It doesn’t matter what epoch they’re set in, or what language they’re in — I love romantic comedies. Everything from Pride and Prejudice to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is alright by me. I acknowledge problems with the genre — it’s not easy to reconcile feminist principles with a topic that treats the missing puzzle piece in the main character’s life (usually a woman) as true love (usually a man). However, that fizzy feeling that a good romantic comedy can give you — those happy little bubbles you feel in your stomach when the main character is being swept off their feet — is, in my opinion, worth overlooking some problems.
When Dimple Met Rishi (Simon Pulse), by Sandhya Menon, aims to tick all of these boxes. The story follows two fresh high school graduates: Dimple Mehta and Rishi Patel, as they spend the summer before college exploring their personal and professional identities, and, somewhat unexpectedly, finding love. We meet Dimple and Rishi as they are both about to embark on a six-week web development camp: Dimple, because of her passion for web and app development, and Rishi, to meet Dimple. Rishi and Dimple’s parents are from the same part of Mumbai, and they are eager to have them meet and hopefully get married one day, in the classic love-slash-arranged marriage that (the story purports) all Desi parents dream of for their children.
While Dimple is against the idea of love, marriage, and anything considered traditionally feminine, Rishi is completely on board with his parents’ plan. The two teenager’s initial meeting is rocky at first, but an unexpected friendship unfolds as the weeks progress. Along the way, Rishi helps Dimple understand that love, tenderness, and empathy are not weaknesses, but essential human emotions that she cannot avoid forever. Dimple, on the other hand, shows Rishi that doing the “right” thing — the choices he believes, as the oldest son, he must make to earn the respect of his parents, should not overshadow his personal happiness. And so, in multiple ways, it is a classic American coming-of-age story set against a Desi backdrop.
“In multiple ways, it is a classic American coming-of-age story set against a Desi backdrop.”
As a whole, When Dimple Met Rishi is a quintessential Young Adult (YA) romance novel. It follows a romantic comedy story arc that we all know so well: boy meets girl, boy and girl do not get along, boy and girl fall in love, something challenges their relationship, and the couple comes out stronger in the end. The devil though, as they say, is in the details, and not all of the details in this story seem entirely plausible. One of the most difficult issues to ignore is the premise itself. Somehow, Rishi and Dimple’s parents, have not just marriage, but an arranged marriage on the brain when their respective children are only 18 years old. Even in the Bollywood romantic comedies of the early ‘90s (the ones that inform both my romantic comedy sensibilities and ostensibly, those of the author as well) the characters are at least in college when the topic of marriage comes up, if not even older. For middle-class American families, it seems odd beyond reason that instead of pushing their 18-year-olds towards challenging degree programs and careers, the emphasis was placed on finding a suitable life partner.
Unfortunately, Dimple’s character felt particularly difficult to relate to at times. Dimple is interested in web and app development, a fact that one would presume, in this day and age, most Desi parents would be ecstatic about. Instead, her mother (who is portrayed as particularly one-dimensional) laments her daughter’s lack of interest in boys, fashion, and makeup. The character seems almost caricature-like: she begs Dimple to wear kaajal every time Dimple brings up one of her academic achievements, in an over rejection of her daughter’s intellectual capabilities. Dimple and her family don’t seem like a middle-class Desi-American family living in California; instead, they seem more akin to the families portrayed in the Bollywood romances of the 1960s and ’70s.
“A fair chunk of the dialogue between both teens and their families is in a mixture of Hindi and English.”
Also like many popular Bollywood romances, When Dimple Met Rishi can be somewhat troubling in some instances from a feminist perspective. Throughout the book, there is a not-so-subtle lauding of sanskaari characteristics in young women. When Dimple’s friend and roommate, Celia, dresses in revealing clothing, it seems to imply something about her conduct — that she’s willing to overstep some of her boundaries to fit in with the “cool” crowd — as though a “good” girl like Dimple would never wear skimpy clothing of her own volition, because it made her happy. Even more concerning, in one of the climactic scenes of the story, male characters default to physical violence to defend the women they perceive as mistreated. It is no secret that these themes: of conservative values, and young men defaulting to physical fights to defend young women, makes for a compelling dramatic plot line. However, including these plot points in a YA novel aimed for modern audiences almost seems to undermine the more progressive values that we, as a society can encourage among emerging adults.
