Saumya Dave‘s debut “Well-Behaved Indian Women” has been making waves in the publishing world and I was anxious to get my hands on a copy. When I began reading the novel, I was blown away by the multilayered storytelling and gripping plot lines.
We journey through time and geographic locations to follow Simran, her mom Nandini, and her grandmother Mimi. Simran comes from a family of medical doctors but finds her calling in psychology. She has it all: a kind, smart fiance, a prestigious graduate program, her own published book. However, she begins to question her seemingly picture-perfect life after a chance encounter with her writing hero.
On the outside, Nandini beautifully balances her personal and professional lives, but on the inside, she’s still struggling to find the happiness of her own. Years of compromise and self-sacrifice have left her worn out and feeling unfulfilled.
Mimi is the determined and witty matriarch of a family with multiple generations of intelligent and ambitious people. She has reached the highest levels of respect in Indian society, yet she feels as if she’s failed her family.
The multifaceted and even contradictory characteristics make these three women vivid, almost as if they are people we would encounter in real life. The story was especially relatable to me as I’m currently going through the process of applying to medical school while also balancing a grueling master’s program. I could see so much of my own life and family in this book. It was so refreshing to read about characters and situations that reflected my culture and immigrant upbringing.
After finishing “Well-Behaved Indian Women,” I wanted to learn more about the book’s development and the life of its author. So, I reached out to Dave to discuss her journey into writing and how she juggles her writing and medical careers. The culmination of our discussion is in the interview below.
Hi! I’m Saumya Dave. I’m a writer, psychiatrist and new mom. I was born in Baroda, India and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. I recently finished my psychiatry residency at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. My debut novel, “Well-Behaved Indian Women,” was released on July 14th from Berkley/Penguin Random House.
When did you begin writing?
I always wanted to be a writer for many years, but didn’t believe it was actually possible. I was convinced I had to have a career that was considered more stable and also thought I could only have one job. But during my senior year of college, I realized how much I missed writing. I thought about what my future self would regret and the first thing that came to mind was writing a book. By then, I had struggled to find stories that represented the world I came from, and knew I had to try to write one myself. I went through twelve full rewrites and over one hundred rejections of the novel throughout medical school and residency.
Now, I’m an author and psychiatrist. I have a private practice and write when I’m not seeing patients. Both of my jobs are, at their cores, about understanding people. It took me years to learn that I can create my own path and that it’s okay to pursue more than one career.
How do you balance being both a writer and a doctor?
It’s definitely been an adventure! This novel took me over 10 years from the completion of the first draft to the publication. In medical school, I wrote after my exams and usually spent weekends holed up in my apartment, in front of my laptop. During residency, I wrote during post-call and vacation days. The only way it worked for me was to tell myself I had two jobs and that when I wasn’t doing one job, it was time to do the other.
What is your advice for budding South Asian writers?
First, please keep writing! We need your stories more than ever. Also, if possible, try to create a network with other fellow writers. Writing can be a solitary journey and it really helps to have a place for mutual support and encouragement. Moreover, I wish my younger self knew that rejections are a part of the process. In total, I was rejected over one hundred times during my journey to get this book published. I was so used to the metrics of grades and evaluations because of school but writing showed me that feedback isn’t always that clear. It taught me to reevaluate my relationship with failure and seeing it as a learning opportunity, a place to grow from. Lastly, patience and persistence are imperative. Someone once told me to expect all creative projects to take much longer than I think they will. I had a romantic notion of having a book idea, writing it in my spare time, and seeing it on shelves within months.
“Well-Behaved Indian Women” is so relatable to me as a Bengali-American because I’m going through the motions of applying to medical school while also trying to balance my personal life and writing career. There were so many little moments in the book that reflected my life and my family full of doctors. This begs the question, what inspired the creation of this story?
