cover image Sharmila's Book

Sharmila's Book

Bharti Kirchner / Author Dutton Books $24.95 (296p) ISBN 978-0

Sharmila Sen, Chicago-born graphic artist and aerobics instructor, is a ""thoroughly modern"" 32-year-old woman who's looking for lasting love and a way to get in touch with her Indian heritage. Reeling from a series of short, broken romances, Sharmila counterintuitively tries to achieve both goals with one move: bowing to her concerned, traditional Indian mother's wishes, Sharmila agrees to an arranged marriage. Soon, New Delhi electronics executive Raj Khosla, whom she has never met, is chosen as her fiance, and Sharmila moves to India, a country she vaguely remembers from a single childhood trip. The premise of Indian-born Seattle novelist (Shiva Dancing) Kirchner's amorous misadventure seems like a pretext for a witty dissection of some of India's anachronisms and rigidities, notably arranged marriage, male chauvinism and the stigmatization of lower-caste or ""untouchable"" persons. Sharmila, arriving in Delhi, tries hard to fall in love with Raj, even as she discovers that her exacting fiance, a stuffed shirt, travels constantly, beds other women and may be concealing a dark secret about the circumstances surrounding the death of his first wife. Fortunately, Sharmila comes to her senses when she discovers Raj in bed with the housemaid, and by then she's found genuine love with the Khoslas' chauffeur, honest, noble Prem, a well-educated ""untouchable."" But in one of the many improbable plot twists, Sharmila's mother destroys her plans to marry Prem, offending his pride with a $50,000 bribe to get lost. The novel bristles with postfeminist insights into ""how women perpetuate their deplorable condition"" in India, but more eerily describes how the families of the betrothed conspire to keep the ill-matched pair together despite their obvious discord. Though Kirchner's cautionary tale is sometimes smart, swift and funny, with rich dollops of local color, the story's unlikely trajectory makes it hard to muster much interest in Sharmila's romantic dilemma. (Mar.)