Here’s a shocking confession for you – until very recently, I had never picked up a romance novel in my entire life. That’s right. Even though “love” is a huge part of my blog (including a whole series of real-life love stories), I was a complete virgin to the world of romance literature. You could blame it on those used book sales at the library I helped with as a child, where a sizable portion of the abandoned paperbacks up for grabs were romance novels. Really bad ones. You know, the kind of “doctor and nurse” or “bodice-stripping” stories you’d never want to be caught dead with.
But then late last year, I heard about A Bollywood Affair, a debut romance novel by Sonali Dev. It features a cast of fascinating Indian characters – especially the leads, Mili (married off as a child bride in India at four years of age, she marches off 20 years later to study abroad in America, determined to become the perfect, educated wife for a husband she’s never met in her entire life) and Samir Rathod (a famous Bollywood director and “ladies’ man” who is sent to America to get Mili to sign off on a divorce from said husband). And it was named one of 2014’s Great Reads by NPR and received a rave review in USA Today. Even though it meant breaking my “no romance genre” rule, I just knew I had to pick up A Bollywood Affair.
Turns out, I loved this beautifully written story – to the point that I stayed up late one night, flipping the pages to find out “what happens next?” I adored Mili, who wants to balance her feisty independence with her traditional side (such as remaining loyal for 20 years to a husband her family arranged for her to marry), as well as Samir, who starts to shed his “ladies’ man” persona before Mili as he cares for her in such heartwarming ways (especially all of the delectable Indian feasts he makes for her, described so deliciously I could almost smell the dal and parathas myself!). It was so much fun to be immersed in Indian culture, including all of the Bollywood movie references. And when have you ever read a love story where the heroine experiences an arranged marriage and a love relationship? A Bollywood Affair is such a unique and enchanting book that, even if you’ve sworn off the romance genre, you must read it.
I’m thrilled to introduce you to Sonali Dev and A Bollywood Affair through this interview!
Here’s Sonali’s delightful bio from her website:
Sonali Dev’s first literary work was a play about mistaken identities performed at her neighborhood Diwali extravaganza in Mumbai. She was eight years old. Despite this early success, Sonali spent the next few decades getting degrees in architecture and writing, migrating across the globe, and starting a family while writing for magazines and websites. With the advent of her first gray hair her mad love for telling stories returned full force, and she now combines it with her insights into Indian culture to conjure up stories that make a mad tangle with her life as supermom, domestic goddess, and world traveler.
Sonali lives in the Chicago suburbs with her very patient and often amused husband and two teens who demand both patience and humor, and the world’s most perfect dog.
A Bollywood Affair was named a best book of 2014 by Library Journal and NPR, and has won the American Library Association’s award for best romance as well as the RT Seal of Excellence. It was also nominated for an RT Reviewer Choice Award.
I sat down with Sonali to ask her all about everything from the inspiration for this story (including the Bollywood inspiration) to her take on arranged marriages versus love marriages.
Tell us about the inspiration for this novel.
Three summers ago, I was strolling along the riverwalk in my suburban Chicago town with my parents when they started reminiscing about a young couple they used to be friends with many years ago. Tragically, the husband died in an air crash just about a year into their marriage and his family from the village showed up with another young woman, who apparently was also his wife. He had been married to her when they were children. The family claimed all his assets, because his wife, who was now his second wife, wasn’t his wife at all because polygamy is illegal in India.
I just could not get that story out of my head. I couldn’t stop thinking about those two women. One was raised to believe she had a husband, when really she didn’t, and the other had a husband and yet really she didn’t. The crashing of the rural and urban faces of India has always fascinated me. Tradition versus progress, freedom versus the most stringent societal norms, it’s incredible how diverse the worlds India spans even today are. I absolutely had to write this story and trace the arc of the journeys I imagined for these women.
Being raised in your typical close-knit family by a-typical thinkers, traditional concepts like putting your family before all else were coded into my blood, but my concepts about the place of women in society and my own role as a woman was anything but traditional. Consequently, a lot of my own life has been about walking the very fine line between the security of family and the independence every individual needs to meet their full potential. With A Bollywood Affair I tried to explore that balance between staying tied in familial bonds and seeking freedom from the corrosive and regressive rules that bind women.
The novel starts off in the midst of Mili’s wedding in India, a time when she was a very young child. Were child marriages uncommon or illegal at the time that the wedding takes place in your story?
