A Girl Like Me: Nandini Bajpai
Writers of young adult fiction reach out to readers who are just starting to form their worldviews. Verve picks three English-language authors of the South Asian diaspora who are changing the once homogenous landscape of this mainstream literary genre; they have crafted diverse, empowering characters and nuanced cultural narratives that reflect the experiences of young desi women outside the Subcontinent.
Nandini Bajpai grew up in New Delhi, India, one of four sisters and many cousins, in a family that liked to read. She has lived and worked in India, Australia, and the US, before settling in the Boston area with her husband, kids, and a number of pets. In India, she is the author of Red Turban White Horse, Starcursed, and Rishi and The Karmic Cat. The YA contemporary A Match Made in Mehendi is her US debut, due to hit shelves in Fall 2019.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there’s something about a bookstore. Our local branch of Clay & Hill — Fine booksellers since 1907 — has been my haven from the second I wandered into its warm book-lined embrace at age 10. Fresh off the Boeing 757 from India, with an accent thicker than my glasses, it was here that I found my first friends in America, both inside and outside the books on its shelves. Seven years later I still love walking through its doors. Except today its doors aren’t open – yet.
I cradle my gigantic cafe latte in one hand as I heave up the metal grill with the other, wincing at the stab of pain along my side. Not for me the wide double doors at the front of the store. The morning shift enters through the grill between the cafe and bookstore before the store is officially open.
“Wait for me,” Marilyn stoops to get under as I hold the grill high. “Don’t you look pretty, Ela!”
“Thanks,” I smile at her and roll the rattling old grill down behind me. I think Marilyn had sold me my first book at this store when I was, like, 11. Only she would think that an oversized plaid flannel shirt over jeans is pretty.
Breathing in the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and freshly inked newsprint I let all the weight float off my shoulders. This place usually made all the crap go away.
Usually, which is not to say always.
Case in point: today, the day after Diwali. First weekend back on the job for me — high school senior, part-time bookseller, and recovering shingles patient with a fading but still tender (though no longer contagious) rash on one side of my ribcage. Even in my baggiest shirt the slightest touch of fabric to midriff makes me wince, but no more than the epic shade thrown at me the night before. I sigh. There was no point dwelling on that.
“Good morning!” Charlie, my boss has already popped freshly charged batteries into the pagers. He hands me one and clips one to his belt. “You OK now?”
“Yes, I’m fine!” I say.
“I’ve had shingles once,” Charlie says. “It sucks. Anyhow, get the online orders, will you?” he jingles the store keys as he heads to the main entrance to unlock the doors.
I cast an eye over the overnight orders. First up: six copies of Odyssey — easy! I walk to the classics fixture to grab the books and snap on elastic bands to keep the ‘hold’ wrappers on before looking at the rest of the list. A well-loved title on the list makes me smile.
The smile is wiped from my face by the appearance of someone stunningly out of place at my desk. I blink rapidly to clear my vision before I can believe my eyes, but it is him. The guy who thought that I wasn’t “interesting enough” for a dance with him. That too at the slowest suburban Diwali party in all of Greater Boston. I ignore the hair standing up at the nape of my neck, caused, doubtless, by some primitive fight or flight instinct, and square my shoulders. Time for politeness, diplomacy, and the hide of a rhinoceros.
“Can I help you find something?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, before stopping short. Dang. I had forgotten that his voice was rather attractive. Meanwhile he is obviously putting some effort into remembering me — and failing. You can practically hear the cogs in his handsome head turn and whir. I bite back the snarky comments that spring to mind, and waited for the penny to drop.
Last time we crossed paths, approximately 12 hours ago, he was wearing a tux in a sea of kurtas and sticking out at our local Diwali Dance like a panther between cows. This time he looks almost normal — dark jeans, a white V-neck T-shirt, and sunglasses. Darshan — I think he goes by Darsh — frowns briefly at me before relaxing the knot in his brow.
“You’re one of the sisters,” he says. “From the Diwali Dance.”
A slow clap feels appropriate, but I restrain myself.
“You look different,” he frowns, as if I’m practising deception by not being swathed in an anarkali (my baggiest last night, because shingles).
“Good party,” he adds, as an afterthought.
“Can I help you find something?” I ask. Good party indeed!
“You work here?” More visible whirring of the brain.
I feel my face burn. Is he really surprised that some people he knew actually worked retail?
“You seem to find that amazing,” I wasn’t about to let this guy judge me on my choice of employment.
Darsh and his pal JC had been the big draw at the dance, a fact they were probably well aware of. JC’s family’s recent move to our neighborhood set all the local aunties into a gossip frenzy. They couldn’t wait to meet the nice boy whose dad had bought the 5,000-square-foot mansion at the top of Netherfield Hill. Especially since he was pre-med at Johns Hopkins, according to Sudha Aunty, aka the real estate agent who sold the house to JC’s dad.
At first JC’s handsome friend from New York outshone him, he went to Princeton after all. But then all the aunties noticed that JC was friendly and sociable – such a good Indian boy, na – but his friend was not. He must be a snob, everyone decided, or maybe not even desi after all – because, did you see his eyes?
I was nice enough to reserve judgment. Until I heard that cell phone conversation that fully changed my mind.
I don’t have a huge ego, and I do have a sense of humour, but what he said was enough to piss anyone off — not interesting enough to dance with? Really? Rude!
Not to boast or anything but in our town people think we’re awesome. My sister Janvi, a former Miss India USA runner-up, runs a Kathak dance school, even while studying at UMass Amherst. My younger sister Lavina aka Lado is, well, she is gorgeous at any rate and tall like Janvi.
