Book review: In ‘American Betiya,’ Indian-American teen’s interracial romance raises tough questions

Jim Higgins More Content Now USA TODAY NETWORK
"American Betiya" by Anuradha D. Rajurkar. [Knopf]

Anuradha D. Rajurkar’s “American Betiya” is a 21st-century variant of an archetypal tale: the first-generation American navigating between her parents’ old-country values and the exciting world around her as she figures out who she is. Stir in hormones and a love both first and forbidden, and that journey of self-definition becomes an urgent one.

Rani, a high-school senior in Evanston, Illinois, dutifully follows the study-hard, get-into-medical-school trajectory her Indian parents sanction, until her encounter with Oliver, a tattooed white classmate, at a gallery opening of her photos. She is modest about her photos, while he is intense about making art (painting, collage and installation).

Knowing her strict mother would not approve of her 1) dating, and 2) dating this kind of guy, Rani sees him on the sly, with the frequent connivance of her best friend Kate, a white girl Rani’s mother likes so much she calls her betiya (daughter).

No spoilers here, but even in a city as woke as Evanston, ethnic and class differences matter, and become sources of confusion and conflict. The rough-edged Oliver is from a broken and poorer family. Typical American teens would agree with Rani that her mom is too strict. But many would envy how Rani is also connected to the warmth of grandparents and other relatives, some still in India. A crisis triggers a trip back to Pune, where Rani makes important discoveries about her own family.

Rani is 18. Sex scenes in this novel are gently written from Rani’s point of view - except for Kate’s not so gently stated advice.

The bright Rani is both a good observer and a teen making teen mistakes. Both teen and adult readers with South Asian roots may feel at home with her story and her self-analysis: “I have complicated feelings about my Indian clothes: I love to wear them, but wearing a sari to school feels unsafe, like exposure - exposure to gawking, othering ...”

Parents, aunties and grandparents are differentiated: Even in a traditionalish family, there is more than one way to be Indian. But “American Betiya” could also appeal to anyone who’s ever had to explain or defend their culture to a friend or potential love interest.

Coincidentally, readers interested in new South Asian fiction can also turn to a very different daughter-mother novel, for adults, with scenes in Pune: “Burnt Sugar,” a 2020 Booker Prize finalist by Avni Doshi recently published in the U.S. Antara, an adult artist, is increasingly responsible for the care of her difficult mother, Tara, who has dementia - the same mother who all but abandoned young Antara to join an ashram for several years.

Contact Jim Higgins at jim.higgins@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.