And also: a not-so-brief tirade about bad sex in romance novels
I liked A Bollywood Affair, and I would have liked it even more if it had committed to some of the deep questions its plot prefers to skate past. This novel isn’t the generic dribbly red chicken curry served at Indian restaurants in the suburbs, distilled to an archetype and milked of any challenging originality. The heroine, Mili, is born in a small Indian village and married off at the age of four. Shortly after that, her twelve-year-old husband leaves the village, and she hasn’t heard from him since. At age twenty-four, she gets into a year-long graduate studies program in Michigan. She lives her life on the cusp of what she hopes will be a grand and predestined romance, as well as the fulfillment of all her traditional wifely duties. Her husband hasn’t written or spoken to her in two decades, but she hasn’t given up hope.
What she doesn’t know is that her husband’s family thinks the marriage — an embarrassing and old-fashioned event, a child marriage — was annulled years ago. The love of Mili’s life has joined the Air Force and married again. It isn’t until his plane is shot down that he receives a legal notice informing him he’s still married to the faithfully waiting Mili. Except, of course, that she is no longer where he left her. The husband’s younger brother Samir, a Hollywood producer and onetime male model, heads to Michigan to serve Mili her annulment papers. He does this in person because, if he used the more convenient and reasonable means of email and phone, we’d have no pretext for the novel that follows.
There’s so much good stuff buried just beneath the surface of this story — and for the most part, it remains buried. For example, in Samir’s success story — the illegitimate son of an Indian man and a white woman, he’s made his early name off his looks. He’s pale skinned and golden-haired, a deceptive Hindi speaker in a country that is for the most part more ethnically homogeneous. “India’s post-colonial obsession with white skin was alive and well,” Dev notes, in a footnote to Samir’s success. He has also suffered for being a mixed-race person in a society that judges him an outsider because of the color of his hair. But Dev eschews complicated explorations of racial privilege in favor of rhapsodizing about Samir’s rippling muscles and fuck-me smiles. It is a romance novel, I suppose.
Then there’s this tidbit, tossed in partway through: “Thanks to the Village Panch Council laws, the village council gets to decide whether marriage vows that were performed under their jurisdiction are valid or not.” Samir, who left the village before he could really remember, has grown up under the glamorous lights of Bollywood, a stereotypical flavor that nonetheless provides a recognizable note in the cocktail that is Mumbai’s big-city culture. Mili is from a different India entirely: one where women wait for husbands who never arrive, where a child marriage becomes an adult’s destiny, where dancing means garbas rather than going out. Early in the book, while living in Michigan, she receives a medical bill for $120 and gasps, fearing she’s undone. Samir, seeing it, casually laughs. “It’s only $120,” he says, mistaking her gasp for one of pleased surprise.
At another point, an Indian-American sulks about how her parents don’t understand what India is like today: “If [my dad] saw the clothes my cousins in India wear or the stuff they do with their boyfriends he’d have so many heart attacks he’d have to rent space in the ICU.” The cousin’s right, but when she says it, she’s thinking about people like Samir, not people like Mili. This is one of the few American-published novels I’ve read that tries to get at different types of Indian experience (the author was born in India and now lives in Chicago).
There are other recognizable details scattered throughout this book: Mili’s grandmother’s obsession with the rising price of daal, references to Mogul warriors in period sagas, a moment when an irritated public beats up the projectionist at a cinema because they don’t like the movie they’ve been shown. This isn’t a book about India, but it is atypically detailed about where Mili and Samir are from.
There is a world in which a work of literary fiction, featuring characters with these backstories, could have turned new ground. Where Dev falters is not in her representation, but in the romance itself. Samir appears as a brash playboy, his looks hiding what reads at first like psychopathy. When we first meet him, it’s in medias res, in bed with his girlfriend of six months, as she gasps out that she loves him. His response:
“Why did women do this — every single one of them? Why did they have to ruin a perfectly good, perfectly mind-numbing fuck this way? Why?”
Girl. I am past the day when I’m interested in a man who treats every woman but his One True Love with contempt. This isn’t a fantasy about finding love, it’s a fantasy about exerting power over other women through the medium of a man. When Samir meets Mili, he’s smitten, and it brings out an anger in him he’s never before experienced:
“Over the past month he’d gone from being the kind of bastard he didn’t mind being to the kind of bastard he would like to bear the crap out of. If this is what being in love did to a man, he was essentially screwed.”
Except, it isn’t what being in love does to a man.
