Well-Behaved Indian Women (Berkley) by Saumya Dave is a mother-daughter story about Indian women, culture, relationships and life choices.
Simran is in her 20s, pursuing a degree in psychology and has just written a book. Her parents, Nandini and Ranjit Mehta, are both doctors and are encouraging her to follow in their footsteps, treating her writing efforts as a hobby. With the pressure to have her life all figured out, she is engaged to be married to Kunal, her high school sweetheart, who is studying to become a doctor, but she becomes distracted when she meets her handsome writing idol, Neil. Simran begins to question her career choice and even her choice of mate, as her attraction to Neil is undeniable. Attempting to stay true to Kunal and taking a break from her studies, Simran travels to India to visit her grandmother, Mami.
Simran’s relationship with her mother can be rocky yet she has a special relationship with her grandmother that is easier to navigate. Mami shares some family secrets that give Simran insight about her mother and her actions. Throughout the book, all three women are on their personal paths to self-discovery, and their relationships with each other morph and deepen as they grow. The pressures of Indian family expectations and tradition, combined with the urge to please, create difficult situations where Simran, her mother and grandmother are forced to make big, life-affirming decisions. Amongst temptation, and with a refocus on their goals, interests and talents, these strong women choose to follow their own paths.
Author Q & A
I had the wonderful opportunity to welcome Saumya Dave to my book group and we had an informative and thoughtful discussion surrounding the characters in the book as well as Indian culture and traditions (including arranged marriages and mothers-in-law). We learned how her husband inspired the character of handsome, charismatic Neil, how she received 10 rejections from publishers the day she got married and over 100 in total, and how readers at publishing houses wanted to hear more about Nandini, a character that experienced so many struggles and exemplified strength and courage.
Here is an additional Q&A I conducted with the author.
Q: This is your first novel and it is fantastic — have you always known you wanted to be a writer?
A: Thank you so much! I always dreamt of becoming one but didn’t think it was possible. It was only later in college, when I was buried in pre-med classes and med school applications, that I realized how much I needed writing.
Q: How much of Simran’s story is autobiographical? What inspired you to write these characters?
A: Simran’s story was much more autobiographical in earlier drafts than it is now, but many parts of her are akin to my twenties self. I was very preoccupied with societal expectations and milestones and having to do things a certain way. Meeting my husband challenged all of that, in the same way Neil challenged Simran. The characters were inspired by the strong women who have always surrounded me. I struggled to find characters like them in books growing up, which is one of the main reasons I wrote this book.
Q: Simran’s mother, Nandini, is not a typical Indian woman. Why did you give her the untraditional past of leaving an arranged marriage and then the strength to take a job far from home?
A: I’ve found that many of the women I know, from my mother to my grandmother to my family friends, have vivid lives they left behind when they left their countries of origin and settled in America. They’ve demonstrated so much resilience and grit with their choices, and these things are often overlooked. I knew I had to write a story where these qualities shaped an Indian woman’s choices.
Q: In many religions and cultures, the “rules” tend to create challenges. All the women in Well-Behaved Indian Women go against tradition in some way: Simran dates in high school, Nandini leaves an arranged marriage and Mami lives on her own and develops a school program at an older age. By creating characters that push the envelope, what message do you intend to get across regarding Indian culture and tradition?
A: We are all somehow trying to find our own blend of culture and tradition that works for us — and that blend can shift. In my community, I’ve seen people take some parts of their culture of origin and then embrace other parts of their new culture here. There’s no one size fits all. There’s no one way to be South Asian.
Q: Simran and Nandini often butt heads. but Simran and her grandmother, Mami, seem to have a better understanding of each other. Why?
A: I love the idea of family roles — how the same people can be different in different roles. I’ve seen, even in my own life, how a grandparent can be different than a parent. Mami softens with time and perspective, and Simran never sees the strict, rule abiding Mami who Nandini often refers to.
Q: Nandini experienced several occasions at work where sexism and racism came into play. Why did you choose to include this?
A: This was directly inspired by my experiences as a third-year medical student in rural Georgia. I was shocked to experience sexism and racism on a daily basis. During one particularly difficult shift, I wondered what someone like Nandini would do. This question led me to further develop her character.
Q: Kunal and Simran, along with Simran’s parents — and you — are in the medical field. In Indian culture, is there pressure to pursue higher education? Is journalism considered a viable career?
A: I definitely felt pressure to choose something practical and stable. For me, those came in the forms of medicine, law or business. Journalism wasn’t under that umbrella. But as I grew up, I learned a lot of that pressure came from a place of love, from wanting to make sure I was secure and didn’t have to struggle the way my parents and so many of the adults in their generation did.
Q: Neil brings excitement, temptation and validation to Simran, and there were many times I hoped she would leave Kunal for him. Kunal was on the right path for a strong career, and he cared about Simran and had hope for their future. Simran had the opportunity to choose, but she ended up alone. Why?
A: Simran really needed to figure out who she was and what she wanted without the pressure of expectations. Neil helped get that journey started for her, but I believe she still has some growth and self-discovery ahead of her. I’m excited to think about where she goes next and if Neil is a part of that.
Q: Simran’s father chooses to support Nandini in her decision to take the job, but we don’t hear too much of his voice when it came to Simran and her choices. What is a typical Indian father-daughter relationship like?
A: I think it varies from relationship to relationship. For Ranjit, I think he’s trying to do a better job in his own way. It may not always come across, but his intentions are in a good place. He’s also struggling with where he fits in and how he can make sure his children have less restricted lives. And I believe that through Simran, he gets to make sure that she has the freedom that her mother, and the women in his generation, often didn’t receive.
Q: I loved the way you gave your characters depth with a backstory, shaped them with culture and family influences, and as readers, we were able to experience their journeys. Would you ever consider writing more about Simran in the future? And Neil? Or a prequel about Nandini?
A: I didn’t plan to write more about these characters, but after receiving requests from readers, I’m now wondering what that story would look like. And a Nandini prequel is an amazing idea!
Q: How long did it take you to write this book and how many revisions did you go through?
A: It took a little over ten years. In total, I went through 12 full revisions and countless smaller ones.
Q: What are you working on now? I hear your next book takes place in Atlanta and touches on Indian and Jewish culture.
A: Yes, my second novel is due in two weeks (cue scary music). It’s about a South Asian family navigating mental illness, ambition and family secrets.
Q: What have you read lately that you recommend? Indian authors and others?
A: I’m so pleased to see more and more books by diverse authors. Some of my favorites from this year:
Q: How can we keep up with you and all you do?
A: I’m on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook at @SaumyaJDave
Well-Behaved Indian Women is available for purchase.