A few other issues with the writing style proved somewhat distracting while reading When Dimple met Rishi. A fair chunk of the dialogue between both teens and their families (and, further on into the book, the two teens themselves) is in a mixture of Hindi and English. While I understand why the author would add this to the narrative — mixing the mother tongue with English is something that is almost universal to Desi-American families — Hindi is not my mother tongue, as I suspect it is not for a large portion of When Dimple met Rishi’s potential readership. Having to put in the effort to translate every large chunk of Hinglish text, therefore, was jarring for me, and took away from the flow of the narrative. Additionally, some of the writing seems stilted, as repetition is often used as a form of emphasis. The themes of the “Ideal Indian Husband,” and Jenny Lindt — a famous female web developer and Dimple’s role model — were mentioned so often it almost became distracting.
“The story bounces along quickly, and gives the reader hit after hit of the fizzy, light, feeling of young love.”
All these caveats mentioned, though, I cannot deny that When Dimple met Rishi was a page-turner. The story bounces along quickly, and gives the reader hit after hit of the fizzy, light, feeling of young love. Reading this book, I was almost 18 again; a headstrong girl trying to balance the culture and expectations of my Desi family, with the potential of American life laid before me. Additionally, Menon smartly introduces side characters such as Rishi’s brother Ashish, who the reader thinks will be minor players in the story, early on; it is then a pleasant surprise for the reader when those characters become beautifully fleshed out into flawed but empathetic people. These little nuggets of character development, these callbacks to incidences earlier in the story, form a neat storyline with satisfying, well-tied ends.
What was most impressive, however, was the way that Menon approached physical intimacy between the two main characters. Given the strong stylistic references to the Bollywood rom-coms of the ‘80s and ‘90s, I thought I’d see the same prudishness in this story as I saw on screen in those films; I was afraid of the infantile coyness often displayed in the female characters, and the unabashed sexual aggression of the males. Thankfully, I was absolutely delighted at how wrong my expectations were. The characters do not approach their physicality with squeamishness, or with aggression, or with the stupidity that one often sees characters in their late teens display. Instead, Dimple and Rishi show empathy towards each other and an understanding of themselves, which makes intimacy between them a mature (if somewhat aspirational) interaction. This is not to say that the spontaneity of these interactions is ruined by a serious, adult conversation about what it means to be intimate — instead, the respectfulness is well-balanced by the sweetness and eagerness of a new couple.
“When Dimple Met Rishi is one of those rare pieces of literature aimed at Desi teens in a literary landscape somewhat devoid of South Asian representation.”
Overall, When Dimple Met Rishi doesn’t break boundaries. It doesn’t even push the limits of what a reader would expect from a traditional romantic comedy. It is, however, one of those rare pieces of literature aimed at Desi teens in a literary landscape somewhat devoid of South Asian representation. It’s a book that a Desi teen could pick up, and know that the dreams they may have for themselves — professional fulfillment, excitement for an emerging adulthood, and the promise of finding love — aren’t theirs alone. This book is a fun read, for sure; however, it’s also one where a Desi-American reader, no matter their age, can feel not only sympathy for the characters, but empathy.
In generations past, Desi- American teens had to navigate between Bollywood stories set in South Asia that didn’t fully apply to their lives, and Western romantic comedies that were intrinsically alien, as the characters didn’t carry the same cultural baggage. However imperfectly, When Dimple Met Rishi does the difficult job of navigating these two identities, and emerges as a product that is ultimately quite satisfying. In the end, it does what any good romantic comedy sets out to do — it puts a warm feeling in your heart, and a smile on your face.
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Rashmi Venkatesh is a pharmacologist who now works behind a desk and lives in the Metro D.C. area. Her interests include feminism, pop science, South Asian diasporic culture and media, and biryani. You can find her on Twitter at @rashmiv11.