I’ve just finished reading A Good Indian Wife by Anne Cherian, a first generation Indian immigrant and author. The book was published in 2008 and follows the two main characters, Neel (Suneel) Sarath, an Indian born American doctor and Leila Krishnan, a local woman from his hometown who teaches English.
I originally thought that the story was set in the modern day, but a few chapters in there is mention that it’s taking place in the 1980’s, though the exact year is unspecified. The exact location in India that the two main characters are from is also not mentioned beyond the fact that they are Iyengar and live in South India.
I’m not going to lie, I had some struggles with this book. The writing is compelling and engaging, but I absolutely despise the character of Neel. He is selfish, entitled and an all around dick. I hoped for redemption, but there’s not really a way for him to come back from how he behaved (in my opinion).
FYI, spoilers ahead!
The plot kicks off when Neel goes home to visit his sick grandfather and is subsequently bullied by his entire family into an arranged marriage. At this point in the story he has been in a relationship with Caroline, an American woman who works at the hospital with him, for 3 years. His family isn’t aware of the relationship, as he’s never said anything, but you’d think it would have come up as a legitimate reason to not go through with the arranged marriage. He never said anything because he doesn’t actually want to marry Caroline. He thinks she’s beneath him because she’s “only a secretary” and not a doctor, like him. Several characters refer to Caroline as a gold digger, despite no textual evidence of this in the book. I think after being in a relationship for 3 years that her desire to get married is a reasonable expectation. Neel has refused to meet her family, to tell his friends that they’re dating (though all the ones we meet in the book know anyway and hate Caroline for unsubstantiated reasons), or tell his family of her existence.
Since Neel has a jellyfish spine about all of this he obviously ends up getting married to Leila and is just awful about it. He’s constantly enraged and treats his new wife like garbage. At first he gets excited that the American Visa applications are difficult for Indians and maybe he can just leave his new bride in India for a few years and pretend she doesn’t exist. Of course his family sorts this all out and Leila gets a Visa and a plane ticket to go home with Neel. When they arrive home he leaves his new bride in his apartment alone while he goes to see Caroline with the full intention of continuing a sexual relationship with her. Caroline is understandably upset that he went and got married, but he manages to convince her that he’s poor, downtrodden Neel at the mercy of family guilt and he just HAD to get married and now she should feel bad for him. His family are ridiculous and very pushy, but I get the impression that if they’d known he was happily in a relationship they’d have backed off. They just don’t want him to be alone and, to be fair, if your child were on the other side of the world, was 35 years old and there was no mention of any relationship (and had not expressed asexuality, etc.), I might get concerned too. A little communication would have probably fixed everything.
All things that Neel does to “help” Leila may seem outwardly genuine, such as suggesting she find work, get a new haircut to fit in, buying her professional clothing, telling her to explore the city, are all just things he’s doing so he can feel like less of an ass when he divorces her. She won’t be able to go back to India because of the stigma and he wants to make sure that he doesn’t completely f*** her over. Honestly, it’s just kind of infuriating. Leila does nothing wrong and really tries to make Neel happy, but he’s so determined to hate her that it makes no difference. He also keeps calling her Lee, though she’s said she prefers her full name, Leila. He lies to his friends and strangers about their relationship being love at first sight, etc. and it just makes me want to punch him. He’s so intensely disrespectful to Leila even though it’s his own fault all of this is happening.
It’s not until part way through chapter 25 that Neel starts to treat Leila like an actual human being. Bear in mind this is only after Caroline panicked that she might be pregnant. Neel has zero respect for Caroline or Leila, and frankly, probably most of his friends as well. He’s constantly complaining in his head that his friend Sanjay would expect him to break things off with Caroline now that he’s married if Sanjay knew about the relationship.
This quote from Neel’s thoughts is a perfect representation of how he views his marriage. “He’d thought he could leave Leila at home and continue on with his life, until she got the point and left.”
When Caroline calls to tell Leila everything that’s been going on and Leila subsequently confronts Neel about it, he flat out lies and manipulates her. He makes Caroline out to be a clingy stalker that he went out with a few times years ago and she just refuses to leave him alone. Additionally, when he goes to Caroline’s home for the last time he completely humiliates her and walks out, without even properly terminating the relationship. When Leila becomes pregnant Neel gets angry with her for not having been on birth control despite being a virgin from a highly conservative family and culture. He actually thinks of her as “stubborn and stupid” because she won’t abort her baby because he’s “not ready for kids yet”. She’s 30 and he’s 35, there’s only so much more time and if you don’t want to have children with your spouse you should probably let them know that and make arrangements beforehand. I should also point out that they don’t start sleeping together until several months of their marriage have elapsed and only because he randomly feels like it one night. Leila has spent those months concerned that she’s a failure of a wife because her husband shows zero interest in her. Up until the end Neel is pretty awful. I was expecting redemption, but even his attempt at that falls flat. I wish there was a couple more chapters so we could get a chance to see if he actually follows through and treats Leila properly, but we kind of just have to take his word for it.
For all that I despise Neel, I love the character of Leila. She’s kind, compassionate, but also has the fortitude to not just take these abuses. For most of the book she didn’t know that Neel was planning on divorcing her, but she did know that something was wrong. She walks a delicate line because she doesn’t want to believe that she married an awful man and unfortunately tends to accept his lies even when she’s not entirely convinced. She takes her time and figures out ways to be independent from him. She’s an intelligent woman and it just genuinely an enjoyable character to read for the most part.
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