Friendship, Fate and First Love in When Dimple Met Rishi
Everyone has their own idea of what makes an ideal romantic relationship, but at the start of Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi, Dimple Shah’s idea of romance probably involved passionately poring over the plans for an award-winning app. That is to say, “Romance? What romance?”
Rishi Patel, on the other hand, hoped to be matched to the girl of his dreams. Maybe meeting “the one” can take his mind off the fact that he’s ignoring his own passion for creating comics in order to study engineering at MIT. Nothing is fated, of course, but what Rishi does know about his future is that he’ll be meeting Dimple very soon.
The Patels and the Shahs hope that something will bloom between Rishi and Dimple when their kids meet for the first time at a summer camp for web development in San Francisco. Only problem? Dimple has no idea who Rishi is, let alone that her parents and the Patels know each other. It seems the only thing destined to be between them is a stream of iced coffee, as pictured on the back cover.
Point is, the novel is about passions of more than one kind and this already serves to set the story apart from other rom-com styled YA novels. There is nothing terribly mysterious about the story: Dimple and Rishi have a terrible meet-up; they start off as friends, agree to a non-date (clueless talk for a hell-yes-this-is-a-date), fall in love, have an epic argument, and eventually reconcile.
No, what makes the book magical is that, at its core, When Dimple Met Rishi is a joyful romance in addition to being a thoughtful reclamation of the arranged marriage narrative. A lot of the book—like Dimple’s honest conversations with her parents about marriage and the fact that her parents actually listen to her, because Desi parents are not unfeeling robots who want to make us miserable in order to check some kind of “good Indian” box—is a careful reframing of what romantic comedies present to white and Desi audiences alike when a romance involves India/Indians. And the book manages to accomplish all of this without having to cater to the white gaze. (Well, almost. I shall accept sly references to Bobby and phrases like “What Dimple” as compensation.)
Between Dimple and Rishi, the novel also presents a much more interesting conversation about hyphenated identities than most books I’ve read with that exact theme. I love that neither Indian traditions, nor American ones are framed as the “one true way.” And I love that American ideals aren’t framed as freeing either. Each side comes with its own restraints. Watching, not just Dimple and Rishi, but most Indian-American characters negotiate and renegotiate their identities simply because they care about each other’s happiness makes me want to weep with joy. I never thought I’d see it in a book.
In fact, Dimple and Rishi aside, my favourite characters may actually be Dimple’s parents and Rishi’s brother. They bring a complexity to the novel that Dimple and Rishi with their divergent viewpoints on tradition would not have been able to bring. And every secondary character, no matter how minor, seems to constantly be developing alongside Dimple and Rishi, making every sub-plot an interesting one.
That said, the novel is not without flaws. Language is my main issue here. So much thought has been put into the framing of a new kind of Desi/American romance, that I wish Menon had gone a step further and examined how language is used. For instance, I wish the cringe-worthy phrase “sold down the river” had not been used. Also, the italicization of Hindi words conflicts with having a character like Rishi who believes that differences should be part of the everyday. This boy insists on using the phrase “gods bless you” when someone sneezes. I can’t help but think he would disagree with italicization, because it reads like (unintentionally) emphasizing the otherness of a language.
It wouldn’t have bothered me so much had it been consistent and reminded readers that yes, even words like “kismet” and “chai” aren’t English. (Surprise?) There is also an inclination to over-explain things could have been inferred from context. (Please don’t let “idli cakes” become the new “chai tea.”) I also dislike that the word kismat is spelt as “kismet,” which is just so British and makes it all a little less subversive. And I do believe that the book is meant to subvert people’s assumptions of what romance looks like when the protagonists are Desi and Hindu.
So, it’s kind of weird that my favourite thing about this novel is, in fact, the idea of kismat. The word has Arabic roots and a permanent place in the Hindi language. It has been used and abused for so long, often to add a touch of exoticism to white romances, but Menon reclaims it here with Rishi and his insistence that something about him and Dimple was inevitable. I know: kismat sounds like a douche-y thing that a pick-up artist would say, but within the context of the novel, it is nothing short of spine-tinglingly romantic. And boy, does the novel deliver on the spine-tingles front. Dimple and Rishi have great chemistry. Yes, there is kissing, even a sex scene,* but there is companionship too. I’m convinced that if I counted, “laughter” would be the word that appeared the most in scenes that involve Dimple and Rishi, and I find that delightful.
I haven’t been sucked into a love story for a long time, at least not one that does not end with me closing the book and thinking, “That was fun. I bet they’ll break up in the sequel.” Not this one, though. I guess what I’m saying is When Dimple Met Rishi has made a believer out of me. No, not in the way Smash Mouth sang about believing. I mean, the book was a near religious experience. After years of jutting an angry chin at every book and movie that appropriated/misrepresented Hinduism to contrive an abusive arranged marriage story, When Dimple Met Rishi finally came along and now I’m fairly certain my prayers had been heard by at least one bored god. Of course, I’m not saying I’m not “a believer, yeah, yeah, yeah” of Dimple-and-Rishi the couple, but the book is so much more than them, and I cannot overstate how much it feels like a small, hardbound miracle.
*Props to include mention of protection and no mention of pain for Dimple, which makes Rishi better than most boyfriends, fictional or otherwise.