leave.
If Leila is every woman facing the heartbreak of infidelity, Neel is every immigrant. He uses his brains to come to America and succeeds as an anesthesiologist. And then, just like some immigrants, he turns his back on his culture and people, so much so that when his family manipulates him into seeing Leila, he has no idea how to behave and unwittingly says “Yes” to the marriage he never wanted. I think of him as a new type of character, a post-post-colonial one, who disdains Leila because she represents a world he no longer values. He doesn’t see her for who she is, and he dislikes her because she is not American.
Once I had both characters on the same page, I was interested in seeing how they would react to each other. What would happen to Neel as he faced his own racism―present in the face of his unwanted wife―on a daily basis? Would he turn more white? Or would he dig deep down and emerge more comfortable in his brown skin? And how would Leila, so far from her family, cope with a reluctant husband in a country that does not have the infrastructure for an arranged marriage? Would she show her inner strength, or would she allow being in a foreign land to turn her into a mouse?
I hoped readers would feel they knew my characters, even though for some the world of India and arranged marriages might be very alien. Yet we are all human beings and at the end of the day want the same things: peace, love, and a good life.
- The narrator frequently mentions that Neel has always wanted to marry “up.” Considering that he marries an older woman of more limited means, how does this affect the story―and Neel?
- Neel’s infidelity is a major theme in the book. By the end, Leila decides to forgive him despite the fact that he is never completely honest with her. It is a decision women throughout the world continue to make. What are Leila’s reasons?
- Caroline is portrayed as a needy social climber, while Neel seems unhealthfully interested in her whiteness. However, the pair do spend three years together. Do you feel that their relationship is genuine?
- Do you think this book portrays arranged marriages in a positive light? Or do you feel that this is just a portrait of a single arranged marriage?
- How is it that Neel, who so adamantly opposes having an arranged marriage, ends up marrying the first woman his family takes him to see? What does it tell us about his (lack of) knowledge of Indian customs?
- What role do the other couples in the book―Bob and Shanti, Oona and Sanjay, Rekha and her married lover―play in framing Neel and Leila’s relationship?
- Tattappa seems to be the only person in Neel’s family whom he truly respects. How does that relationship show us another side of Neel? Indeed, Neel is not the most sympathetic character. Do you empathize with him? If so, why?
- The narrator frequently mentions Neel’s desire to move up, but always in terms of gaining the acceptance of the white community. He adamantly rejects the Indian way of life, going so far as to question Oona’s love for all things Indian. Why is this? And what does it say about his views of himself and his culture?
- What does Rekha learn about arranged marriages from Leila? Does her contact with Leila change her perceptions?
- Neel, like Leila, also came to the United States for the first time as an adult, yet we are under the impression that his transition was easier and more deliberate. What does this say about their perceptions of themselves as Indian?
- Neel thinks his Aunty Vimla is a nosy, foolish woman interested in putting him down for the benefit of her own son. Aunty Vimla is very concerned about finding a “good girl” for Neel and works hard to make sure that Leila can get a visa quickly and return to the States with Neel. What do you think are her motivations? Is she as bad as Neel thinks?
- It is clear to us that Leila is proud of her heritage and Indian identity. Do you believe that Neel is equally proud? Why or why not?
- The book has lots of twinnings: Neel and Sanjay, Leila and Oona, Leila and Shanti, Leila and Caroline, and Leila and Rekha, to name a few. How do these pairings highlight character in the novel?
- What do you make of the last word in the novel, “Okay.” What sort of ending can you anticipate with such word?
- There are many types of racism in the novel―for instance, Neel against Leila for not being an American, Caroline’s family against anyone who is not white. How do the various strains work out in the novel? Do the characters change or stay the same?
- Compare the honeymoon scene (the spider’s lick) with the final hospital scene in the novel. Do you see any growth in the Neel and Leila? If so, how have they changed?
- Why is it that Neel does not want to marry Caroline? Is his decision an Indian one? Or is he the kind of man who is always looking for someone better to come along?
- What does Neel learn about himself when he rushes back to a dying Tattappa? What does Leila learn in that same period?
- How does the pregnancy showcase their differences? And how, ultimately, does it affect the decisions they make?
- While Neel often frets about Leila’s lack of Americanness, Leila is busy making comparisons between life back home and in America, with each one making her grow stronger. Can you chart those epiphanies?
About Anne Cherian
Anne Cherian is the author of A Good Indian Wife. Born and raised in Jamshedpur, India, she now lives in Los Angeles, California.
Books by Anne Cherian
“An absorbing tale of contrasts. . . . Cherian tells the story with quiet strength.” —San Francisco ChronicleMore
A moving story that redefines the meaning of family, friendship, and success among a group of first-generation Indian immigrants.More