In her thought-provoking, uplifting new novel, Shobhan Bantwal vividly blends the nuances of contemporary Indian-American culture with an unconventional romance. . .
At thirty-one, Meena Shenoy has a fulfilling career at a New Jersey high-tech firm. Not that it impresses her mother and aunts, who make dire predictions about her ticking biological clock. Men are drawn to Meena's dainty looks and she dates regularly, but hasn't met someone who really intrigues her. Someone professional, ambitious, confident, caring. Someone like her new boss, Prajay Nayak.
Just as Meena's thoughts turn to romance, Prajay makes an astonishing request. He wants her to craft a personal ad that will help him find a suitable wife: a statuesque, sophisticated Indian-American woman who will complement his striking height.
Despite her attraction to Prajay and the complications of balancing work and her "marriage consultant" role, Meena can't refuse the generous fee. And as her family is thrown into turmoil by her brother's relationship with a Muslim woman, Meena comes to surprising realizations about love, tradition, and the sacrifices she will--and won't--make for the sake of both.
"One of the best [novels] I've read this year. I couldn't put it down. . .this book is a gem!" --Mary Monroe, New York Times bestselling author on The Unexpected Son
"Compelling and memorable." --Mary Jo Putney, New York Times bestselling author on The Forbidden Daughter
"Vivid, rich. . .expertly portrays a young woman caught between love and duty, hope and despair." --Anjali Banerjee on The Dowry Bride
"Dazzles you with a taste of Desi culture in America." --Caridad Piñeiro
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June 26, 2012
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Excerpt from The Reluctant Matchmaker by Shobhan Bantwal
I had no clue that within the next hour my life was about to take a dramatic turn. The bizarre incident struck so unexpectedly that it left me dazed and fighting for breath. Literally.
In my mother tongue, a little-known Indian language called Konkani, this type of rare occurrence is sometimes referred to as nasheeba kh�loo. Destiny's game.
I'd heard of epiphanies and traumas changing people's lives in a flash. I'd known one or two individuals who had either plunged into misfortune or zoomed into orbit because of a single momentous event, but I couldn't believe my experience could match or even outdo theirs to some degree.
Those kinds of outlandish things happened to others, in my opinion. Ordinary folks like me were exempt from such encounters. Or maybe not.
One minute I was striding forward, trying to maintain my best "smart marketing-public relations executive" image, and in the next I was falling on my back, arms flailing, my short skirt riding upward, providing the shocked people gathering around me an unobstructed view of my underwear.
Sheer humiliation. Well, at least I'd had the sense to wear my best panties, the ones I'd splurged on at Victoria's Secret.
It had started out as a normal day. I had strolled into my sixth-floor office in the multi-story building in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, like I did each weekday morning. Granted, I had an important meeting later that day, and I was uptight about it. I was to meet our highly respected president and CEO for the first time since I'd joined the company with the odd name of Rathnaya, Incorporated.
After my shower that morning I'd taken extra care with my hair and makeup. Then I'd silently offered my prayers before the altar. When it came to important business meetings, I didn't like leaving anything to chance.
Like my great-uncle from India always said, "Prepare yourself well for any kind of catastrophe, but always be sure to pray to Lord Ganesh. Think of the elephant-headed god as your insurance agent." It was no coincidence that my great-uncle was named Ganesh. He also happened to be an insurance agent for the Life Insurance Corporation of India.
By the time I'd gotten to the altar my mother had already finished her daily puja--ceremonial Hindu worship. Mom prayed every morning before breakfast. Despite being a modern woman and a medical doctor, she followed the old-fashioned custom of not eating or drinking anything before offering the day's first prayer.
She had placed a single yellow chrysanthemum on top of each of the idols of all her gods and goddesses. The oil-soaked cotton wick in the silver lamp had burned itself out.
Unfortunately I wasn't all that fervent about my Hindu faith. I went to the altar every now and then--when I needed a little extra help from above--like today.
After praying I'd felt much calmer. So what if I had to face the head of the company for the first time? I was a professional and could handle most anything. Or so I thought.
I would realize how wrong I was by the time the workday came to an end.
At precisely 8:07 A.M., our office assistant, Priyanka "Pinky" Malhotra, and I wished each other good morning as I stopped by her desk, or the administrative office as she preferred to call it.
The marketing-public relations department occupied a corner suite made up of three rooms, the first one being a main outer office with Pinky's desk, a row of file cabinets, a fax machine, a copier, and a coffeemaker. It opened out into the long main corridor, but in the back it had two doors that led to separate offices, the smaller one being mine and the larger belonging to my boss, Paul Zelnak. The only access to Paul's and my offices was through Pinky's area. She was our gatekeeper.
Locking her door conveniently locked the entire department. I appreciated the safety feature.
Pinky took one look at me and beamed, the dimple in one cheek deepening. "Meena, you look great!" She swiveled her chair around to study my outfit more carefully. "Went on another shopping spree?"
