The rom-com of the summer? My bet is on debut author Sandhya Menon’s young adult tech-geek love story When Dimple Met Rishi, a swoon-worthy romance about two teens who meet and fall for each other at an app camp (yep, those exist!). The twist? Only one of them knows that it’s an arranged match set up by their traditional Indian parents.
Menon is a bright new talent, and she delivers a debut that’s deliciously quirky, funny and nerdy — and a contemporary YA summer romance starring two Indian kids, a story we see very rarely in mainstream media.
"Brown teens need to see themselves falling in love, making mistakes, dabbling in art, and being happy."
"Our stories are usually about us being terrorists or rapists or about us overcoming the odds to rise above the slums and become doctors," Menon tells Bustle. "There's a danger in that single story because it flattens your perspective of what you can achieve in life. It's isolating, and it feels like no one really sees you. Brown teens need to see themselves falling in love, making mistakes, dabbling in art, and being happy."
The book is a collaboration between Menon and her Simon Pulse editor Jennifer Ung, who reached out to the author with the idea for the story. “It wasn't a story about race or poverty," Menon says. "Although those are powerful, important stories, I knew I wasn't the right one to tell them. This story was going to be light and happy — a rom-com like so many on my bookshelf. And yet, it was completely unique because it featured Indian-American teens. Once I sat down to plot it out, the story just flowed out of me. It hasn't changed much since my first draft!"
She admits that some of the inspiration for the characters of Dimple and Rishi came from real life. “I put an amalgam of many people in my life — including me — into all of the characters,” Menon says. “Dimple definitely has my feminist streak, but her hatred of makeup and her general physical description matches my journalist aunt. Rishi's traditionalist ways and love and respect for his parents came from my cousin, but his passion for art and his insecurities about it came from my own passion for and insecurities about my art when I was younger." And, she adds with a laugh, "Dimple's mom is an amalgam of so many Desi mothers I know!" Read: totally overbearing!
Menon really does know of what she writes. She moved to the United States at 15, and quickly found herself rebelling against some of the more traditional Indian values. "As teenager, I had to push the envelope with my elders – acculturating way faster than they'd have liked and changing too quickly," she says.
"My stories are also about teens just being teens – chasing their dreams, learning more about themselves, falling in love, and living happily ever after."
She sees that cultural tug-of-war amongst the younger generation of immigrant and second generation kids she’s writing about today – and she thinks that publishers are finally noticing it, too. "These teens identify as both Indian and American, and they want to see stories about people like them," she says. "I like to think of myself as helping that shift by writing stories that don't just sweep the unique issues of cultural identity under the rug: they're addressed on the page without equivocation. At the same time, though, my stories are also about teens just being teens – chasing their dreams, learning more about themselves, falling in love, and living happily ever after."
Case in point: Rishi’s character struggles with his desire to be an artist versus his family’s hope that he choose a more stable career – a battle Menon fought with herself, too. “I've always been writing, ever since I could hold a pencil and form words,” she says. “My family was delighted with my talent, but at the same time, they were very clear about the fact that they didn't think being a novelist was a viable career. They wanted me to become a doctor and write for fun in my spare time. On the other hand, I had some distant relatives who encouraged me to be a writer, saying that writers didn't make any money but it wasn't a problem because I was a woman and my husband could support me! Neither option sounded good to me!”
Playing with more than one character from the rich, diverse culture that is the Indian diaspora, Menon knew she could afford to present a varied, nuanced take on the community – and play with that classic romantic comedy trope: opposites attract.
"It can be amazing, as Dimple sees in the course of the book, how much someone with your own cultural background can understand about you that others simply can't."
“I knew they couldn't instantly fall in love and brush all of that — their competing ideals and values — under the rug,” she says. “But they're both Indian-American teens and the same age, so that in itself is a common starting point. It can be amazing, as Dimple sees in the course of the book, how much someone with your own cultural background can understand about you that others simply can't. It can make you feel seen and heard and understood.”
She did purposely avoid another rom-com trope though – the dreaded (and beloved!) love triangle. "I didn't want a triangle to complicate matters. There was enough for both Dimple and Rishi to deal with," she says. "But I'm a huge fan of romantic tropes. They're there for a reason: we like reading the same story over and over again, even though we don't think about it that way. The trick then, in my opinion, is to make the characters come alive so readers don't really see the trope playing out. Rather, they're just watching their best friends interact on the page; they're eavesdropping on their conversations."
And while she borrowed from traditional Hollywood elements, she also added a dash of Bollywood for fun and flavor. "I grew up watching Bollywood movies, so I'm a huge fan," she says. “The movies can be so problematic with regards to sexism and homophobia, but there's also so much good in there. Besides the fulfillment of watching people like me on screen, Bollywood deals with the importance of families really well, and that's something so near and dear to my heart.”
"It's really revolutionary, especially in these times, to dare to be brown and happy and in love."
One critical element? The dance sequence, of course. “It just came naturally!” Menon says. “Besides the obvious capacity for humor, a dance sequence also held that inherent Bollywood flavor.” Plus, of course, it’s a moment of fun and connection between two otherwise very different teens.
Spoiler alert: like most romantic comedies, When Dimple Met Rishi has a happy ending. And Menon doesn’t care if you know it. “It's really revolutionary, especially in these times, to dare to be brown and happy and in love,” she says. "It's a huge act of optimism, I think. It was important to me to contribute to that dialogue, to say, 'Life might be scary and uncertain for a lot of us right now, but here's this ray of hope and sunshine.'"