That is so wonderful to hear and your own journey resonates with me so much. I was always so inspired by the strong women around me, from my mother to my grandmother to my friends’ moms. They’ve demonstrated so much grit with everything they’ve done, whether that’s moving across the world to build a better life for their families, learning new languages, or caring for everyone around them. And I realized there were often mentions of the lives they left behind and the women they could have been if they didn’t feel the need to live up to certain standards. I really admired this mixture of strength, vulnerability, and resilience. I struggled to find stories showing these parts of their lives and knew I wanted to explore all of this through writing. The story of “Well-Behaved Indian Women” then started from three basic questions: What do we owe to ourselves and others? How much are all of us shaped by the roles we are placed in? How would my parents’ lives have been different if they stayed in India? All of these questions were in my mind during my clinical rotations in medical school, when I began experiencing some sexism and racism. When I tried to process those events, I often wondered what someone like Nandini would have done and what she must have experienced as a doctor training in an earlier generation.
It’s interesting to see how your protagonist’s story somewhat reflects and juxtaposes your own life story. She is an aspiring mental health professional and you’ve made a name for yourself as a psychiatrist. Was there a person or moment from your life that inspired her character?
I poured a lot of the confusion and fear I had in my early twenties into Simran. She truly is at a crossroads and feels this pressure to have everything figured out. In terms of the similarities between our careers, I’ve always been interested in mental health but initially wanted to be an OB/GYN when I went to medical school! It was only during the end of my third year that I realized my favorite part of each day was being able to talk to patients, learn their stories and see how I could have a positive impact, which is what psychiatry is all about.
thisisforHER is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides mental health education through art therapy exercises. During a trip to Kampala, Uganda, my husband and I visited local nonprofits to learn more about their work. The heads of multiple different organizations asked us if we had any resources to help them incorporate mental health education into their existing initiatives. I was in residency at the time and after I struggled to find readily accessible materials to provide, I decided to design them myself. With the help of faculty members at my program, I created a curriculum that covered basic mental health education through group art exercises. One year after our initial visit, my husband and I went back to Kampala to pilot this with the organizations we had met with before. We were thrilled with the reception and hope to continue building more partnerships in the future. For anyone interested, there’s more information on the thisisforHER website. We are also on Instagram and Twitter.
Many times, South Asians feel pigeonholed into careers in medicine, engineering, or the sciences by desi immigrant diaspora culture and from our own families. “Well-Behaved Indian Women” touches on this a lot. How do we balance the desires of the people around us with our personal ambitions?
I appreciate this question so much and struggled with this for years. It can be so challenging to keep everyone happy and not want to let down the people we love. My parents were worried when I first started writing and often wondered why I was spending so much time on the book. I learned I had to to accept some level of disappoint in order to go after what I wanted. I also realized that my parents were coming from places of love and fear. They wanted to make sure I didn’t get hurt. It took some time, and there were many moments of doubt from both sides, but we are all now grateful that we were pushed out of our comfort zones. I appreciate my parents being open to learning about this new career path and way of life. The one thing that kept me going was knowing I was doing something truly for myself and I wanted to see it through. After a certain point, I became less concerned with whether I’d be published, and more with just wanting to pursue the work that sounded fulfilling to me.
I loved how we have not just one but three protagonists in the book. Why did you want to make this an intergenerational story?
After Nandini’s storyline became clearer to me in medical school, I started thinking about roles, how often we put those we love into roles and how difficult it can be for us to see them outside of those. I thought an intergenerational story would be the perfect landscape to explore the idea of roles. I found old pictures of my own mother and wondered about who she is to her family of origin and how that’s different from who she is as a mother and wife. In “Well-Behaved Indian Women,” I wanted to show how Simran, Nandini, and Mimi straddle the blurry line between mother, daughter and friend, and how those relationships are such fertile ground for misunderstandings, love and connection. The most touching thing I’ve heard from readers is when they’ve told me the book inspired them to ask their parents about their former lives.
From the outside, Nandini is the perfect Indian wife. She’s educated, professional, balanced, caring and consistent. But when I would read the chapters that were narrated by her, I almost got the sense that she felt broken on the inside. What did you want to convey through her narrative?
There is such a divide with Nandini between what others see and what she’s really feeling on the inside. She feels so much pressure to show she’s accomplished everything that’s been expected of her. I wondered what would happen to a woman like Nandini if her regrets caught up to her, if she realized she didn’t fulfill the amazing potential she had in her career. A lot of her conflict comes from wanting to balance these opposing forces that have shaped her. But despite everything she’s gone through, she sustains this hope in herself, even when she doesn’t realize it. I wanted to show what it would be like if she finally went after the things she always wanted and stopped caring about what others thought.
