Well-Behaved Indian Women

Well-Behaved Indian Women

by Saumya Dave


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“A sparkling debut.”—Emily Giffin, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author 

From a compelling new voice in women's fiction comes a mother-daughter story about three generations of women who struggle to define themselves as they pursue their dreams.

Simran Mehta has always felt harshly judged by her mother, Nandini, especially when it comes to her little "writing hobby." But when a charismatic and highly respected journalist careens into Simran's life, she begins to question not only her future as a psychologist, but her engagement to her high school sweetheart.

Nandini Mehta has strived to create an easy life for her children in America. From dealing with her husband's demanding family to the casual racism of her patients, everything Nandini has endured has been for her children's sake. It isn’t until an old colleague makes her a life-changing offer that Nandini realizes she's spent so much time focusing on being the Perfect Indian Woman, she’s let herself slip away.

Mimi Kadakia failed her daughter, Nandini, in ways she'll never be able to fix­—or forget. But with her granddaughter, she has the chance to be supportive and offer help when it's needed. As life begins to pull Nandini and Simran apart, Mimi is determined to be the bridge that keeps them connected, even as she carries her own secret burden.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984806154
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/14/2020
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 67,882
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Saumya Dave is a psychiatrist and mental health advocate. Her essays, articles, and poetry have been featured in The New York Times, ABC News, Refinery29, and other publications. She is the co-founder of thisisforHER, a nonprofit at the nexus of art and women's mental health, and an adjunct professor at Mount Sinai, where she teaches a Narrative Medicine class. She recently completed her Psychiatry Residency at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, where she was a chief resident and an inductee into the AΩA Medical Honors Society. She currently resides in New York City with her husband and son. This is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt





Present Day


To her left, Simran can see her mother, Nandini, adjusting the folds of her bloodred sari and pretending to be proud of her.


"Try to forget about what you told me and just focus on everyone here. You don't want them to have a bad impression of you." Nandini motions toward the room, which is stuffed with an array of first-generation Indians, most of them in arranged marriages similar to her own. Women in salwar kameezes and saris, men in dress pants and button-down shirts.


"I'm going to take a wild guess and say that I'm not in danger of that at all," Simran says, taking a dainty sip of blushed champagne.


"Simran! I'm saying this for your own good."


"That's what you always say. That somehow, everything is for my good. As if every time you criticize me, you're doing me some sort of favor."


"Look, you're young and . . ." Her mother's face falls, and for a second, Simran considers telling her that she's sorry and understands.


But then Nandini's features twist back into a scowl. "Don't you understand that I'm your mother and that means I know what's best for y-"


Her lecture halts as Simran's father approaches them, wearing a suit and striped crimson tie-a dramatic change from the goofy, smiley-faced ones he wears when he sees patients. With graying sideburns and a confident posture, his physical traits echo louder than his transient accent, giving him a gentleness ideal for any pediatric surgeon.


"I'm proud of you, cupcake," he says, pulling his daughter into a hug.


Like the Princess Jasmine snow globe on Simran's dresser, their interactions tend to remain frozen with childhood tenderness, despite how fervently the world around it is shaken.


"At least someone is," Simran offers.


"Ranjit, don't push it," Nandini says. "We are celebrating this one time, but after it's done, it's time for her to move on."


Simran opens her mouth at the same time that Ranjit motions to her with a finger to his lips: Keep the peace for now.


While the three of them make towers of her books on empty tables, Simran wonders if it was a terrible idea to tell her mother about the argument with Kunal. Indian women, especially the ones in their family, take pride in suffering quietly, in knowing when to stop lamenting and start serving cups of chai. Even her feisty mother manages to conceal her naked emotions within the ridges of her heart, where they are protected under her white lab coat.


But Simran and Kunal have suffered enough already. The first three years of their relationship were "forbidden." Most Indian parents are appalled by the idea of high school dating, so their interactions were forced to be strategically planned. She likes to think it's similar to Romeo and Juliet's union, minus the whimsical balcony scene and tragic ending.


She glances at her mother now, double-checking the final gift baskets and making sure to ask Ranjit his opinion. "I let him think he's the boss even though I'm really the boss," Nandini always says.


Simran drifts to the transatlantic words she and Kunal exchanged just one hour before the official start of her book party. This time they couldn't stop fighting about which type of food to serve for their wedding lunch. His mom wants a traditional Gujarati lunch-with lentil flour cakes; eggplant, green pea, and potato curry; and puffy, fried bread-while Nandini and Ranjit envision something fusion. Phone arguments are always the worst, just one step ahead of online ones; not only do they feel impersonal, but making up is even more difficult without the physical comfort of the person.


Not that they made up, anyway.


Kunal started yelling and instead of taking the high road, Simran yelled back and hung up the phone. It was a childish move; a mini quiz to see if he would call back.


In any case, tonight Kunal is left with the power, because the one who can care less is the one calling the shots. The one who can be hung up on and continue saving malnourished African children. A surge of pride runs through her as she pictures all six feet and two inches of him, head to toe in teal scrubs, scribbling symptoms onto a notepad and handing out iodine pills.