Then her gaze lowered to my feet. "Wow, new shoes, too. Nice."
I gave her a pleased grin. I'd hoped others would love my ensemble as much as I did. After I'd spent hours in the store looking for a fall wardrobe, it would've been a letdown if someone hadn't noticed. "Thanks."
Pinky looked down at her own black pantsuit paired with a blue shell and black mid-heel pumps. "Everything I wear looks so blah. How come when you wear the exact same thing it looks all stylish and cute?"
"Aw, that's not true," I said with a dismissive gesture of my hand. If only Pinky ate a few less candy bars, she'd be attractive. She had a pretty face with sparkling dark eyes and an infectious smile. Losing a bit of weight could work wonders for her. And the slightly outdated black pantsuit could look elegant if it were paired with a coordinated scarf or jewelry.
Pinky was a good worker and a kind soul, and she had become a friend and confidant in the short while that I'd been working in the company. Besides, as a forty-year-old mother of two young boys, Pinky didn't really need to look chic. She'd bagged her man sixteen years ago, and he apparently loved her, spare tires and all.
"It is true, Meena," Pinky argued. "That's because you're young and thin and pretty."
I shrugged. "Thin yes, young maybe . . . but pretty? I don't know about that." And frankly, I didn't feel all that young anymore, not since my thirty-first birthday two months ago.
My parents and our extended family had dropped more than a few hints about my flagging biological clock, my soon-to-fade looks, and my shorter than average stature--my bane. The consensus was that if I didn't find a husband within a year, I was quite likely to die an old maid.
With each passing year I was supposedly inching closer to tooth loss, dementia, and osteoporosis. I'd probably lose even more inches because small women were more susceptible to bone deterioration, according to Shabari, my mother's younger sister. I called her Shabari-pachi in the Konkani tradition.
Of course, like most ethnic folks born and raised in the U.S., my siblings and I didn't speak our mother tongue, although we understood every bit. However, we managed to carry on stilted conversations in Konkani with elderly relatives during our rare trips to India.
Shabari's birthday gift to me had been a book titled Score a Hit before Your Ovaries Quit. It wasn't a gag gift. My aunt's sense of humor didn't extend to witty presents. I hadn't read beyond the first chapter yet, but it was a primer for women on the art of landing a man.
At this point, my aunt wasn't dropping hints; she was grabbing me by the scruff of my neck like she would a recalcitrant puppy and dragging me toward matrimony. A thirty-something, unmarried niece could diminish her own young daughters' marriage prospects. In fact, the ripple effect of one black sheep's deficient image could potentially taint the entire clan.
Pinky wiggled her eyebrows at me suggestively. "Is that suit in honor of your meeting with Prajay Nayak today?"
"No." What was Pinky thinking? That I was out to bat my eyelashes at our CEO? Besides, I was nowhere near that significant chapter in my Score a Hit book yet and wouldn't know how to go about flirting the right way. The book said there was a method to everything. But I had to master the subtle art of seduction first, before I ventured into practicing it.
"After all, he is your jaathwalla. He's a good catch, right?" Pinky meant he belonged to my Gowd Saraswat Brahmin subcaste-- GSB for short. But as far as I knew, that was all the CEO and I had in common. He was a genius, a wealthy man with a corporation of his own, with all the surrounding power and trappings, while I was a nobody with an ordinary job.
To some extent Pinky was right, though. I did want to impress Mr. Nayak, but for entirely different reasons.
First of all, it was important to my career. I firmly believed in setting the right tone. And I was ambitious.
Second, since he and I both belonged to the tiny community of GSB-Americans, his family and mine had several common acquaintances. My mother had filled me in on some names. If I made a poor impression, word would spread through the gossip mill like red wine on a white sheet. I'd worked too hard to attain the image of a bright and hard-working professional to end up with a "loser" reputation.
Third, jobs like mine were rare. I wanted to keep it for a long time.
And last but not least, a dumb image would ruin my chances of finding a decent husband. Who would want a dunce for a wife, especially the cerebral Indian guys with advanced degrees and 4.0 GPAs that my parents introduced me to?
My mother on the other hand, after she'd discovered who Nayak was, and that he was single and unattached, had hinted that I should try to charm him.
"One never knows when and where fate will strike, and it is up to an individual to give it a slight nudge in the right direction," she'd declared with a hopeful edge to her voice. She had apparently heard good things about Prajay Nayak from a number of her friends. In the Konkani book of matrimonial prospects, Nayak was a superb catch.
Pinky's teasing grin tugged my wandering attention back to her. "Who are you trying to kid?" she challenged. "Admit it; you're wearing a classy outfit to impress him."
"Absolutely not," I retorted. "I went shopping the other day, and the new line of clothes looked fabulous. I tried on a few things and . . . you know the rest."
"I know it well. Your credit card suddenly grew legs."
I laughed at her apt portrayal of my shopping habits. "Am I that predictable?"
"Spoiled brat is what you are. Your mom and dad give you too much money and way too much freedom."
