A Good Indian Wife explores the differences between American and Indian culture through numerous identities. The protagonist in the novel is a thirty-year-old Indian girl called Leila, who is married off to an Indian-American boy. When the story begins Leila works as a local teacher in a South Indian village – she teaches English, and because of her age is considered by her family as already too old to ever have a marriage. But then Neel arrives from the United States and although Leila, who has seen too many suitors come an go, thinks that Neel will be just the same, his family propose marrying the two off, which makes Leila’s family very happy because it’s almost as if this is an event they had thought would never come; after the marriage, Leila moves to San Francisco, with her husband.
Neel, meanwhile, comes across as an ideal-type of romantic Indian hero. He’s a handsome young boy, thirty-five-years-old, and works in a hospital as an anesthesiologist – he was actually very psyched about his life, until his marriage to Leila. Neel also has a tall blonde girlfriend, Caroline, in San Francisco, who he continues his romantic relationship with despite his marriage to Leila. Neel had to go back to his hometown because his grandfather was dying but then during the trip he was tricked into a marriage with Leila – Neel’s mother and aunt, during the trip to rural India, seem to be unaware of his relationship with Caroline because they consider him to be single and the only reason he gets married in India is because Neel’s fearful of disappointing his grandfather.
Neel promised himself he would divorce Leila soon after his grandfather had died, but Neel doesn’t. Neel’s trapped inside his traditional Indian identity, despite his character having overarched shades of modernity – Neel knows, all too well, his family would never accept Caroline as his bride. After Leila and Neel’s marriage, Neel does not touch his wife – she spends most nights and weekends by herself.
It makes for a good read to find Leila as a somewhat-independent young woman, with good looks and intelligence to boast, so it’s hardly surprising when Leila portrays that she’s got a vague idea about what her marriage is truly like, what it could really be, on the surface. Leila turns to a support group, as a result, she contemplates studying creative writing at Berkley and even confides in Neel’s best friend’s wife – he’s a Bengali but married to a white woman.
Everything complicates itself when Neel discovers Caroline’s family will never accept him – this kind of propels Neel to piece together another romantic story but with Leila instead. In the course of this, Leila becomes pregnant but Caroline is still waiting for Neel to divorce his wife so that the two can be together, which judging by what Caroline had in mind, is way past due already since this was supposed to happen after Neel’s grandfather had died.
Anne Cherian (the author of the novel) seems to write from her own Indian experiences – she’s originally from Jamshedpur (India), was also brought up there but resides in San Francisco now. The story brilliantly etches out both the Indian-American identity and the kind of experiences an Indian woman can have whilst living in the United States. It’s a superlative and traditional experience of two incompatible young people drowning their incompatibilities, and a good insight into Indian cultures (in the United States).