Before we discuss your book, The Dowry Bride, could you tell us a little about what it was like growing up in India and then coming to the United States? It must have been a big change for you.
Growing up in a small, conservative town in India in the 50s and 60s would probably be labeled as the “Dark Ages” by most young Americans. My four sisters and I had no TV; we were not allowed to date; we attended a strict Catholic school for girls; and loads of homework consumed most of our time. But the one thing we did have was an abundance of reading material in our home. My mother was a voracious reader and she instilled the love of reading in all her children.
When I came to the United States in the mid-70s as a young bride in an arranged marriage, I suffered culture shock at first. Everything, including the weather, was so different. But it took less than six months to get over all of that and start enjoying the freedoms afforded by an open society, where a woman is allowed to do most anything she wants. I was the rebel in my family, so I embraced American style “Women’s Emancipation” whole-heartedly.
The Dowry Bride is a story about a tradition I'm certain not many Americans know about or understand. I'm sure you've been asked this many times, but for our readers, could you tell us what it means to be a dowry bride and what the laws are concerning this practice today? (off the record, I read your chat in the back of the book and know you were lucky enough not to be one. But I'm sure there are readers that don't truly understand.)
Dowry is the archaic practice of giving gifts in the form of cash, jewelry, household items, land, farm animals, etc., to the groom. Ages ago, it started out as a way to ensure equitable distribution of the parents’ estate between girls and boys in a primarily patriarchal society, but gradually it deteriorated into a tradition that often borders on extortion, where the groom’s family makes unreasonable demands on the bride’s family.
Mind you, the practice of dowry is not the norm in India, and is practiced only in certain communities and certain regions of the country. Most of us get married without a hint of dowry, but in some cases it can happen, even in modern India, despite a 1961 law banning it. Sometimes, when the groom’s family feels the dowry is not enough, or if it’s not paid on time, the bride may be abused and her parents blackmailed into producing it. In extreme cases (like in my story) they can even kill her, with the expectation that her widower can then remarry and collect dowry from another family.
Can you give us a summary of the story?
Megha is a young bride who accidentally discovers her in-laws’ plot to kill her for not producing the expected dowry. In a moment of panic she flees to save herself from a gruesome death by fire. With nothing more than the sari she has on and a vague memory of past kindness from a certain man, Kiran, she seeks him out and begs for help.
Kiran succeeds in concealing her in his home, but the growing attraction between him and Megha is as dangerous as it is enticing. Theirs is an illicit love that is taboo in India’s conservative society. That combined with Megha’s vindictive mother-in-law could destroy them both. Are they willing to pay the steep price demanded by a conservative society?
The characters of Megha and Kiran are very well thought out and the descriptions of the areas are so real. Were Megha and Kiran based or loosely based on anyone you know and the places you describe, are those actual towns?
Megha and Kiran’s characters are entirely products of my imagination. But the town of Palgaum is loosely based on my hometown of Belgaum in southwestern India. There’s no river flowing through my town, but I’ve added the river as a backdrop for some romantic as well as dramatic scenes. Pune, the city where Megha moves to later in the story, is a real city, a busy metropolis not too far from the teeming city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay).
Amma is relentless in her actions, I am curious, is most dowry bride abuse carried out by the mother-in-law? What type of research went into the writing of The Dowry Bride? What was it that helped you decide to write about dowry bride deaths?
Much of the abuse stems from the mother-in-law and often from the sisters-in-law, too. I believe men are more overt with their hostilities and overcome them faster. Women on the other hand are covert and find it harder to let go of a grudge. Perhaps that’s what causes the universal friction between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law all over the world. Of course, this is not to say the men in the family aren’t involved in dowry abuse. When the groom does nothing to protect his bride, or worse, he participates in the mistreatment, he’s just as guilty.
Coming to research, I already knew for a fact that dowry deaths occurred in India all the time, but I had to read up on the statistics involved. I was appalled to discover that it could be anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 brides that are killed or injured in dowry crimes each year. Not all incidents are documented or brought to light, so the numbers are hard to verify.
