I’m not a big book reviewer – in fact, this is the first and perhaps last review you’ll see on this blog. But a recent read hit very close to my romance core, so hard that I felt compelled to shout my thoughts into the blogosphere.
I found Chetan Bhagat’s “Half Girlfriend” when I was in India, a donated book to the yoga shala’s collection of fiction where I was studying Ashtanga. One morning I found myself waiting for a friend, so I picked the book up and started reading. The premise was interesting enough – a boy likes a girl (I love stories that start this way!), and she maybe feels lukewarm about him but agrees to be his half-girlfriend.
That’s what the jacket suggests, at least. Not a terribly gripping blurb, but the opening is what hooked me (as good openings should!).
The book starts with our main male character, Madhav, approaching a (perhaps?) fictionalized version of the author, Mr. Bhagat himself, with copies of his ex-half-girlfriend Riya’s journals. He implores the Maybe Fictional Bhagat to takes these journals and read them, or dispose of them, whatever, because out of his connection to Riya, he cannot throw them away.
Interesting start! Prompting all sorts of questions, like, How did she die? And If he’s so in love with her, why wasn’t she his ACTUAL girlfriend?
From there the book takes a few steps backward, chronologically. We meet Madhav as he is about to start his freshman year at a New Delhi university, one famous for its English, but he is a simple village boy with outstanding basketball skills and no English to speak of. This is where Bhagat shines – he is known for his portrayal of Real India, or at least parts of it, and writes in a simplistic way so that his fiction is more accessible to all throughout India (and not just the educated elite). I admire this aspect of his work, and having read this book while in India, I saw a lot of aspects of the culture around me blasting through the pages of the book. Aspects I might not have picked up on if I hadn’t been sitting enmeshed in the culture there.
The arc of Madhav is notable, a tale of overcoming the odds, succeeding despite vast educational setbacks, etc. The village boy goes to the famous English school, picks up the language, graduates with a degree, gets various job offers, but instead decides to take his new skills back to his village and work at the local (extremely poor) school there with his mother. Admirable!
But unfortunately, that’s only the subplot. Or, at best, half of the overarching plot. Either way, the other half of this novel is what really, truly, sadly disgusted me.
And that is the love story.
As a romance author, I’m pretty much guaranteed to like a good love story, especially when the back jacket of this ‘literary novel’ claims the book is the sweetest love story of our time.
But it’s not. At all.
Well, unless you count creepy stalkers as romance heroes. (Which, judging from SOME romances out there, it’s clear that at least some women do count this as romantic.)
Our ‘hero’ Madhav falls in love with Riya, a gorgeous and super-rich Delhi girl who speaks perfect English and embodies everything that Madhav is not. She is a fellow basketball player, so they have this to bond over. But he falls hard, and fast. And while they do hang out over a long period of time, getting to know each other very well as strictly friends, Madhav carries a torch for Riya that she picks up on. He tries to kiss her, touch her, hug her, and she always refuses.
This affection for Riya culminates in a scene where she is in his dorm room (illegally!), and he is SO exasperated with his virginal lack of progress with the love of his 19 year old life that he demands in his crass Bihari tongue that she fuck him or get out of his room.
*record screeches to a halt*
To Riya’s defense, she leaves his ass that instant and doesn’t talk to him for a good, long while. Madhav knows how bad he fucked up and tries to rectify things, and literally stalks her for months. Super sexy, right?
Riya lost her Cool Girl points when mere months after the fallout with Madhav, she decides to marry a rich boy because, you know, social pressure and rebellion and all that.
All told, Madhav and Riya have a solid friendship for about a year out of the three or four years they are in university. Once Madhav and Riya have the falling out, and Riya disappears into her new married life, it is actual YEARS before Madhav sees Riya again, when she appears near his hometown for work-related things.
This, of course, leads to them rekindling their friendship. Madhav realizes again how desperately in love with her he still is. Riya has since divorced her shitty first husband, who turned out to be a masochistic abuser. Good for her! The friendship progresses and Madhav is once again trying to force himself on her despite her various and insistent reminders that they are only friends. It seems that several years of post-graduate life hasn’t taught Madhav anything in the way of interpersonal relationships, much less how to respect a woman.
