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Well-Behaved Indian Women, by Saumya Dave.

May 14, 2020

Well-Behaved Indian WomenWell-Behaved Indian Women, by Saumya Dave. Penguin, 2020.

Forthcoming July 2020.

3 stars

A familiar story in which immigrant women in America challenge Indian traditions of female docility and seek meaningful lives for themselves.

Saumya Dave was herself born in India and grew up in Atlanta.  After graduating from Georgia Tech and the Medical College of Georgia, she went on to a Psychiatry Residency at Mount Sinai Beth Israel where she continues to teach. She also is involved with the advocacy of women’s mental health and opportunities globally.  Her essays and poems have appeared in various publications. This is her first novel.  It grew out of her own experience and that of the strong Indian American women she knew.

Well-Behaved Indian Women is the story of three generations of an Indian family and explores their varied lives.  Simran Mehta is the daughter of a successful Hindu couple who married and immigrated to the United States, leaving the wife’s mother behind.   Simran grew up in a successful community of immigrant families following traditional values.  Although she was in grad school studying to be a psychologist, she also enjoyed writing and had a book of her essays published.  She was planning to marry her long-time boyfriend, when she met an attractive journalist who supported her love for writing and opened new doors for her.  She became torn between the two men in her life.  At the same time she was doubting the career she had planned.  Her mother had worked hard to serve everyone and insure that Simran was safe and conventional, although she herself had secrets and dreams which she had never shared.  When Simran started to doubt her assumed future, her mother also challenged the roles she had always played.  Simran also helped her aging grandmother back in India find new meaning in her life.

Dave has written a good novel about the particular dynamics of immigrant women, especially immigrant mothers and daughters.  The tensions and the choices that the characters must make keep the readers’ attention.  Dave uses her psychiatric training to explore the internal contradictions that the people she describes experience.  Her own anger at the restrictions placed on women is strongly expressed.

This is Dave’s first novel, and I am sure her next one will be better written.  Although the family is Hindu, we see little about their religious tradition beyond the excessive planning for a big Hindu wedding.  The grandmother back in India is less developed than the other characters and less clearly connected to the larger plot.  Yet Dave’s story is one that has been explored widely in both fiction and autobiography.  The problems she describes are not unique to either Indian women or migrants, although they may be particularly intense for them.  Even those of us who have not migrated to this country have known the generational pressure which Dave depicts and the frustrations it engenders.  Reading this book, I had the sense that this story has been told too many times before.

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy new variations of familiar stories about mothers and daughters rather than those looking for something more original.

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