Overall, what is the message that you would like our readers to take away from “Well-Behaved Indian Women?”
I hope readers find some solace and self-acceptance. I’m so grateful for the books I read growing up because of how they made me feel as though I both mattered and belonged. My wish for anyone reading “Well-Behaved Indian Women” is that they feel less alone and hopefully, more understood.
“What you do is not who you are. Our capitalist society spends a lot of time trying to convince us that we are our work, but we don’t have to fall for it.”
When I first met Joy Batra, she wasn’t an author. She was a multi-hyphenated individual who floored me with her charm and her aura. Joy not only had gone to business school and law school at one of the most prestigious universities in America, but she also valued her hobbies and her passions that were completely extraneous to her working persona. Her nontraditional career path was one that, at first glance, confused me. “I’m a dancer and freelancer,” she had said, and I batted my eyes as if she was talking in a foreign language. What’s a freelancer? Why and how did she come to identify herself as a dancer, when her degrees all point to business and law?
Joy Batra’s therapeutic and timely book “Freelance Mindset” provides relevant stories, guidelines, and motivation to take ownership of your career and financial well-being. Particularly, the book is centered around the pros and cons of life as a freelancer and practical advice for how to get started as one. At its core, the “Freelance Mindset” encourages diving deep into the relationship between career and identity, and how the balance of both relate back to your life view.
In the words of Batra:
“Freelancing is a way to scratch a creative itch that is completely unrelated to their day jobs…Freelancing harnesses that independent streak and turns it into a long- term advantage.”
Batra’s older sister’s advice is written with forthright humbleness and glaring humility. Batra leads us through the fear of facing our existential fears about careers, productivity, and creativity. She leans into the psychological aspects of how we develop our careers, and reminds us to approach work not just with serious compassion but also with childhood play:
“You are naturally curious and passionate. As a child, before you needed to think deeply about money, you probably played games, had imaginary friends, and competed in sports. Those instincts might get buried as we grow up, but they don’t disappear altogether.”
Batra also provides us with a diverse cast of inspirational freelancers who provide their honest perspectives across a wide range of domains from being a professional clown to actors to writers. Especially noticeable is the attention paid to South Asian women through notable interviews with Vyjayanthi Vadrevu, Saumya Dave, and more. On social media, it’s easy to find these women and immediately applaud their success, but behind the scenes, it takes a lot of grit, persistence, and determination to reach the successful level of freelancing that you see. Batra encourages a spiritual way of thinking that is marked by rational needs (ex. Maslow’s hierarchy): not to seek immediate gratification and corporate climbing, but rather to view life as a “jungle gym” as coined by Patricia Sellers. Taking risks is part of life, and just like entrepreneurship, freelancing is just as ambitious and off-the-beaten path, despite stigmatization.
“One of the strange paradoxes of the working world is that entrepreneurship is fetishized and freelancing is stigmatized.”
I recommend the “Freelance Mindset” to anyone who is starting out their career in these economically uncertain times, as well as seasoned workers who are looking for inspiration or a shift in their career life. Whether or not you are considering becoming a freelancer in a certain domain, this book is the practical wake-up call that workers and employees need in order to reorient their purpose and poise themselves for a mindset of success. I view this book as a “lifer,” one to read every few years to ground myself and think critically about the choices I make and where I devote my time.
I leave you with this quote:
“We can adopt the new belief that no single job will meet all our financial, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical needs…We have one self, and we must figure out how to integrate it into the various situations we find ourselves in.“
You can purchase a copy of the Freelance Mindset here. Follow Joy Batra on Twitter and Instagram for more content!
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.
Growing up in suburban Connecticut, being the only brown face in a room has never fazed me. I was always the little brown girl in the corner with waist-length hair and a name that made every teacher pause, but the feeling of “otherness” captured in this line was something I knew all too well.
This feeling isn’t unique. It’s the same experience of many immigrants and first-generation South Asian Americans, and that of the main character of “The East Indian”as well.
