At the library in Jurong East, other than browsing at the shelves where my favourite authors are located, I would sometimes browse along other aisles and hope a book jumps out at me, which it has happened many times.
Sharmila’s Book caught my attention. Sharmila is the name of mum’s neighbour whom I used to play with when I was a child, together with her sister Supriah, my other neighbour Joyce and my sister. They’re upper caste Bengalis from Malaysia and very rich. We were the same age and got along very well, until my next door neighbour, late Aunty Rose, told us to stop playing with them. I’ve never found out the reason why.
When I reach adulthood, Sharmila’s mother would tell me stories about her children, in particular trying to match make for her daughters. When she failed to find a suitor, she told her daughters to go ahead to look for suitors themselves, ‘just make sure they’re Bengali and the same caste.’ When that failed too, she told them, ‘any Indians would do’ and finally, ‘any race, just make sure they’re men.’ The daughters are still not married.
This book is about Sharmila, an American ‘red curry Indian’ living in Chicago who finally agreed to her parents’ proposal to a match with a man in India, after her live-in relationship with an American man failed. She arrives in Dehli at an auspicious time to meet with her suitor, Raj, but Raj is late and instead, she meets his driver and good friend, Prem, a Dalit, a member of an untouchable caste. During her month long stay with Raj’s family prior to the wedding, she learns that Raj is a widower, whose wife ‘fell down a flight of steps and broke her neck’. She’s suspicious, having read in the newspapers numerous times about how the wife would suddenly die, mostly in kitchen fire from exploded ovens, bacause of disagreement in payment of dowry.
This book introduces us to the sight, noise and smell of New and Old Dehli. The reader joins Sharmila as she plays tourist in Dehli, with Prem as her driver and guide, and is introduced to the culture, custom, fashion and food of India. Even though the govenment has abolished the caste system, comprising four classes made up of Priests, Warriors, Traders and Labours, and the casteless ones called the Untouchables, or Dalit, it’s a custom deeply ingrained in Indians’ minds and prejudice against the Dalits still exists. When Sharmila falls in love with Prem, her mother, even as she has lived in USA for thirty years, is against it.
The book is peppered with adjectives abound, with detailed description that leaves nothing to the reader’s imagination. My stomach growled when I read about the food – pratha for breakfast, dum cooking (a slow pressure cooking food) for dinner at the Dum Pukht at the Maurya’s Sheraton Hotel, different pickles at the market, etc, although I worry too when I read how Sharmila is served water, or ice juice outside. Perhaps her stomach is stronger, for I have read never to take any raw food or ice drinks in India to prevent ‘Dehli belly’.
I enjoyed this book, as it gave me an insight to the lives of Indians, although I’m already fairly familiar with, as my best friend is a Sri Lankan girl who was also matchmade. The emphasis on education and respectable career as a requisite for bargains (PhD or Master at least), not to mention dowry. Sharmila has agreed to this match only because she was told no dowry would be exchanging hands, and was disappointed to learn other wise, that her price was US$50K. "This is intolerable. Love and marriage reduced to a business deal. I, a human being, diminished to an object, my worth, calculated in dollars. How foolish I was to talk to Raj about having a partnership of equals when my parents were paying him to take me."
Highly recommended read, especially in preparation for a trip to the Indian capital.