What a Desi Girl Wants is a story of self-discovery, exploring themes such as the search for one’s roots, the complexity of family dynamics, introspecting one’s identity, and the beginnings of an unexpected romance.
The novel unfolds over winter break when Mehar Rabbani, a teenager from Newton, Kansas, travels to Agra, India. She has been invited to attend her father Reza’s second marriage to Naz, a prominent socialite. It has been 12 years since Mehar left India when her parents’ marriage ended. She is anxious and trepidatious about her upcoming trip; she is leaving everything, albeit just for a few weeks, that is familiar — her mom, Gulnar, her best friend, Norah, and her job at the senior center.
But what worries her the most is meeting her soon-to-be stepsister, 18-year-old Aleena, a social media influencer in Agra. Mehar eventually decides to go not only to attend the wedding but also to mend her fractured relationship with her father. Additionally, she looks forward to meeting her grandmother after this long gap.
India is a culture shock for American-raised Mehar. The opulence of the palace where her father, grandmother, and extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins live, the retinue of domestic staff, and the elaborate meals she is served every time. The family’s lavish lifestyle is a stark contrast to how people live outside the walls of the palace, though Khan does not elaborate on the disparity between the haves and have-nots.
The stark hierarchies of class are only mentioned as a passing reference to Sufiya, Mehar’s grandmother’s assistant, who lives in a modest enclave of Agra. Mehar struggles to navigate the privilege that she suddenly finds herself entrenched in even as she grapples with straddling two worlds — her old life in Newton and this unfamiliar entitled one in Agra. However, the inner conflict appears superficial as Mehar is more preoccupied with the wedding, the uneasy dynamics with Aleena, and a growing friendship with Sufiya that leads to the budding of a first romance.
The attraction between Sufiya and Mehar unfolds gradually in the book, and this is also when the reader learns that Mehar is queer. Khan does not go deep into the complexities of the LQBTQ+ communities in India. The nuances of this issue could have been fleshed out more in the narrative, a missed opportunity to shed light on the discrimination and bias, the problematic stereotypes, and the violence the community faces.
On a side note — it wasn’t until 2018 that India decriminalized same-sex relationships. Mehar, for the most part, only has a superficial understanding of this narrative. She is more worried about how her father and grandmother will react if she comes out to them.
Khan gives detailed descriptions of the expensive, luxurious clothing, jewelry, and all the glamor that is associated with a royal family. A large part of the book revolves around the preparations and a general sense of a bustling household immersed in planning and executing the Big Fat Indian Wedding!
We witness the warmth of familial bonds between Mehar and her large extended family where the physical distance has not diluted the emotional attachments. Khan thoughtfully articulates the uneasy dynamics between Mehar and Aleena, sensitively portraying Mehar’s vulnerabilities and insecurities about being replaced by Aleena in her father’s life. Props to Khan for the liberal usage of Urdu words without feeling obliged to explain each one. She maintains an authentic voice and tone while simultaneously showcasing her sharp wit and sense of humor. This is particularly evident in those sections of the book where Mehar is reflecting on Aleena.
Near the end of the book, Mehar overhears a conversation between Aleena and her friend that shocks and unsettles her. Will the knowledge of what she hears stop the wedding? Although Khan tries to sustain the suspense, the conclusion of the story feels rushed with the resolution hastily developed. Parts of the book are hurried as the author skips over days between chapters affecting the timeline and continuity of the narrative. Interestingly, Khan intentionally keeps the future of Mehar and Sufiya’s relationship ambiguous. She leaves it to the reader’s interpretation if it will survive the geographical distance and the shackles of class politics in India.