by Mary Jo Putney
India has famously been called “the jewel in the crown” of Britain’s empire. The relationship between the two countries is a very long one: the original charter of the British East India Company was signed by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600.
With superior weapons and well drilled armies, Europeans were able to establish control over the diverse kingdoms of the subcontinent. In 1757, the British defeated the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies at Battle of Plassey and established British dominance of the subcontinent. Over the following 150 years or so, India became the source of much of the British empire’s wealth.
India often twines its way into British set historical romances—I set one book there, and a number of my characters had Indian backstories. India is a source of exotic mystery, romance, wealth, and danger in the historical imagination.
So…I thought it would be interesting to talk to my friend Shobhan Bantwal about that long relationship, as seen through the eyes of a native Indian who has lived in the US for many years. (So many Indians live throughout the world that there is a term for them: NRI—Non-Resident Indians.)
I first met Shobhan in passing at an NJRW conference in New Jersey (and enlisted her help in factchecking my recent book, Loving a Lost Lord, which has a half-Hindu hero.)
Shobhan has had three books published by Kensington so far, and if I were to classify them, it would be as “contemporary romantic ethnic women’s fiction.” That is to say, her subjects are modern India and Indians and her heroines live at the intersection of deeply rooted traditions and contemporary challenges. Or put another way, she tells great, accessible stories about Indian women, and she believes in happy endings.
MJP: India has been invaded many times over the centuries, and always it ends up absorbing and transforming the invaders. As a native born Indian, how do you feel about the British presence for all those many years? What are the pluses and minuses?
SB: As someone born a few years after India gained independence in 1947, my knowledge of the British “Raj” as they refer to the British rule in India, comes from history books and anecdotes from my elders. Britain at one time was the arrogant superpower that set out to conquer the world and managed to do precisely that to a certain degree. It comes as no surprise that it set its sights on a country like India, rich in natural resources but weakened by small kingdoms ruled by warring kings and princes.
The minuses come from the fact that much of India’s natural wealth like rare spices, silks, gems, and ancient artifacts were literally plundered by the British to feed their own coffers and for their pleasure. Many British museums, including the Tower of London Museum, probably contain more of India’s famous precious gems and pieces of art and archeology than India does. Many Hindus were converted to Christianity by the British as well, leaving a permanent mark on the social fabric.
However, the pluses balance the minuses. Education, transportation, English as an international language, technology, and science would never have become such an intrinsic part of Indian culture if it were not for the British. Today’s India is the world’s largest democracy with a vast English-speaking populace with advanced education and superior skills that has made it possible for rapid growth in the high-tech and service industries.
On a personal note, it was my education in English that led me to become a career woman in the U.S. and later on an author. For all that I am grateful to the British and their continuing legacy.
My mother (God rest her soul) was educated in an exclusive school run by the British. She introduced my sisters and me to reading English books and that was what got me hooked on reading. She loved reading romances. If she were alive today, she would have been ecstatic to see one of her daughters become a published romance author. Hope she’s watching all this from heaven.
MJP: Your first two books were set in India and dealt with ancient customs that definitely were not woman-friendly. Could you tell us something of what inspired The Dowry Bride and The Forbidden Daughter?
SB: Sociology was my major subject in college and social and women’s issues were of deep interest to me. So when I took up creative writing I decided to address some of the antiquated traditions like dowry and female repression that continue to plague India’s women to this day. Despite laws banning dowry and female feticide, they are still practiced in contemporary India.
Women in India lead a double life—a public life and a personal one that are very diverse from each other. Education and a status-worthy career do not add up to a lot when it comes to their home life. Men still rule the roost and women still play subjective roles to a large degree. Female children are viewed as burdens and male children as assets. My first two books wove these two subjects into romantic stories to bring awareness as well unique entertainment to American readers.
Incidentally, The Dowry Bride, my debut book, has my daughter on the cover, in all her bridal finery. Having my daughter on my very first cover is a great thrill for me.
MJP: Arranged marriage is a staple of our historical romances, but today, India is one of the few cultures where arranged marriage is still a common feature. You are a modern American woman, yet you and your husband had an arranged marriage, and a very successful one. Would you discuss that with us?