While they are in this mid-20’s friendship rekindling phase, Madhav is preparing to present a big speech in English to the Bill Gates Foundation to plead for funding for his poorly underfunded school. The friendship and support system that forms between Riya and Madhav is touching, minus the part where Madhav still acts like that all the time around Riya. But hey, whatever. Madhav’s mom doesn’t like Riya much, and the way she treats her is particularly embarrassing and hilarious, especially after getting to know some fierce matriarchs in India.
Once the Bill Gates Foundation presentation is wrapped up, Madhav exalts in the knowledge that his school was selected for a hefty grant. But after the presentation is over, he realizes Riya has disappeared. Completely. Moved out of her apartment, left all the furniture, fucking disappeared. A note explains that she is going to die of terminal lung cancer, or something, and didn’t want to have a hard goodbye so she thought she’d spare Madhav’s feelings.
Our poor Madhav is once against distraught and completely heartbroken. I mean, really, that’s a pretty shitty move, Riya. And you know what’s even shittier? The fact that the lung cancer this WAS A COMPLETE AND TOTAL LIE.
Yeah. Madhav hunts down her doctors, contacts family, etc and begins to notice a disturbing trend – nobody can verify that Riya was sick. It seems that she has, in fact, completely ghosted. Years after the Unfortunate Ghosting, he landlord of her apartment finds a journal she left behind, which he passes on to Madhav, which he then gives to Fictional Bhagat thinking it’s the last remaining remnant of Dead Riya’s memory and therefore cannot bear to open it, part with it, etc.
Fake Bhagat reads the journal, stumbling over the section where Riya admits she knows Madhav is in love with her but was instructed by his mother to stay out of his life, so she decides to, oh, you know, INVENT A TERMINAL ILLNESS so that will conveniently eradicate her from Madhav’s life and memory. You know, freeing him in a sense.
The journal also mentions a deeply saddening acount of childhood sexual abuse, perpetrated by Riya’s own father, which accounts for a lot of her distaste (and disdain) for her parents and their lifestyle. Really heart wrenching details. It explains some of Riya’s hesitance to enter into a relationship. But you know what it doesn’t do?
It doesn’t AT ALL retrospectively justify Madhav’s relentless quest to conquer Riya. In fact, it makes me even sadder for Riya that she’s had to withstand this douchebag, and other douchebags, for so many years.
Once Madhav finds out about this, he is stricken with both joy and deception. But he knows exactly where Riya probably is – New York City, launching a singing career, a goal she’s had since the day they met. So Madhav, in his hopeless romantic psychosis, literally moves to New York City for a three month internship which is mostly just an excuse so that he can visit every bar and café with live singing to scout out Riya.
An old friend from university is living in NYC, who Madhav stays with. However, Madhav quickly turns obsessive in his quest for Riya, mapping out all the bars he can and calling them, dropping in, trying to find one Indian girl in one of the largest cities in the USA.
Yeah. That’s gonna work out just fine.
Except, you know, it does, because it’s “the sweetest love story of all time”.
Madahv nearly destroys his friendship with his college buddy as he ruthlessly and relentlessly searches for Riya. He can’t even go on a date with another girl – and really, at this point, in his mid- to- late 20s, he’s never even dated or LOOKED AT another girl to our knowledge – and instead embarrasses himself horribly as he continues to zealously stalk Riya in a foreign country.
Well, you know what they say – Good things come to those who stalk. I mean wait.
Madhav finally hunts her down –how he does this, I am not completely convinced of – and the book effectively ends. The last scene shows them back in India with their young child, Riya the Captive Wife finally submitting to her inevitable destiny of being Madhav’s One True Victim. I mean, Love.
Now that I’ve told the story in my terms, let’s recap some of the more disturbing aspects to this story:
–Riya never shows a romantic inclination toward Madhav until they are in their mid-20’s, and even then it’s a barely-there gesture – she simply allows him to rest in her bed. And maybe, like, hug her. IF THAT.
–Madhav straight up stalks her SEVERAL TIMES in this novel. Any man that insisted so much to the point of physically tracking me and lurking in shadows to watch my movements would not be allowed to woo me. Ever. That is fucking SCARY.
