At first blush, it might be natural to assume this memoir about a young woman’s “life and love in India” was more “chick lit.” Kennedy’s account of her five-plus years in Delhi certainly includes some of the genre’s most familiar themes: a spunky heroine who leaves her suitor to prove her independence; star-crossed lovers whose affair is a well-known secret among friends and co-workers; a thirtysomething single gal, desperate to marry but reluctant to settle for the wrong fella.
But Kennedy’s relentless honesty about her own affinity for fairy tales keeps this story from becoming one. An American journalist who spent the aftermath of 9/11 on the front line with rescue workers, Kennedy moved to India in 2002. In between reporting jaunts to places like Afghanistan, Kennedy befriended several Indian women and came to understand the severe social norms constricting their lives. Kennedy’s maid, Radha, for example, a widow who lived with her three children in a single room the size of Kennedy’s bathroom, was expected to provide a hefty dowry for her daughter’s marriage. Geeta, Kennedy’s neighbour, was considered “damaged goods” by potential parents-in-law because she had kissed a boy in college.
While recording these realities, Kennedy also becomes enchanted with Bollywood’s bittersweet fables, in which passion must always be balanced with tradition. She compares these values with her own filmy (melodramatic) ideas, her predilection for ill-advised love affairs and her tendency to romanticize her relationship to India itself. Though she does make a place for herself there—she is even asked to be the maid of honour at a traditional Indian wedding—she is, to the end, conscious of her privilege as a feringhee (white person), including her endorsement of caste politics (she employs an “untouchable” to deal with her garbage). Ultimately she bumps up against—and seems to embrace—her own limits in Delhi. “I felt as though my own daily clatter—the smell and breath of me, my hopes and thoughts—had been subsumed into the city’s crazy hum,” she writes. “That was the closest I would come to conquering India, and it was enough.”