While a work of fiction set in the 1630s, the novel paints a very real picture of immigration and race in the United States today and the human need to belong.
It is the story of Tony East Indian, inspired by a real person documented in the country’s archives as the first known East Indian in the American colonies, but who is otherwise a work of the author’s imagination and research.
The son of a courtesan from the Coromandel coast of India, Tony unwittingly finds himself as an indentured servant in the plantations of Jamestown, Virginia at just 11 years old.
He accepts “Tony” as his first name — though he doesn’t care for it — because a fellow Tamil once suggested others in the world would find his real name “too hard to utter.” Then he adopts the surname “East Indian” simply because it is thrust upon him when he arrived in Jamestown. The protagonist can no longer even recall his birth name, but soon, he accepts it as a thing of his past.
Over the course of the novel, Tony lands at the center of scandal as he works to establish a new identity as a physician. All the while, he also struggles with isolation, prejudice and the challenges of trying to maintain pieces of the culture he carried with him from abroad.
He is confused as to why Native Americans are also called “Indians” and many colonists simply label him a “moor,” a term used for North Africans or anyone with darker skin, with no context for India or its people in this new world.
He, feeling disloyal to his “many Gods,” converts from Hinduism to Christianity, believing it will give him more credibility and a sense of connection to his peers. He begins to eat meat and spend time at taverns, all in hopes of belonging, and assimilating with colonist ways.
As he comes of age and furthers his physician’s apprenticeship, Tony also begins to ponder questions of race and social class to no avail. He reflects:
“I would talk to Doctor Herman and try to understand the reason behind white skin and black and brown and, more important, what greater distinctions of wit, sensibility, and soul the differences in hue signified. I read and was taught by my master the new ideas put forth by men of learning in England and Europe on the workings of the bowels, the brain, the blood; the causes of migraines, melancholy, and madness, but I never got closer to understanding the real meaning behind what they called different races of men, and if such difference exists in any profound sense that really matters.”
Overall, in “The East Indian,” Tony becomes a man. He learns of the world’s cruelty and its kindness. He learns to work, play, love, hate, scheme, grieve and care for himself and others. But, like most immigrants, he still longs for home.
“For home is singular and unique. Everywhere else is but a stopping place, a bed in a stranger’s house, eating off plates not one’s own, an unfamiliar view from a casement,” Tony said.
When attempts to head West and find an ocean back to India fail, Tony accepts that returning to his motherland is unlikely and resolves that he must learn to adapt.
He worries his love interest, born in the colonies, will not relate to him, for “her heart did not ache for another place beyond the sea” and also wonders what the future of his children will be. Nevertheless, he is never defeated.
“I would thrive wherever the wind laid me,” says Tony. “[I] will be my own shelter, my landing place. Like a snail, I will carry home on my back, find it where I happen to be, make it from what I bear inside me.”
Leaving or even kidnapped from their homes with little to no hope of return, thousands of Indians faced journeys fraught with violence, condemnation and injustice trying to create new lives and identities away from their homeland in places like Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, and Jamaica. However, like Tony, they also found the strength and courage to survive and establish their own cultures and communities.
While no details are known about the real Tony East Indian, Charry weaves a compelling coming-of-age tale that takes him as well as readers across three continents.
The novel, like life itself, has fast and slow moments, but it is filled with vivid, historically accurate depictions of the colonial world and moving moments that keep you rooting for the main character’s triumph.
It is this authenticity and compassion that makes “The East Indian” an invaluable modern work. There are no known first-hand accounts of the indentured or South Asian colonists in America. The only proof of the mere existence of many are the generations that have come after them.
With several years of research put into it, Charry’s “The East Indian” serves as a rare realistic portrayal of what life may have been for these individuals; the hardships they endured, and the strength they embodied. South Asian or not, it is a rich history not only worth reading but sharing and celebrating.
To learn more about Brinda Charry and her professional work visit her website. The East Indian is now available in print and audiobooks from all major book retailers.
Featured Image: Author Brinda Charry was born and raised in India before moving to the United States for graduate school two decades ago. She considers herself “a novelist-turned-academic-returned-novelist | Photo Credit: Lisa Arnold Photography