In a candid conversation, the author delves into the multifaceted inspiration behind “The Girl Who Kept Falling in Love” and the exploration of themes such as love, activism, and cultural identity. Sparked by the anti-CAA protests in 2019, she shares how personal experiences, including a background in social work and counselling, shaped the narrative’s characters and overarching themes. The interview unravels the complexities of the writing process, challenges of balancing storytelling with advocacy, and the novel’s poignant examination of queer experiences in urban India.Offering insights into the ironies of social justice and Instagram woke culture, the author emphasises the need for critical examination of contemporary movements and the role of literature in fostering inclusive understandings of love.
Can you share the inspiration behind “The Girl Who Kept Falling in Love” and what led you to explore the themes of love, activism, and cultural identity in this context?
Many parts of my life inspired me to write this book. But the anti-CAA protests that started in 2019 moved me to bring this book together. The cross-over generations (Millennials and Gen Z) are unlearning, relearning, and making new contexts of their lives online. These create fertile grounds for more minor revolutions in our world. The silence I was taught as a child and woman inspired me to write this book. We’re taught to be silent about the most apparent parts of being human. I wanted to break the silence, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
How do your background in social work and your experiences as a counsellor contribute to the themes and characters in your novels?
My undergraduate degree is in social work, and I worked in the mental health field in the U.S., working at a domestic abuse shelter for women.
I was also a residential counsellor for a step-down-from-jail residential facility that had boys aged 12-19 who were involved with drugs, gang-related crimes, assault, and robbery. I was 24 then and saw patterns that made me very uncomfortable. Most of the boys were from Black and Latino communities. These boys were numbers the state had to fill and had budgeted for. The economy of foster housing, prison, and juvenile homes is a business. The obsession with prison for profit that America stands for is institutionalised racism. I felt like I was just perpetuating the system by being a ‘friendly’ face to an oppressive system. That’s when I moved to writing. I thought writing would at least let me write my truths and possibly influence others.
Can you walk us through your writing process for this novel? How did you approach the complexities of the characters and the intertwining themes?
It was essential to capture the fallibility of being human, no matter what the characters’ intentions in the book represented. It was difficult because I was creating many characters from the circles of people I engaged with and who were a part of my life in my 20s and 30s. Most of my fiction, even the past, has revolved around Indian urban realities, and I think so much of the complexity comes from this political context. We live with so many ironies and contradictions, and when it comes to people trying to ‘make the world a better place’, I wanted to honour both the earnestness and contradictions of it all. That’s to say, I didn’t want to glorify them, nor did I want to take away from their intent and growth as urban activists and writers.
Given your work’s bold and diverse themes, how do you balance storytelling and advocacy in your writing?
It’s hard. No matter what, some people will read parts of a particular character as a prop for advocacy. I rely on real-life inputs; some genuine people advocate wherever they can. The way society scars people or, on the other hand, empowers people shows up in how people prioritise and develop empathy, ethics, and identity. I try not to reduce my characters to just their identity or a social cause.
“The Girl Who Kept Falling in Love” explores queer experiences in urban India. What challenges and triumphs do the characters face, and how do these reflect the broader landscape of queer life in urban settings?
I think social media has allowed for so much awareness and discourse for queer people in India. In a way, it’s been a space where there can be some expression and talking about their lived experiences even if they are not accepted by their own families or in everyday life for who they are. Urban India encompasses a vast spectrum of realities for queer people. I’d venture to say places like Bangalore and Mumbai might give you great examples of ‘globally recognisable queer life’, but that’s only one tiny percentage of queer life in India. Materially, we are severely lacking spaces and education that will help queer people have more agency over their own lives. Institutionally, educationally, medically, and domestically, there is negligible space for queer people to navigate between the tight confines of cis-hetero patriarchy.
Your work delves into the ironies of social justice and Instagram woke culture. Could you elaborate on some of these ironies and why it’s crucial for readers to critically examine contemporary social justice movements?
