Mehar doesn’t have the greatest relationship with her father. Ever since her mother left India with four-year-old Mehar in tow, things have been strained. When Mehar’s father visits them in Newton, Kansas, he’s full of judgement and criticism. There are always fights between her parents and fights between Mehar and her father. During his last visit, Mehar said some terrible things to him, and she hasn’t spoken to him since. What she has done is stalked Aleena Obaid’s Instagram account. Aleena’s mother is dating Mehar’s father; Aleena calls Mehar’s father Daddy and her social media feed is filled with the three of them as a happy soon-to-be family.
Mehar doesn’t know how she feels about being replaced. She’s even more unsure when a wedding invitation arrives. Her mother, though, encourages her to go, to visit her family and India. While she’s never been away from her mother so long, Mehar is actually looking forward to going, to making up with her father, to seeing her grandmother again, and to seeing India itself.
And … everything is almost perfect. Her grandmother is lovely and warm and so very happy to have Mehar there. Her aunts adore her (well, except one), her young cousins are a delight, and Mehar is fascinated to learn more about her father’s side of the family. Her heritage, her blood, her culture. She also has a small — tiny, even! — crush on her grandmother’s assistant, Sufiya.
She also loathes her soon to be stepsister, Aleena, who is determined to make everything about her, who mocks Mehar for her ignorance and her American-ness, who judges her and deliberately takes unflattering pictures of her for Aleena’s Instagram, all while hogging Mehar’s father. It’s hate at first sight. Sure, Mehar’s jealous. Her father found the perfect Indian daughter to replace Mehar, the perfect Indian wife to replace her mother, and she’s fine with that. It’s all fine. Just peachy. Mehar isn’t the only one gritting their teeth about this wedding, though, and she isn’t the only one who doesn’t like Aleena. Maybe someone should say something; maybe someone should put a stop to this wedding.
What a Desi Girl Wants is a Young Adult book taking place in the middle of a boisterous, loving Indian family with so much food, so many clothes, and lots of servants. There are nods to classicism, with the wealthy Nawab family and their giant palace — a palace so giant they’ve turned a portion of it into a hotel and museum because they simply don’t use as many rooms as they used to. They are a family with vast inherited money steeped in traditions and a rich, tapestried culture contrasted both by the single parent household of Mehar and her mother, and the servant Sufiya, who doesn’t dare set a foot wrong lest she lose her job, and thus they money her family relies on. But they’re only nods, much as the brief and somewhat token nod to the complicated existence LGBTQ+ people face in India.
The main focus here is on Mehar reconnecting to her father’s side of the family — to a grandmother who adores her, aunts who welcome her with open arms, and a father who will throw money at her in lieu of spending time with her. A father who, for all that he wants Mehar there for the wedding, to have fancy clothes and to have a good time, makes very little effort to spend any time with her. It’s a feeling of estrangement well built up and explored on Mehar’s side, but the resolution of this conflict felt unearned, as Mehar’s father hadn’t really done anything more than exist and be both dismissive and judgmental through much of their relationship.
Mehar and her grandmother, on the other hand, have a lovely rapport. Mehar thrives under her attention, loves hearing her stories and spending time with her, loves being indulged and wanted by her. Their talks about her grandmother’s role in her parents’ unhappy marriage feel a little too easily resolved, but the story isn’t about the divorce as much as it is Mehar and her Indian heritage.
Sufiya and Mehar have an easy friendship that slowly becomes something more, though not without its difficulties. For Mehar, raised in America, certain of her mother’s acceptance, falling in love with a girl is as easy as falling in love with a boy, were she so inclined. For Sufiya, it’s much more nuanced, as Mehar is the granddaughter of her employer, belonging to another class altogether. Mehar doesn’t have two sisters and parents relying on her job, relying on her to make connections and a good match in order to continue to support them. Mehar won’t be the one in trouble if Mehar’s grandmother disapproves of the relationship.
However, none of that is ever dealt with, much as with the wedding itself. The whole book takes place during the weeks leading up to the wedding. The story ends before the wedding and before any real resolution. Not every book has to have a message, of course, but I felt like the book just trailed off in the middle of the sentence, leaving me just sort of sitting there. For all that Mehar’s mother mentioned, pointedly, the marked division between the upper class in their palaces and the immense poverty just outside, there was no other comment. Mehar seemed to neither notice nor care; not that she had to, but why make it a point early in thebook to have almost nothing to say about it, later? The only focus on this book, beyond the bonding with her grandmother, felt like it was on the lavish, beautiful, and expensive clothing and jewelry, and all the food that Mehar was served. I don’t know what this book was trying to say, and I don’t know what to take away from it other than that Indian weddings have a lot of clothing changes, a lot of food, and cost a lot of money.
The writing is good, the pacing is a bit fast — days passing between chapters without comment — and it really did feel like everyone was always busy with preparing something. I appreciated that the Urdu words were used freely without spoon feeding the translations. I just feel like so much is unresolved. It was an easy book to read, but I don’t really recommend it.