Of course, she shouldn't be upset with him in the first place. Their recent distance-both physical and emotional-is due to the fact that, even with a taxing medical student schedule, he's doing something that most people only get around to in theory: making the world a better place.


The yellow light dances off the clear diamond on her left hand as a winking reminder that she's picked. She's lucky. She's exhausted.


This is how independent women behave, she tells herself. They whittle down their lives into distinct compartments, so they aren't reliant on just one for fulfillment.


She forces herself to focus on more important things about Kunal, like the way he finds her sexy in mismatched sweats. Or how he wakes up in the middle of the night to stack extra blankets on her feet because they always get cold. And how, despite his private personality, he always leans down and kisses her shoulder when they're out together.


From their parents' arranged marriages, they both knew that nobody was perfect and relationships required hard work, work that they were both willing to put in. Work that caused their bond to become more resilient throughout the years. Work that made daily, banal activities, like flossing before bed or putting in contacts in the morning, more enjoyable simply because they were shared.


As if on cue, Simran's phone rings with an out-of-country number. She darts from the room and finds a spot in the lobby. The buzz of Indian aunties gossiping vibrates through the walls.


"I'm sorry," she says without waiting for either of them to say hi.


"Me too. This is dumb. Can we move past it?"


Hearing Kunal's deep voice instantly gives her a sense of peace. He's always known how to calm her down.


"Yes," she says. "It was a pretty dumb argument."


"You know, we're going to have so many decisions to make over the next year."


"And we can't let those decisions cause arguments. We won't. This is just the start. And we'll get through it all. We're just adjusting to this."


"Yeah. I agree." He sighs. "I really do wish I was there with you. I'm so proud of your book release."


"I wish you were here, too," she says. She refrains from telling him that it isn't the same without him. It'll only make him feel worse. Besides, she wants him to be able to take advantages of the opportunities he gets in med school. She gives herself a mental reminder that everything is going to be fine, that part of being a med student's partner is dealing with an unpredictable, grueling schedule.


On Kunal's end, Simran hears people singing in Swahili.


"How's it going?" he asks. "What were you doing when I called?"


"I was just talking to my parents. The decorations look good and everyone se-"


"Sorry, honey, can I call you right back?" Kunal says. "Something came up. I'll call you back in one minute."


"Sure," she says as he hangs up.


After ten minutes of mindless Instagram scrolling, Simran decides to go back inside. She approaches her mother as her father attends to his sister and three brothers, who have just arrived.


Nandini squints at her. "Where were you?"


"Just on the phone with Kunal. We're fine."


When she doesn't say anything, Simran whispers, "You knew I was having a bad enough day even though this is supposed to be an exciting time for me. Did you really have to remind Dad and me how much you didn't want to throw this party?"


"First of all, calm down. Second, we didn't throw this party just because Nani insisted," she says, referring to Simran's grandmother, the only person in her family who has supported her writing. "Even though I'm sure you'll tell her all this when she's here for your engagement party."


Simran nods. "If the pipes didn't burst in her house, she would be here now, and she'd see for herself how unfair you're being. I wouldn't have to tell her anything."


Nandini's eyes narrow. "I'm not trying to be unfair. I just want you to remember the importance of being practical. Right now, you're just a student. Writing isn't something you can sustain once you're a full-time psychologist."


"This project is important to me. Being a psychologist isn't the only thing in my life."


Nandini shakes her head. "You'll see how hard it is once you're working. And not to mention, you don't want your future husband and in-laws to think you're some flighty girl they can't take seriously."


Simran rolls her eyes and scans the restaurant. At the entrance, there is a bronze statue of Ganesha, the Hindu god of good fortune and new beginnings. Every table has signed scarlet bookplates and a mountain of red velvet cupcakes. Nani suggested that red be the primary color since it's auspicious for Hindus. The scent of grilled paneer and fried samosas permeates the room in the way only heavy Indian food can.


Luckily, they're interrupted by her newly married brother, Ronak, and his wife, Namita. They are what Simran likes to call a "modern-day arranged marriage": introduced by each other's parents but still allowed to date and make the final decision on whether to marry.


She checks her phone again. Nothing.


Something about her brother arriving forces perspective. So what if her mother isn't excited for her? So what if Kunal's not here? She reapplies lip gloss and puts on her I-am-fine face, an essential for being surrounded by type A people.


Ronak rustles her hair and whistles after he soaks in the room. "Whoever thought my baby sister would be such a rock star?" He kisses the top of her forehead and places a Tiffany & Co. bag on the gift table.


"Don't worry," Simran says, handing him and Namita glasses of champagne. "According to Mom, I'm still not good enough."


He places a finger over his lips, similar to her father from earlier. "Don't go there. At least, not tonight."


"Fine, but don't worry. You're still the golden child."


"Golden child, my ass. You should have seen him all day." Namita laughs. "He cancelled three of his patients, but two of them still showed up . . . and he was cursing like crazy when the train was late. We thought we'd never make it out of Boston."


