I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own.
There are times when you know you’re going to love a book even before you’ve started reading it. Purple Lotus was one such read for me. Just from the synopsis, I knew that I’d deeply resonate with the arranged marriage theme.
Two pages in, I realised that the city the Mangalorean main character moves to after marriage is Atlanta. Obviously, I still live in India and not Atlanta, but I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time there every year consistently for the past 5 years. It wasn’t just the themes and the Indianness of the book that I was relating to, but also the setting.
Read on to find out what I thought of this book!
Tara moves to the American South three years after her arranged marriage to tech executive Sanjay. Ignored and lonely, Tara finds herself regressing back to childhood memories that have scarred her for life. When she was eight, her parents had left her behind with her aging grandparents and a schizophrenic uncle in Mangalore, while taking her baby brother with them to make a new life for the family in Dubai.
Tara’s memories of abandonment and isolation mirror her present life of loneliness and escalating abuse at the hands of her husband. She accepts the help of kind-hearted American strangers to fight Sanjay, only to be pressured by her patriarchal family to make peace with her circumstances.
Then, in a moment of truth, she discovers the importance of self-worth—a revelation that gives her the courage to break free, gently rebuild her life, and even risk being shunned by her community when she marries her childhood love, Cyrus Saldanha.
Life with Cyrus is beautiful, until old fears come knocking. Ultimately, Tara must face these fears to save her relationship with Cyrus—and to confront the victim-shaming society she was raised within.
Intimate and deeply moving, Purple Lotus is the story of one woman’s ascension from the dark depths of desolation toward the light of freedom.
Trigger warnings: Intimate partner violence, verbal and physical abuse, transphobia
Tara enters an arranged marriage with a man she hardly knows due to mounting pressure from her parents and to avoid the judgement of her community for still being unmarried at the ripe old age of 28. Sanjay, her new husband, however returns to the US right after marriage and doesn’t get her visa processed for her until 3 years later.
Timid and resentful of all the rejection she’s faced since her childhood, Tara moves to the other side of the world to finally be with the husband she hardly knows. Life however isn’t all sunshine and butterflies. How she deals with her problems and becomes resilient forms the rest of the story.
The story is also interspersed with flashbacks to her childhood, where she was relegated to her grandparents’ house while her parents moved to Dubai with her brother. The only love she receives is from her Uncle Anand who also gets ostracised for being a person with schizophrenia. Purple Lotus has a lot of parallels between her current life and her childhood until the two stories tie together in a beautiful, moving finish.
On arranged marriage.
Obviously my favourite theme about this book was arranged marriage. As a woman in her twenties myself, it’s a topic I’m intimately familiar with. Nothing in this book was new to me. The community aunties inquiring about a girl’s increasing age, parents embarrassed that their daughter still hasn’t found a good match, the blame game as to just why she’s not married yet — I’ve seen it all. If not in my own household, definitely in my extended family’s and in the community.
“Love wasn’t a shower head; it didn’t just automatically pour out of your heart because your parents decided you would be together for life.”
Purple Lotus talks about humiliating bride-seeing trips, the awkwardness of having to make small talk with a guy who could very well be your future husband, the embarrassing “let the kids talk to each other” dictate from parents, like one conversation will tell you if you’re ready to spend the rest of your life with the person.
The book also talks of the jarring disconnect of moving into your husband’s house when your marriage has been arranged. You don’t know the guy but there is heavy pressure to make it work because there’s no going back. The community will only ostracise you. They’ll brand you as the girl who didn’t try hard enough to make her marriage work.
“It was odd, thinking of her home as her maternal home. As if she didn’t belong there anymore. As if she were suspended midway between the past and her family’s hopes for her future.”
On Indian parenting.
“I want you to be happy,” she said. “That’s all a mother ever wants.”
Any Indian person reading this novel would definitely relate to Tara’s problems with her parents. What she faces isn’t neglect or outright abuse. It’s the subtler themes that most of us have faced with our own parents such as conditional love and oppressive parenting. How may times have we held back the bad things and only told our parents the good for fear of being reprimanded?