When not marinating in long baths of toxic masculinity, Samir is waking up from tedious nightmares about his abusive grandfather, or spinning perfect paranthas in the kitchen. Samir’s passion for cooking is a redeeming character trait. His backstory, dispensed like harsh medicine, feels cheap and borderline exploitative; a series of horrors that he seems to have learned very little from.
Mili, meanwhile, has a touch of the manic pixie immigrant dream girl about her, a bundle of resilience and brightness. She and Samir are physical foils: he’s tall, has size fourteen feet, and “humongous” arms. She, meanwhile, has size four and a half feet, and is barely five feet tall. The sexual size dimorphism between these two is so pronounced that I thought of Beauty and the Beast, and wondered what romance novels are really fetishizing. Maybe it’s not a story, but an idea of one. For women, this notion of being seen through some man’s eyes as the apogee of compacted feminine allure. I’m reminded, as I often am, of a moment in Siri Hustvedt’s “What I Loved” when a woman’s looking at a painting of another woman, painted by a man, and she notes how women occupy a subject position that’s both unique and often unenviable. Looking at the painting, she imagines herself both as the woman and as the man painting her. Subject and gaze. Maybe that’s why so many straight romance novels feature chapters ostensibly written from the man’s point of view.
Mili’s other notable trait — not her breasts, thank fucking God — are her eyes, which are described at length as “onyx”, “pitch-black”, “impossibly bright”, “fake-innocent”, etc. Dev deserves credit for finding ways to describe Mili’s peepers that don’t resort to tired Indian tripe, but I get the impression that Mili is constantly blinking up at Samir like some slightly befuddled deer, an image not contradicted by a moment when they dance, her standing on his feet. It’s meant to be sweet and it sorta is, but it also evokes some “father-daughter dance at the elementary school” vibes. Yikes.
These two circle around each other and eventually converge in a sex scene that’s both predictable and yet, I’m sorry to say, deserves a dishonorable mention. Let’s get into it.
I’m going to quote from the text. Apologies in advance.
“He backed her into the tree and pushed himself into her. She was too tight, too slight for how much his hunger had engorged him. He tried to stop, tried to slow, tried to ease into her…he lost all semblance of control and drove into her like a crazed beast. And for the first time in his life came up against a barrier.”
Let’s keep going, like people who know we’re about to drive past a terrible car crash but are powerless to stop.
“One hard thrust and he ripped past the resistance. This time her cry was laced with pain. She went rigid in his arms.”
And now, we can see that there might have been fucking casualties in this horrifying accident.
“He slammed into her, mindless frantic thrusts until he exploded…”
I don’t need a cold shower, I need therapy. This poor chick just lost her virginity against a tree to a dude who offered her no foreplay, who “ripped” into her body, and who proceeded to treat her to “frantic thrusts.” These are the types of sex scenes that give adolescent virgins confusing fucking nightmares. The book has been building up the sexy tension between these two, only to give us a scene where this dude disrespects and hurts this girl, knowingly, paying zero attention to her emotional or physical state.
Sonali Dev — and women who write scenes like this — need to be called out. Yes, Mili consents to this sex, but Samir is a vicious and selfish lover. Who agrees to that? Scenes like this are why so many women have years and years of bad sex; why they struggle to say no to things they don’t want; why they suffer sexual pain in silence; why they accept abuse in the name of love. If consent feels like an ambiguous standard, it’s because women are told that this type of sex is acceptable, or even worse, that they’re defective for not finding pleasure in it. When they don’t come at the mere sight of a penis, they’re told that they’re frigid or, even better, complicated. (There’s nothing complicated about finding the clitoris; even dolphins can do it.)
Maybe there is a universe in which a sexual experience like this could be enjoyable for a woman with experience and preparation, but Mili is not that woman, and Samir knows it. They’ve never had a conversation about her fantasies or experiences or desires, and he sure as hell doesn’t seem interested. Later on, he refers to this as an amazing sexual experience for him, even though he knows it was a shitty one for her. I get that people get off on different things, but shouldn’t some small part of Samir’s definition of an amazing sexual experience include pleasing his partner? The subtext of this storyline is that it’s ok for a man to be self-centered, while a woman’s job is to accommodate what he wants and she’ll magically orgasm in the process. Fuck that noise.
Let’s be clear: romance is a multi-voiced genre, with both a history and a present of women falling in love with their actual rapists. I am zero percent into that type of thing and I admit it makes me uncomfortable. But A Bollywood Affair isn’t presented as one of those novels: it’s not dark, paranormal, historical, kinky or in any other such category. It just straight up glamorizes what reads like a really bad first sexual encounter, and is a more egregious version of the type of bad sex that romance too often offers up as delectable fare (reference: at least half the sex scenes in “Bridgerton”).