People who have physician parents either crave or abhor the idea of becoming doctors themselves. Ronak went the former route; Simran, the latter.


They briefly catch her up on how relieved they are to be done with wedding planning.


"Thank God we went straight from the wedding to that villa in Bali. We literally spoke to zero people for days. It's the only way to recover from an Indian wedding . . . complete isolation from society," she says as she twists her gold Cartier wedding band. Namita rarely wears her engagement ring since she's always washing her hands at work.


"That sounds exactly right." Simran glimpses around the room at the clusters of aunties definitely passing judgment on what everyone is wearing, who is dating whom, and anything else that's none of their business. She can only imagine how much material they'll have at her wedding.


"You're next. And it'll be perfect," Namita says with the smile and self-assuredness of someone who has never screwed up in her life.


Simran's uncle Rajan Kaka, an electrical engineer by day and self-proclaimed astrologer by night, appears and immediately wraps a plush arm around her, remarking, "I knew you'd be the first writer in the family. It was in your destiny."


Although many Indians refer to horoscopes for auspicious occasions, her uncle uses them for everything, even claims that they predicted Brad and Angelina hooking up.



A few minutes later, Sheila and Vishal, Simran's two closest friends and the only people who have read every draft of her book, arrive with some other friends from NYU. They all talk in a large circle as more guests come in.


She weaves through her extended family and parents' friends-adults who have known her for decades. They sprinkle in mentions about their children's MDs and JDs and PhDs, and investment banking jobs.


"Thank you so much for coming," she tells one cluster.


"Of course, beta," they chime in, one after another.


Charu Foi, her dad's sister, grabs the last samosa from the appetizer table. "Simran, when is your wedding happening? We've all been waiting for so long!"


All of the women around her nod in agreement, as though she's been depriving them of oxygen. Indian weddings pretty much guarantee that a stampede of overbearing, opinionated aunties will be poised and ready to trample everyone with their unsolicited advice on everything.


Payal Auntie, one of their closest family friends, smiles at her. "I can't believe we're talking about you getting married. You still look like a baby with those chubby cheeks!"


She beams, as if this is the highest possible compliment she could've given. Simran watches her tighten her fingers in preparation for a pinch. She leans back just in time to dodge her.


"So does that mean we can plan for an uncle and auntie dance sometime soon?"


Whether it's the dance party after a reception or various group dances, an Indian wedding isn't complete without dancing. Her parents' circle seems to have an endless list of adults who want to do a dance for the next wedding. Since they've all become empty nesters, they've divided into two groups: those who need to choreograph and be in the middle of every dance and those who prefer the background.


It's easy to pinpoint the Indian aunties who need to be in the center. They tend to stand taller, wear brighter colors.


Payal Auntie is stretching her neck and staring into the distance, likely picturing herself bowing to applause to the latest Bollywood medley. "When can we start preparing for this dance?"


"Actually, we just set a wedding date," Simran says. "June 20."


"Really?" Charu Foi's eyes widen so much Simran thinks they may bulge out of her head. "Next year?"


She nods. "Next year."


Charu Foi frowns. "But that's so far away."


"Oh, it's fine, Charu. You just want another occasion to eat and drink and socialize. You can do that in your own home, so what's the rush?" Payal Auntie shakes her head as if she's any different. "Simran, where are you having the wedding?"


"We only just started planning, since Ronak and Namita's wedding was just last month, so most of the details aren't finalized," she says, finding the interstitial area between what they want to hear and the truth. "Anyway, please let me know what you think of my book and if y-"

Reading Group Guide

Questions for Discussion

1. This book examines the bonds mothers and daughters share. Were there any parts of Mimi and Nandini’s or Nandini and Simran’s relationships that you identified with?

2. Nandini faces racism and misogyny at work. Discuss the occurrences and how she handles the situations. Would you have reacted the same? Have you ever experienced something similar?

3. Simran and Kunal have many years of history together. Do you think Simran made the right choice in the end? Why or why not? Have you ever been in a situation where you struggled with whether to keep working through it, or to let go?

4. All three women are figuring out how to hold on to their identities while feeling the pressure to be the “Perfect Indian Woman.” How does this struggle ultimately impact their decisions?

5. Mimi has a secret that she does not share with her daughter or granddaughter. Do you think she was right to keep it to herself or did she owe her family the truth?

6. Planning a wedding can either bring family together or push them apart. How did planning Simran and Kunal’s wedding affect the characters in this story?

7. Communication ends up being the key to fixing the relationships in this story. What secrets do the characters keep from the important people in their lives, and why? How do these secrets ultimately impact their relationships with one another and themselves?

8. Simran, Nandini, and Mimi all redefine their relationship with ambition throughout the novel. How does age impact their choices? Is it ever too late to pursue a goal?

9. Ranjit mentions that Nandini should give him the benefit ofthe doubt instead of assuming the worst. How did their relationship change?

10. Sheila has known Simran since their childhood, while Yuwa meets Nandini in her fifties; however, both friendships are defined by their chemistry and honesty. How did these friendships affect the decisions Simran and Nandini made?

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