Admittedly I’m the low point in the line-up, both in height (a mere 5 feet 2 inches) as well as looks. I made up for it in smarts, I hoped — though it was probably not smart to work for minimum wage at a bookstore instead of focusing on the kind of extracurricular activities that would look good on college applications, however high my GPA.
“Sorry to bother you…” he stares at my name tag, “…Ela! I’m looking for Collected Poems by Lily Carlisle?”
No way! Was it possible he had literary taste?
“I do have one copy but it’s reserved for…” I examine my reservation list.
“…Darshan C. Sivakumar,” he finishes. “That’s me.”
“I was just about to go look for it. I’ll be back in a minute.”
To my surprise he heads to the poetry section alongside me.
“Is the book a present?” I ask to fill the awkward silence.
“It’s for my sister,” Darsh says. “I bought her a copy but left it behind in New York. It’s lucky your bookstore has it.”
“I didn’t see her yesterday?”
“She’s at Anna Hall in Dover,” Darsh says, naming a prep school for girls in a town close by. “And her birthday is today. That’s why I need it now.”
“Let’s see,” I trace a finger along the Cs in the literary poems and essays section and pull out a slim volume of poetry. “Here it is.”
It is a limited edition with a lovely cover and binding. Darsh’s eyes light up as he takes the book. As in the colour of his eyes actually turns two shades lighter…how is that even possible? His smile warms his face into the opposite of his previous deadpan expression — quite incredible, actually.
“Do you gift-wrap?” he asks, glancing back at me.
“Hmm?” I say, giving myself a mental shake. “Yes, we do. You just have to purchase it first and then you can have it wrapped — either at the cash register or the information desk.”
“Thank you,” he tilts his head a bit and aims that smile at me.
I squash the sudden leap this causes in my chest. Where was my pride? The guy had totally insulted me!
“Anytime,” I say, and watch as he walks away before heading back to the info desk.
Questions. I have so many questions. I stack a pile of books on the new releases table and ponder the inconsistencies…. The guy clearly cared about his sister, but was totally rude to everyone else. He was clearly desi, but those eyes….
“Could you gift-wrap this, please?” Darsh says, making me jump out of my skin. Why didn’t he just have them wrapped at the register? There was no line this early in the morning.
“Of course. What paper would you like?”
“You pick,” he says. “I trust your judgement.”
I pick a paper with a fresh botanical floral print, wrap the book neatly, and top it with a bow.
“Here,” I hand it to him with my best smile.
“Thanks,” his brow is slightly knit over those grey eyes as he takes the book.
I think he might have some questions too.
An Excerpt From An Interview:
What drew you to this genre?
It’s really interesting to write for and about young people who are in between childhood and adulthood. The coming-of-age process is fascinating and filled with hope and possibilities as well as heartache. I can experiment with so many subgenres — sci-fi, historicals, fantasy — and still write YA.
Do you have a specific reader profile in mind when you write?
Readers are open to many cultures in today’s global world, so I try not to target a specific group. My writing is always informed by my own lived experience of growing up in India and living in Australia and the US and I hope my books can be windows for people outside my culture as well as mirrors for young people from Indian and South Asian backgrounds to see themselves in.
One misconception about Indians/Indian culture abroad that you hope to change through your writing?
A lot of YA writing about Indian/Indian culture in the past has been about identity and focuses on struggle and pain, and while such writing is needed and very important there is also a huge need for well-written books that are light-hearted, aspirational, and fun. I like to write entertaining books that get past one-dimensional stereotypes of South Asians and show other aspects of our culture.
In the process of writing YA, Did you learn something about yourself that represents young women in the diaspora?
Definitely! I’ve learned even more about myself through critiques of my writing from critique partners and editors. They see things that are not obvious to you, like I have a hard time writing mean-girl-type characters…I have three sisters and am all about girls supporting girls!
How, if at all, does the fact that you grew up in India impact the way that you write about the Indian-American experience?
It just gives me a broader range of experiences to draw from authentically and it allows me to write characters belonging to different generations in an immigrant family. In my upcoming book, A Match Made in Mehendi, I was able to write about Simi’s grandmother, mother, as well as Simi herself and it was interesting to see the evolving attitudes towards matchmaking through all their eyes.
Tell us a bit about Starcursed and Red Turban White Horse. What kind of research did you do for each?
Red Turban White Horse is about a teenager, Mini Kapoor, who becomes the event planner for her older sister’s wedding in Boston. Her mother passed away years ago, her techie dad doesn’t have a clue about weddings, and both bride and groom are busy medical residents, so it’s up to Mini. It didn’t need much research because I’d just helped my sister-in-law plan her wedding, and there was even a hurricane on the planned wedding day like in the story!
Starcursed was different! There’s a page of Bhaskaracharya’s Leelavati on display at the Museum of Science in Boston, and it only has something dry and mathematical to say about Leelavati! Every time I saw it I would think someone should write about her…then I realised I was someone, so why not me. It took a lot of research to write a love story about a mathemetician’s daugher in 12th-century India, but I absolutely loved writing Leela’s story!
My fantasy book for younger kids Rishi and the Karmic Cat also needed research because though it is set in current times I wanted to focus on real-life endangered animals like vultures, the Ganges river dolphin, and the Asiatic lion instead of unicorns or dragons.
A Match Made in Mehendi seems to have all the elements of a classic YA romance. How did you adapt an indian narrative for a space that was, until recently, not that diverse?
It wasn’t hard for me to imagine an American YA romance with Indian-American characters. That’s basically drawing from life since I lived here for so many years. I’ve tried to make sure that elements of Indian culture are part of the story, not just for window dressing but as an essential component of the storyline and the characters’ motivations and goals. That said, I hope it has universal appeal!
Read Part 2 (Sangu Mandanna) here