Five on a Friday with Anisha Bhatia

One of the great things about being a published author is how many other authors I get to “meet.” We all hear about the big, flashy books by big-name authors, but there are a host of gems that may never cross our paths. (So many books… so little time!) I get to see some of those books these days as I help other authors, and I thought I’d use my little platform to feature some stories I’ve really enjoyed.

Today, please welcome Anisha Bhatia, author of “The Rules of Arrangement,” which releases next Tuesday (July 13)!

About the book:

Zoya Sahni has a great education, a fulfilling job and a loving family (for the most part). But she is not the perfect Indian girl. She’s overweight, spunky and dark-skinned in a world that prizes the slim, obedient and fair. At 26 she is hurtling toward her expiration date in Mumbai’s arranged marriage super-mart, but when her aunties’ matchmaking radars hones in on the Holy Grail of suitors—just as Zoya gets a dream job offer in New York City—the girl who once accepted her path as almost option-less must now make a choice of a lifetime.

Big-hearted with piercing social commentary, The Rules of Arrangement tells a powerful, irresistibly charming and oh-so relatable tale of a progressive life that won’t be hemmed in by outdated rules. But not without a few cultural casualties, and of course, an accidental love story along the way.

Anisha, your bio says you were born and raised in Mumbai. How much of what we see in “The Rules of Arrangement” is an amalgam of your own experiences and/or observations growing up?

A bunch of it is, for sure. Large parts of it are based on observing the world around me. Although Zoya is not me, the first chapter is inspired by an amusing incident – my aunt rushing into our house on a lazy Sunday as if it was an emergency, to confront my parents about what they were doing and why they hadn’t started searching for boys for me. My parents looked sheepish and asked if she could help since she had a large network of social connections. I was all of 22, and in the room when it happened, and they were discussing me like I wasn’t there. I remember thinking it was hilarious, but I couldn’t laugh out loud because it was a “serious” topic. I’ve never forgotten it!

That’s hilarious! And I thought I had family stories. 🙂 I can see how your own experience helped birth such colorful supporting characters. I’m a total sucker for a colorful supporting cast in a book. All your characters are so vivid! Can you tell us about Zoya, Arnav, Lalit, Sheila Bua (especially Sheila Bua!) et al? Where did they come from? How did you develop them?

Thank you!

After my second child, I took up an evening class at the University of California, San Diego, simply to get out of the house. The class was called Creating Unforgettable Characters, and Sheila Bua was the result of the final assignment! She was the catalyst for this story, even before Zoya.

Growing up in India, you weren’t allowed to be too opinionated. It could mark you as a firebrand (read: not good daughter-in-law material), but a lot of girls have impertinent commentary running through their heads, and I wanted to capture that. So, Zoya’s funny irreverent voice and Sheila Bua came together in a story.

Arnav was only supposed to be a side character, but he developed organically and got more “screen time” as the story developed, to my consternation! I had not intended to add an element of romance, but it surprised me by its addition and how natural it felt to the story.

Lalit was the hardest character to write. I realize that I need to be sympathetic toward a character I’m writing, no matter how “bad” they are. If I don’t like them, I can’t write them. For the longest time, Lalit escaped me, and one of my astute writer friends told me it was because I didn’t like him. I was horrified. It was like being told you don’t like one of your kids – ha!

Those darned characters. You have to like them even when they’re being buttheads! Let’s go back to your main character, Zoya. She is charmingly clueless about, well, everything, which makes her personal epiphanies and ultimate triumph all the more satisfying. How much of this did you plan, and how much just happened as the story developed? Did this book develop in layers, or did you already know, going in, everything you wanted to accomplish?

It absolutely developed in layers. Zoya was even more clueless in Draft 1, almost ditzy. But the layers kept being added in each edit and surprised me with how organic they felt. So much so that I berated myself at not having thought of them all at once while writing the first draft!

The Rules of Arrangement touches on lots of hot topics for women: body shape, intimacy, marriage vs. work, etc. It also lets me, a white reader with zero experience with Indian culture, see all these issues through a new lens. What do you hope readers will take away from it?

The underlying thing I wanted to say with this book, which is why I wrote it, is for women, for girls from traditional societies, who wonder if there are choices besides what they’ve been told. This is to tell them that there are choices out there and its ok to choose them and they can do that without breaking away from family.

I’d like readers to understand that that fighting your mind, your conditioning, is one of the hardest things a person can do. And that the people around them, their elders, the aunties and uncles, all of them have a story, all of them had dreams just like you do. They are who they’ve become because of that story.

And foremost, I wrote this story for girls, for women everywhere, especially South Asian, who’ve been made to feel “less” than because of their appearance or weight or skin. I want to tell them that you are enough, you deserve all the good things, all the chances you get – take those chances and don’t hold yourself back! Changing your beliefs is slow, it doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen! One step at a time, slow and consistent.

I love that. You either grow or atrophy; it’s the reality of human existence. We often don’t give ourselves (or others) enough grace in the process of growth. So, last question: Do you have a new project in the works? Can you tell us about it?

I do! I’m hoping to write about mental health and motherhood and an intersection of the two. I am working on the first draft and I have no idea where I’m going with the story except for a vague blueprint. There’s a reason it’s called the first draft from hell!

I’m totally with you there. Good luck, and thanks for visiting! Everybody, check out The Rules of Arrangement, releasing next week!