My decision to pick the dowry theme was its dark, dangerous, and slightly controversial nature – elements that make a good story.
You have received several amazing reviews for your work. Congratulations! My question is, even though the story is enlightening as well as enthralling, have you met with any backlash over exposing this through your book?
Thanks for the kind words. I’m both amazed and pleased about such great reviews.
Unfortunately there has been some backlash from my fellow Indians. A few of them feel I have betrayed my culture by exposing its depressing side. Others feel my story is too dramatic to be realistic. But dowry was a topic that sparked my imagination. Besides, it’s not as if dowry deaths are entirely fictitious. They do occur in contemporary India every day. All I’ve done is used it as a theme for The Dowry Bride. And drama is what captures and sustains the readers’ interest. Mysteries and thrillers are perfect examples of drama that is often unrealistic but riveting.
Do you think that people who read the story will comprehend the life and culture of India a bit more than they did before reading the book?
I hope they do. I’ve tried to tell a story that weaves a lot of cultural elements into it without making it a discourse. Indian culture is rich and varied and I wanted to introduce mainstream American readers to it through a romantic story that captures their imagination. Many Americans find India a bit mysterious and I hope I’ve demystified it to a small degree with The Dowry Bride.
Now for the fun questions.....
What is your favorite American dish and what is your favorite Indian dish? (off record, green curry is most definitely my favorite. I'm originally from Louisiana, Cajun country, so the spicier the better.)
My favorite American food is the hamburger, specifically McDonalds Big Mac. I have to confess I’m a Big Mac addict despite my mostly vegetarian eating habits. But I tend to sprinkle Tabasco sauce over everything in an American restaurant. Since you’re a Cajun food lover from Louisiana, I’m sure you’ll understand the obsession with hot sauce.
I don’t have one favorite Indian dish as such. I like a wide variety and enjoy them equally, but having been raised in a south Indian home, my tastes are more southern.
If you could have one wish granted, what would that be and why?
My dearest wish would be to see The Dowry Bride climb to the New York Times Bestseller list. It may never happen, but what’s the harm in dreaming big, right? If I’ve made it this far in the hard-knocks world of fiction writing, I figure I might as well shoot for the moon.
Do you have a blog, MySpace and/or website you'd like to share with us?
I don’t have a blog or MySpace yet, but I plan to start a blog soon. I’m very reluctant to blog for some reason, but my soon-to-be PR ladies, in charge of my virtual tour of various blogs throughout the month of October, Dorothy Thomspn and Nikki Leigh, have convinced me to start one. I just might take their advice seriously.
But I have a great website at www.shobhanbantwal.com. My book excerpt, all my author events and appearances, soon-to-come “Dowry Bag” drawings, my favorite recipes, photos from India, contact information, my award-winning short stories, and lots more stuff can be found on the website. Dowry Bags are fun gift bags with some novelty gift items that I plan to give away at my book signings and through my website.
Do you have any appearances or conferences coming up that you will be attending?
I have several appearances scheduled in my home state of New Jersey and a few in the Phoenix, Arizona area, where I have family. I’ll be attending the New Jersey Romance Writers conference in October (5 thru 7). Events information is available on my website. Readers just need to click here.
And lastly, what books do you have in the works at the present time?
Since I have a two-book contract with Kensington, my editor and I are rolling around a few ideas for the second book. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be based on a slightly controversial theme like The Dowry Bride. We’ll have to wait and see.....
Thank you for allowing us this interview. Before it is posted on the site, I will send you a copy for you to approve or make changes to. I hope that your book will open many eyes, minds and hearts to the suffering of many dowry brides in India. I know it has opened mine.
Thank you so much, Liadan (I love that name by the way), for the interview and for your encouraging words. I sincerely hope my book will open a lot of eyes, minds and hearts to both of India’s sides – the good and the not-so-good.
Your questions were very thought-provoking and I enjoyed answering every one of them. I hope we can do this again when my second book is released in the future. Again, I look forward to reading your review of The Dowry Bride.