–Riya’s unspoken gestures speak WAY louder than her words. But even then, her words make it pretty clear – I WANT TO BE YOUR FRIEND. I DO NOT WANT TO HAVE SEX WITH YOU. Why is that not enough for Madhav? His menagerie of unhelpful college friends perpetuate the idea that Riya is playing hard to get, another harmful assumption about girls who say ‘no’.
The idea that this novel is subtly (or maybe NOT so subtly) promoting is the idea that the right amount of excessive persistence will eventually win over the lady. I know genre romance novels are sort of famous for a similar idea – but let’s be real, this is NOT genre fiction and this goes WAY beyond the healthy limits of ‘male persistence’.
We’re talking YEARS of pining, thinking, stalking, watching, and pursuing. Which, I don’t know, might be slightly sexier if this guy EVER TRIED TO DATE ANYBODY ELSE and therefore had something resembling experience in partnerships and healthy love, or dialed back some of the creepy stalker behavior.
It might have rang truer if we had gotten even the SMALLEST inclination that Riya felt anything for Madhav. In fact, we don’t even learn of her ‘noble intentions’ to erase herself from his life until the last FOURTH of the novel. That is WAY too long to be reading and thinking that this guy is just a daft, relentless misogynist. More hints from Riya’s side that she was ever entertaining the idea of Madhav as a romantic partner would have gone a long way to convince me that Madhav’s attempts were ever, even once, justified.
But no. As it stands, it serves as a potent example of the dark side of “ideal masculinity” – that any woman can eventually be worn down, if only the men try hard enough. That somehow, when a woman says ‘no’ she doesn’t really mean it.
If ANY man in my life behaved as Madhav did, I would literally get a restraining order against him. And I hope other women would too.
Really, what needs to be put forth into society are the following: No means no; you cannot make a woman fall in love with you; waiting for her for 10 years will not just become suddenly romantic one day, even if you travel half the world against her wishes; and stalking a woman is never sexy, no matter what. This novel doesn’t reinforce ANY of these concepts, at all.
The growth Madhav displays in his professional and educational goals is admirable. I really liked THAT part of the book. But the messages of love and romance in this novel are SEVERELY off base, and have very frightening repercussions if a large portion of vibrant and populated India takes these ideas to heart.
I think back to old-timey love stories – you know, like the kind our grandparents used to tell? About how Grandma didn’t want to go out with Grandpa but he kept after her until she agreed? And then how he proposed to her six times before she said yes? I agree with you; I think we have a passed-down notion of persistence as being an acceptable, even an admirable, trait when it comes to romantic endeavors. But those stories often have sweet endings. The modern-day stalker stories do not. But I can see where, culturally, there’s confusion. If we’re taught never to give up, then how do we know when to give up when it comes to love? We value undying devotion – until it crosses the line from cute to creepy. And I think this is where a lot of people get tripped up. I think most of us would agree that following or spying on the object of your affection is not cool – except you see it in movies all the time. In the stalker mind, it’s probably just as romantic.
Thanks for sharing this story. I don’t think I’d want to read it, but it does sound very interesting from a sociological perspective.
You’re totally right — persistence has always been a cornerstone of old-timey love stories. And provided the ending is sweet, and there was consent on the woman’s behalf, then we can get down with it. But that line between cute and creepy is very fine, it seems. I’ll admit, I have persistent men and women in my own romances — but there’s at least very visible and defined interest displayed by both parties.
In Bhagat’s story, all I got from the main female character for 3/4 of the novel was that she literally only wanted to be his platonic friend. And I think this is where he crossed the line from cute to creepy. But looking at the sociological perspective of it, as you mention, is very interesting. Showing up once, maximum twice, unannounced to your love interest’s house after they’ve spurned you is maybe okay — I mean, you need to get your part heard (cue the iconic serenading in the female protagonist’s lawn at midnight).
But after that? You’re clearly defying their wishes, and if there’s any amount of ‘true love’ involved, then hopefully it would involve respecting that other person’s wishes.
I know it sounds cliche, but I never realized how many subtly harmful messages about love and romance are injected into culture via books and movies. As I get older and begin to overhear some of my nieces and nephew’s conversations about their own first forays into love and dating, it’s both fascinating and totally appalling….and their getting their directives from society!! 🙂
Thanks for your great comments!
Exactly – it’s those “subtle” messages that do the most damage. One thing I’ll say for this book – it is definitely not subtle! 😉