Online activism is terrifyingly messy, but it’s not an excuse to diminish the cultural changes and awareness it has made. Real social impact has happened because people cared to advocate, talk about lived experiences, and open up about mental health, sex, caste, class, and queerness. In general, progressive activists have the short end of the stick. People quickly label them as virtue signallers or hypocrites. But this issue is far more complex. Humans are hypocritical by nature, but that doesn’t mean one can’t be more and more aware of them and act with intent. One always has the choice to align with values they feel they can advocate for. Intent matters far more than what some call the theatrics of it. The other thing that’s exceedingly important at this time is the current genocide we are witnessing; if you ask me, everybody should be vocal about this shameful tragedy; this is not about being woke or not woke. We need to work on a steady ethical baseline. Even if it only makes sense, having a moral baseline is imperative for humans to create and do better. You can always criticise a movement or ideology you are a part of and still stick to the aspects you believe in; this is how we shape culture.
How does your novel challenge conventional ideas about gender roles and love? What message do you hope readers take away regarding the fluid nature of human connections?
The Girl Who Kept Falling In Love examines how our purpose and need for validation by another person is often just projected on a romantic partner. Society hasn’t given us any other options to express our vulnerabilities, sexualities, or even intellectual engagement in different ways. I hope people see that romantic love is fun, beautiful, and defining but also a limiting idea of love. The mainstream concept of love is one that’s fashioned on cisgender roles and fixed beliefs about femininity and masculinity. Love stories are only love stories when there is a tragedy involved, or someone has lost a love, but the actual moments of love are when minds meet and share a moment or witness an event that silently changes each other for the better.
In what ways can literature contribute to breaking down societal expectations and fostering a more inclusive understanding of love?
By normalising them. Everything that seems taboo is simply a construct of how we’ve been raised and were taught about our societal roles. So whenever you read about something that ‘shocks’ you, ask yourself why it shocks you? A simple example of this is a polyamorous throuple that are living together and have planned their domestic lives among each other. Many readers will find this plain weird, but why? Just because we were taught that it’s not possible for three people to love or to co-exist romantically like a cis-het married couple would.
I assure you this throuple ran out of Haldi and Dhanya right when they were about to cook. I assure you this throuple fights together and feels jealous at different times. I assure you they’ve all said beautiful and toxic things to each other in their worst moments. Literature can depict the normalcy of these so-called taboo things, and that allows our minds to be rewired collectively.
As an Indian American, how does your unique background shape your perspective on the experience of Indians living in the U.S. during a time of heightened national pride in India?
While growing up in the U.S., my father and other immigrant families would glorify India and talk about the fantastic culture and the people. I always wondered why they chose to leave if it was so wonderful. As I got older, I felt more empathy for this; Indian immigrants from the 70s, 80s and 90s were genuinely disconnected from their land in a new culture that can be clinically sharp with personal boundaries. Suddenly, everything you were familiar with, from prayers, clothes, smells, sounds, and music you grew up with, feels like it happened on another planet.
It becomes a coping mechanism to glorify what you left.
I chose to live in India not because it’s a glorious place to be but because I resonated with it and the absurdities of our ways. Today, national pride is a frightening prospect to me. You are talking about generations of Indians who have not spent most of their adult lives in the U.S. and are not willing to look at the massive inequalities we struggle with; they are unwilling to look at caste and their own racism. One can’t have meaningful pride or engagement with the country unless we look at all the global connections of oppression we have created and see our part in it. We still have a colonial hangover, and this insecurity has allowed us to latch on to very superficial ideas of what India is about.
How can individuals, especially those with privilege, actively contribute to creating a more inclusive and equitable society?
There are a few potent things we can commit to.
First, we give ourselves the freedom to be our whole selves and let go of some of our social fears to be more ourselves. Once we feel sure about ourselves, we can value the freedom of others much more.
Walk some of our talk. We pay people crap in this country; if you want your salary to be a certain amount with benefits, make sure you do the same for people who are working for you in your houses, helping with your kids or assisting you in your offices.
Don’t run away when you feel weird or deeply uncomfortable about a subject you don’t know enough about; immerse yourself in it and find out how you want to respond to this topic. Running away or being in denial is how most issues never get traction. Small acts of radical kindness and curiosity can help us connect and see how similar we are. We all want to thrive; people underestimate this similarity’s power.
Follow her on Instagram @rheealization