'When Dimple Met Rishi' is a zippy, charming update on arranged marriage

Rishi Patel plans for a stable, predictable career at his father's Silicon Valley tech firm, while Dimple Shah is aiming for the stars. Do their parents know something that they don't?

When Dimple Met Rishi By Sandhya Menon Simon Pulse 384 pp.

Two Indian-American teenagers walk into a San Francisco tech conference. Their parents have sent them here to gauge their chemistry for an arranged marriage. Only one of them knows that. The other doesn’t know that the other doesn’t know.

Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi is just as charming, magnetic, and zippy as it sounds.

Rishi, the Patels’ older son and poster child, is invested in the idea of arranged marriage. He does whatever it takes to uphold family tradition, planning an MIT engineering degree and a stable, predictable career at his father’s Silicon Valley tech firm. Rishi forces himself to squelch his real passion, comic book art, to please his parents.

Dimple Shah, the Shahs’ only child, is all business, all the time; marriage isn’t even in the equation. She scoffs at her mother’s relentless attempts to set her up with an I.I.H. (Ideal Indian Husband). Dimple’s savvy and hustle have earned her a spot at Stanford University to study web development, so her career gets top billing at all times.

With her mom so focused on an M.R.S. degree over a B.S., it’s an absolute miracle when Dimple’s parents agree to send her to Insomnia Con, a summer web development program at San Francisco State University. Little does she know why they’re suddenly so accommodating! So when Rishi spills the beans at their first meeting, Dimple is horrified and outraged.

Naturally, they’re paired as partners for the entire conference. As they work together – Rishi obediently and Dimple furiously – a friendship blossoms. What blossoms next is entirely by surprise, and neither of them knows what to do with it.

Allow me to explain Dimple and Rishi’s predicament in the context of 18th-century colonial geography.

You heard me.

In the mid- to late 1700s, the Eastern Seaboard of what is now the United States was still a layer cake of British colonies with a frothy French topping in present-day Canada. Britain had laid claim to half the North American continent. They had no idea what that land actually contained, of course, but darn it, they claimed it.

The trouble was figuring out how to delineate it across such a vast distance. Britain’s solution was to extend their colonies’ borders directly west. (Check out this Library of Congress map for a visual.) A colony was expected to keep expanding along those westerly parallels until it ran out of runway at the Mississippi River.

In hindsight, this was a ludicrous expectation. That territory was massive, and they had no idea what the terrain looked like. Those parallels couldn’t account for undiscovered mountains, rivers, monuments, or obstacles.

Yet in the mind of an 18th-century cartographer, that was a reasonable expectation for how colony development was going to progress. The land would develop exactly according to plan, constrained in those perfectly defined channels.

At 17 and 18 years old, Dimple and Rishi are such cartographers, plotting out the course of a lifetime with just 15 percent of it completed. They have no way of knowing what the terrain looks like or how their course will veer, expand, and contract in response to it. Eighteen years of life experience seems so small in comparison to the exciting, dangerous, unexplored territory of adulthood that lies ahead.

Insomnia Con is therefore bewilderingly different topography that demands a whole new map. They’re not prepared for this revelation. Their life plans do not accommodate this.

The borders of an emotional state can feel as inflexible, narrow, and unending as those of a geographic one. The deeper the turmoil or the bigger the wrench thrown into your plans, the stronger the feeling that your heart’s terrible geography is the new normal, extending in this wretched channel, in just this way, to the end of your life.

Dimple and Rishi have drawn borders for themselves, only to find their heart’s desire on the wrong side of the line. Dimple has consciously chosen to pursue her career before all else. Rishi has chosen tradition and obedience over doing what makes his soul sing.

Half-empty, half-full. Half-life, if that’s what you must sacrifice to feel like you’re doing what you should. But what’s the fulcrum between practicality and passion? How do you know when to follow dreams instead of duty?

Will they keep true to those original maps or draw new ones? It’s a well-engineered struggle.

There’s so much to love about “When Dimple Met Rishi,” and not just because I used to live and work near SFSU. Menon has a vibrant voice and a smooth touch, especially when integrating Hindi into dialogue. Plus, she got me watching Bollywood videos again, so that’s a win.

I love passages in which a moment becomes a microcosm of the entire narrative. When Rishi and Dimple visit a comic book convention at SFSU, Rishi is taken aback by his powerful reaction.

He compares it to “trying to stay away from the girl you desperately loved but who you knew was bad for you. You kept your distance, because that was the only way to save yourself. You kept your distance, because you knew if you didn’t, you’d be helplessly and hopelessly caught up in everything you loved about her. Distance was the promise of safety. Without distance, Rishi knew the inexorable love for his art, for creation, would suck him in and never let go.”

Dimple responds, “Are you afraid that you don’t belong here? Or that you do?”

That, dear reader, sums up the entire book in a nutshell. “When Dimple Met Rishi” is gorgeous work.

(One last thing: I rarely write about cover design, but I always analyze it, and this was a stunner on all fronts. My husband took one look and commented with a smile, “That’s the most millennial cover I’ve ever seen.” To his credit, it’s true! Dimple’s giant grin, chomping on the straw of an iced coffee, plus her plethora of rings and the hand-lettered title, all contribute to one very 21st century vibe. It’s packed with verve and fizz. Regina Flath, I tip my hat to you!)

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