This Satirical Romance Was Way Ahead of Its Time
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this gently satirical romance by an Indian author hit the shelves over two decades ago.
It’s clear from the opening line of Kirin Narayan’s first and only novel that protagonist Gita Das is going to be relatable, because “on Saturday nights, Gita washed her hair.” Combine that with the fact that she’s hanging her dating life on the seemingly dubious advice of her Aunty’s astro-numerologist and she could be a dead ringer for an astrology-obsessed 20-something in 2019.
Except Love, Stars and All That was published in 1995.
But it’s not just the horoscope hook that makes this 24-year-old title — a pithy satire of academia and, in turn, academics — still feel fresh. While diverse romances are climbing The New York Times best-seller list, romance has historically been (and remains) a whitewashed genre.
So centering an Indian woman in a romance plotline in 1995 feels noteworthy. “I don’t recall there being many novels featuring young Indian or Indian American women just then,” Narayan tells me over email. Even so, “the book seemed to do fine with reviews, but vanished from most bookstores in a year or two.”
It’s a comedy, a coming-of-age story, an immigrant arrival story and an academic send-up.”
Kirin Narayan, Author
Horoscope culture is, according to the New Yorker, “currently enjoying a broad cultural acceptance that hasn’t been seen since the nineteen-seventies,” but Narayan tapped into the zeitgeist 20 years ago, using an astrological prediction as a tentpole for her tale. The only problem is that Gita, an Indian grad student, ends up using the prediction as both excuse and motivation to find herself a man. If it sounds uncannily like the way horoscope-reading youths blame mercury retrograde for everything going wrong in their lives, it is.
The book was originally written as “as a high-spirited lark to amuse myself and my closest friends,” