Will an American girl and her Hindu Brahmin mother-in-law grind the man in the middle into chutney? That's the premise of my multicultural debut novel, Shiva’s Arms, and the first thing that readers want to know is “How much of Shiva’s Arms is autobiographical?”
The short answer is: everything and nothing. The set up, unsuitable American bride marries Hindu NRI, parallels my life. But the characters are fictional, not portraits of people I know. I gave my main character Alice my own long hair and quirky fashion sense, but I am not Alice, although I know her very well.
A power struggle between in-laws is a universal conflict. Everyone knows an Amma, right? I never met my own mother-in-law but when an Indian family moved in next door to my husband and me, I had a bird’s eye view of samsara as it played out in their household of three generations.
The walls between our townhouses were thin enough so I could even hear what they argued about-- from the conflict between personal independence and family to the divided loyalties that ask the question, “when one belong to two cultures, what part of the self goes and what stays?”
I began to imagine a novel built on the swirl of relationships around me. While I was composing, I'd assign tics of people I knew to my characters to help me find a reaction to a made-up situation that would ring true.
The little Ganesh on the chain Amma gave to Alice is modeled after the one my own mother-in-law sent to me, for example. In a gesture that meant more to me than I can say, she melted down her marriage bangles for me, the “unsuitable bride,” she had never met.
Amma would never have done that! Truth is always stranger than fiction.