In her intriguing debut novel, India-born Shobhan Bantwal blends romance and suspense with an exploration of the abuse of “dowry brides” in modern-day India.
The plot is catchy. Megha Ramnath, a beautiful 21-year-old Indian bride with movie-star good looks, is determined to make the best of a disastrous marriage her parents have arranged. It’s not easy. Abused and worked like a slave by her psychotic mother-in-law, she falls exhausted into bed every night only to be used like a prostitute by her unloving and unattractive husband.
After a year of marriage, however, Megha is horrified to overhear her mother-in-law and husband plotting her execution. They plan to burn Megha alive in a seeming accident, all because she has failed to produce a baby and her parents’ dowry payments are in arrears. Divorce, her mother-in-law believes, will bring disgrace on the family. Murder is preferable.
Bantwal describes Megha’s barefoot flight in the middle of the night to Suresh’s handsome and well-off bachelor cousin Kiran Rao’s flat. There, Megha seeks sanctuary until she can figure out what to do. Savvy romance readers will sense the conclusion of the story at this point before the first 50 pages have been turned.
As she unfolds the story of Megha, Bantwal shows the contemporary dilemmas and frustrations of a Hindu Brahmin woman, desperate for a good education and a loving husband but willing to settle for what her parents deem best for her future. In the end, Bantwal has Megha make choices that give her independence and romance, which should satisfy most fiction aficionados.
Bantwal, who was born and raised in India, knows her setting well, and her firsthand experiences translate into rich details about Megha’s world. She brings the middle-class section of the rural (and fictional) town of Palgaum to life as well as Hindu religious festivals and customs. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the traditional Hindu home, which includes a pot of holy tulsi (a tropical variety of basil), planted in a brightly-colored urn in the center of the courtyard. Women in a Hindu household pray to the tulsi for blessings, according to Bantwal. This kind of detail, plus details about food and clothing, invite readers to experience a culture with which they may be unfamiliar.
Other scenes invite the reader to consider the ramifications of the Hindu religion in everyday life. When Megha has a miscarriage, she asks her mother, “Do you think God is punishing me for something I did when I was little?” Her mom responds, “I think we all bring our punishment with us…you know…to make up for sins from our previous lives. It follows us through every life, again and again, making sure that we pay for everything, the good and the bad, until we have finished paying.” Book clubs may find this interesting fodder for discussion.
What differentiates this book from other romance novels is its exotic setting and call for social justice. Bantwal is the self-proclaimed happy bride of an arranged marriage by her parents (although, she is quick to say, no dowry was involved). In an author’s note, she calls for conscious-raising about the archaic system of varadakhshina --- dowry --- which she calls “a corrupt and decadent tradition…it can be viewed as a form of extortion.”
Occasionally Bantwal’s descriptions are over the top, such as an early description of Megha’s planned defense of Suresh, her unlovable and unattractive husband (“She’d fight them with everything she had --- if necessary, even give her own life to save her husband’s.”) Some factoids (such as Kiran accidentally discovering literature in Megha’s mother-in-law’s handbag about bride-burning) are a stretch, and readers will wonder why a girl as traditional as Megha was willing to hide out at a handsome single bachelor’s apartment instead of her best friend’s home or her parents’. (Although Bantwal takes care to explain why Megha doesn’t make those choices, they are still the obvious ones.) Some emotions that are spotlighted, such as Megha’s desire for revenge, are never acted on in a way that satisfies.
But romance lovers will like the idea of the beautiful, betrayed woman stranded at the handsome bachelor’s apartment. Other fiction readers --- and book clubs and reading groups --- will appreciate the educational opportunities of the book about life in India, the Hindu religion and the plight of dowry brides.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on September 1, 2007
The Dowry Bride