SB: In cultures like India, marriage is seen not merely as a man and woman coming together to start a family but also a social institution that brings entire families and communities together. Practical considerations like social and economic status, caste, educational levels, and family compatibility come above everything else.
My own arranged marriage was a product of such pragmatic thinking. Then there was astrology thrown into the mix as well. Horoscopes were matched on both sides, and only after the respective family astrologers had declared that it was a good match did my future husband and I meet. There must be something to this astrology business, because the predictions are frequently on target.
Amazingly enough, these marriages do work out well, too, perhaps because most of us born and raised in conservative Indian families are programmed to think of marriage as much more than physical attraction. A great many modern young women in India still seem to put their faith in their parents and other elders to find them a suitable spouse and settle for arranged marriage. There is indeed a great deal of comfort in having someone else do the research and matchmaking. All one has to do is pray hard and take the plunge.
From my personal experience, I can say that my parents chose well for me. My husband of nearly 36 years has been my best friend and partner in every way.
MJP: What do you see as the ways Britain influenced India and India influenced Britain? (For example, chicken curry is a staple food in English pubs these days, and every English town and village seems to have an Indian restaurant.)
SB: Both the cultures have had an enormous impact on each other. So many Indian words have become a part of the English language that one rarely realizes they actually have their origin in India, for example, karma, dharma, guru, nirvana, pundit, pariah, chutney, and juggernaut, to name a few. Chicken curry has replaced the age-old staple fish and chips as Britain’s favorite take-out food.
Similarly, British customs and habits are well entrenched in Indian culture and society. The games of golf, tennis, cricket, and squash, non-vegetarianism, dressing in trousers and collared shirts, and speaking and reading English, are some of the influences of Britain over India. Perhaps the most significant impact is on government, which has the same structure and all official business in India is conducted in English. Today, some of India’s exclusive private schools and universities boast a standard of education that can rival Eton and Harrow, Cambridge and Oxford.
MJP: Your new book, The Sari Shop Widow, takes place in New Jersey, and the heroine, Anjali, faces the challenges of being both a traditional Indian daughter and a modern American woman. Tell us something about that. And do you have thoughts on the way India and the West interact in the twenty-first century.
SB: Set on the streets of Edison, New Jersey, The Sari Shop Widow tells the story of a young businesswoman who rediscovers the magic of love, family, and her traditional roots as she fights to save her failing sari boutique. Incidentally, the hero is Indo-British to spice up the story and add another dimension to the plot. He is a true product of a mixed marriage. He can speak the Queen’s English and Gujarati with equal fluency. He relishes spicy Indian food and yet he can devour bland meat and potatoes.
What sparked the idea for the story was that I shop often in the area called Little India in Edison and I believed it would make a great backdrop for a romantic story. With its sari shops, jewelry stores, food markets, and restaurants, it is a small slice of India transplanted into suburban America, and it has a unique atmosphere suitable for a fiction setting. Now that I’ve written the book, I guess all I have to do is twiddle my thumbs and wait for a Bollywood movie producer to discover it. Of course, it could be an excruciatingly long wait…….
About my thoughts on the interaction between India and the West: With the different continents interacting in this culture of globalization, India has emerged as a major world player. Technology from the West has given India an opportunity to shine and thrive. More and more young people travel to the West and even live here permanently to pursue careers and raise families. By the same token, many have taken western ideas back to India and put them to good use to raise the country’s standard of living. As a result, American and European foods, literature, and fashions have permeated Indian culture.
MJP: What lies in your writing future?
SB: A fourth book is slated for release next year by my publisher, Kensington. I don’t have a definite title yet, but it will be women’s fiction that is partly set in India and partly in the U.S. Information about my published books is on my website: www.shobhanbantwal.com (MJP: She has nice videos for each book, too!)
Thank you for interviewing me for your popular and interesting blog. Your questions have made me think long and hard and that is always a good thing for an author. I appreciate your continued support.
MJP: Shobhan has generously agreed to give away a signed copy of The Sari Shop Widow to one of the commenters on this blog between now and Saturday midnight. As readers, what do you think about the lure and mystery of India in our historical novels, as well as the reality presented by Shobhan?
And hasn't Kensington given her fabulous covers?!!