"Not anymore," I countered. "I've been paying for my own credit card bills and my auto insurance and gas since I started working six years ago." I pointed to my outfit. "Strictly department store. And very often deep-discount stores if my savings account starts looking anemic."
"You don't say!" mocked Pinky.
"I love discount stores. They have some really cool stuff."
"You don't like them?" I threw her a wide-eyed look.
"I adore them. Besides, they're the only shops I can afford." One thin, scornful eyebrow shot up as Pinky turned back to her computer. "I wasn't talking about the stores you shop at, silly; I meant the things your parents do for you. How soon we forget the free room and board."
I headed quietly back to my desk because I had no rebuttal. She was right. I was still living with my parents, Ramdas and Kaveri Shenoy, along with my younger brother, twenty-eightyear- old Mahesh, who was a medical resident at one of the nearby hospitals. He and I were the fledglings who'd left home for a few years to acquire an education and then returned to the nest as adults.
Mom loved having us around nonetheless. She'd been quite despondent when my brothers and I were at college. "So quiet and lonely without the kids," she used to moan. "Your dad and I walk around like ghosts in this house."
However, now that two out of three were back, Mom complained that Mahesh and I were sloppy, that our ever-ringing cell phones and late nights disturbed her sleep, and that our erratic eating, bathing, and sleeping habits left the kitchen and bathrooms in disarray.
Maneel, my older brother, was a successful stockbroker at thirty-three, and had his own condo a few miles from our home in Princeton. But most of the time Maneel hung around our house, so he ate with us almost every night. His state-of-the-art refrigerator held nothing but beer, soda, and a fat jar of salsa. Despite having a shiny new washer and dryer in his condo, he ended up doing his laundry at our parents' place. He saved on groceries and laundry just like Mahesh and I, but had the nerve to label the two of us "cheapskates."
It's not as if I hadn't thought about moving out of my parents' home, but rents were so obscenely high in New Jersey. And it wasn't for nothing that people denigrated New Jersey for having the highest auto insurance rates and income and property taxes in the nation. How did ordinary people manage to make a living in our state? I often wondered.
Besides, Dad and Mom lived in a big, comfortable house with a finished basement. It wasn't posh, but it was a secure home in an upscale neighborhood, and Mom was a superb cook. Mahesh and I were no fools.
Dropping my purse in my desk drawer, I strode over next door to my boss's office. It was dark.
"Paul's not in yet?" I asked Pinky with some surprise before heading toward the coffeepot that she'd already started. Sniffing the wonderful aroma, I poured myself a cup. Paul was usually here before I was.
Pinky shook her head. "I heard there's an accident on Route 1 and the traffic's a mess. He's probably stuck in that."
"But he would've called us. He has a cell phone."
"Paul's not late yet. And Jeremy already called twice to check on Paul." Pinky rolled her eyes.
Jeremy Larkin was Paul's gay partner, and at times a minor source of aggravation for Pinky and me.
I looked at my wristwatch. "If Paul doesn't show up soon, Jeremy's likely to call again."
As if on cue, the phone rang, and Pinky answered it. "Hi, Jeremy." She assured him between pauses that Paul would be fine. "Don't worry. . . . I'm sure he'll be here any minute. . . . Not answering his cell, huh? There's a traffic backup on Route 1. . . . Oh, you know about that. . . ."
I stood close enough to her desk to be able to hear most of Jeremy's words. He sounded upset. No surprise there.
Pinky lifted her gaze to the ceiling. "I'm sure Paul's not a statistic, Jeremy. . . . I'll tell him to call you the second he gets here. . . . You're welcome."
Hanging up the phone, Pinky gave a dramatic sigh. "I don't know how Paul puts up with Jeremy day after day after day."
"Paul actually likes it. He's got a doting mother, friend, partner, and lover, all rolled into one hunky package."
"Hunky yes, but more irritating than a mosquito in heat."
"I know what you mean," I said on a laugh, and took a sip of my coffee. Pinky had an amusing way with words. "But he cares deeply about Paul. It's quite touching."
"My husband cares deeply about me, too, but if he called me twice a day to ask about my blood pressure and my ovaries, I'd get annoyed."
"Hmm." Jeremy was like a mother hen around Paul. He packed a healthy lunch for Paul each day with a sandwich or salad, fresh fruit, and a little plastic pouch with herbal supplements to prevent every possible health risk, from elevated cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure to an enlarged prostate and impotence.
From looking at all those pills, one would think Paul was a doddering old man, but he was only fifty and in good health. Granted, he was overweight, and he was losing hair, but he looked quite virile.
Nonetheless Pinky and I made sure Paul took all his supplements religiously. Keeping Paul in good health meant peace and quiet for the rest of us. Jeremy was forty-eight and going
through a midlife crisis. As long as things were going well at home, Jeremy's calls to our office were limited to about two per day.
I disposed of my foam cup in the trash and glanced at my watch again. Paul's unexplained absence was beginning to trouble me.