Child marriage is illegal in India and has been since 1929. However there are communities and sub-cultures, mostly rural, within which it still happens and the law is not fully enforced. It doesn’t happen on a huge scale but way more than it should. It’s definitely a social evil that the government and NGOs are actively trying to stop. Having said that, it is extremely uncommon for a child to be married as young as Mili was (but not unheard of). Mili’s case is unique because her grandmother is trying to get the responsibility of having a girl child married taken care of. As an older woman who is Mili’s only support and guardian, she feels like the child needs to be taken care of in case something happens to the grandmother before Mili grows up.
Mili and Samir, the main characters in your novel, come from drastically different worlds. Mili is a young independent woman who grew up in rural and traditional part of India, determined to become the perfect wife for a husband she has never met in her life. Samir is a huge Bollywood director who always has a way with the ladies, and can charm his way through anything. How did you conceive of these two characters?
I’m fascinated by the ‘real’ lives of celebrities. Not the face we see in the media but what really happens when the spotlight turns off. And I don’t mean the reality TV version either, but more what are they like in the privacy of their own homes, with their parents, with their closest friends, when they are alone with their thoughts. I don’t really think any of us can know these answers for sure, but I am definitely taken up with the idea of imagining that inner life of these people we can only ever see the outer lives of. That’s where Samir came from. There’s this breed of filmmakers in Bollywood who are celebrities in their own right. They model and host TV shows, but they also create and write so they’re artists as well. I wanted to fall into the head of someone who can achieve all that.
So, Samir was really in my head for a few years before I heard that story from my mother and Mili came about and boom, the entire story just followed from these two people from these two seemingly diametrically different worlds, but a shared past.
This novel is filled with all sorts of fascinating references to Bollywood movies – and I have to admit, it even feels like a Bollywood movie at times. Did you take any inspiration from the world of Bollywood and weave it into your story? And if so, could you give us some examples?
I grew up watching Bollywood films and there used to be this quality to the films that pulled you into their world and stayed with you for days after. So, definitely I wanted my story to hit those same emotional highs and lows and be that absorbing, and in that sense the story is Bollywood inspired. But it’s more than just creating a Bollywood film in prose.
To me Bollywood is a two pronged concept, one cultural and the other stylistic. Culturally, it’s the popular face of stories centered around Indians and the Indian state of mind — which is essentially as rich a background as you could find for any story, with a history that spans millennia, a culture that holds within itself hundreds of sub-cultures, the meeting and melding of the eastern and the western, the opulent and the wretched. And against this backdrop we have familial bonds that are so tight they have the power to stifle the life out of you as much as yank you back from the edge of tragedy.
As for style, to me the ‘Bollywood style’ is reminiscent of the large sweeping family sagas Bollywood tends to make. A wide-angled shot of what I see as the essence of being Indian. It’s the dramatic, just this side of melodramatic. It’s families that have no boundaries, no concept of privacy, love that makes choruses burst in your head. It’s beautiful people in beautiful places, but also the smell of the most wretched sewers. It hops around the world but is tied to the traditions of an ancient land. It’s the clash of the oldest culture in the world warring with the most modern values.
So, really, at a personal level, it was about writing what I know. This world is who I am, it’s the people I grew up with in the worlds I inhabit. It’s the reality I’ve seen, but on steroids. I also have friends and family who work in the film industry, so it is a world I feel l have an insider’s view to.
In your story, the main character Mili experiences an arranged marriage and a relationship based on love. Do you believe that the outcomes for couples in arranged marriages versus love-based marriages are different?
That’s an easy question for me. Most certainly not. I’ve seen decade long love affairs that ended in divorce within a couple years of marriage and I’ve seen arranged marriages that took a week to arrange but produced happily ever afters that lasted six decades, and everything in between. In my opinion, the wedding ceremony is a big fat reset button. Once you sign up, you start on day one and from there your marriage is a creature that takes every skill you posses to nurture and a whole lot of luck for good measure. Your chances of success have nothing to do with how you got together and everything to do with what happens after you start cohabitating and sharing the bathroom, the family and a bank account.
What message or messages do you hope readers come away with from your novel?
I think we all struggle with balancing our conditioning with growth. Regardless of whether we come from a traditional culture and family or not, the belief system instilled into us in childhood is a very powerful force. But because the world we live in is no longer homogenous, when we grow up we are exposed to all these new belief systems that are different from our own and we have to make choices between the new ideas and the old ones. There’s no road map for this. The only possible help comes from listening to your heart and growing your mind by also listening to those who differ from you and balancing those two things out to find your own voice. If there is a message at all, then that message is in finding that voice, finding your own worldview and therefore yourself under the conditioning and expectations and then finding the courage to live your life based on that.