Tara strives for her parents’ approval, to the point of starving herself of the life she deserves. Because otherwise, “what will people say?”. Even when her authentic self occasionally shines through, it’s just as quickly shot down.
When she wants to leave her abusive husband, her entire family gets involved. Because, ya know, in a community like ours, a divorce isn’t a two-person thing.
“Her personal crisis had become a crisis for the family.”
It’s only years later, in her late thirties, that Tara is able to break free from this pattern of living for her parents and constantly trying to meet their expectations despite harbouring resentment towards them for abandoning her as a kid.
Indian and Atlantan references.
It wasn’t just the story and its themes that was deeply familiar to me, but also the setting, be it the Indianness of it all or the Atlanta references from an Indian resident’s perspective.
You get mentions of laddoos, Parle-G biscuits dunked in tea, making Biryani with “four calls to Amma for consultation” (been there, done that), of God saying “tathasthu” (Sanskrit for “so be it”), and even the mouthwatering Neeru dosa which I may or may not have immediately started craving.
And the Atlanta references? I was screaming at Bharat Bazaar (I’m guessing a play on India Bazaar?), the Hindu Temple of Atlanta with it gigantic Rajagopuram and the seemingly infinite steps leading to the inner temple, visiting a clothing store and remarking “Better to get from India”. I just loved them all.
For a novel set in Atlanta with an Indian MC, I’m just surprised there was only a passing mention of Alpharetta.
…Kidding! That’s just me being cheeky.
Or not. 😛
Of growth and resilience
“Like the purple lotus, rarest of rare, you shall rise from muddy waters to rule the world.”
The main reason I’d highly recommend this novel is for the sheer amount of character development Tara shows. From a rejected little girl yearning for her mother’s love, she grows into a timid wife scorned by her husband, before finally blooming into a strong, independent woman who finds her voice and footing in this world. And therein lies the beauty of this novel.
“Why is it always the woman who is instructed to try harder to win over her husband, to adjust, to stay silent, to make peace with the injustices she faces? When things go wrong, why can’t she turn to her family? If she finally decides to stand up for herself, why does her family not stand with her? Why is the victim victimised even further? Why are no questions asked of the perpetrator?”
Over to some not so nice parts.
I wasn’t initially going to say much about some problems because I was afraid I was nitpicking, but Mathangi @ The Word Glutton, who I buddy read this book with, also had the same problems, so here goes.
There was a throwaway casteist sentiment in the book about Tara being a Kshatriya immediately followed by “even though she had no casteist bone in her body.” The disclaimer legit does nothing for the story. There are so many other ways her resilience could be shown without bringing caste into a story that was flowing beautifully thus far.
Another eyebrow-raising comment for me was from teenaged Tara, who when told by her mom she was a Kshatriya, wonders if “Amma had gotten it all wrong, and she were actually at the bottom of the caste pyramid.”
…not a good look.
On a related note, Mathangi also pointed out that the book uses the word pariah which is a casteist slur. It originates from the Paraiyar community of Southern India. Some words of the English language are steeped in colonial history most of us (including me!) are unaware of, so I really hope this came from a place of ignorance rather than intentional harm.
The thing niggling most at my brain however, is the fact that there’s a morally grey character, Zeenat, and she’s Muslim. She’s also the rickshawallah’s daughter and Tara’s grandfather doesn’t approve of the two girls playing together. Now, if Zeenat were just present to show how prejudiced Tara’s family is, I’d have made my peace with it. But making Zeenat morally grey just seemed off to me.
This could just be me, though.
I really hope these two instances just came from a place of ignorance and that the finished copy of the book is a little different.
Otherwise, Purple Lotus is a moving novel that is written with a lot of heart. It asks all the right questions and is filled to the brim with powerful themes such as family, parenting, prejudices, acceptance, standing up for yourself, and reclaiming your power. Veena Rao also has a brilliant writing voice I can’t wait to read more of.
“I take heart in the knowledge that the monsters around me do not sully me, because the names they have for me are not the names I give myself.”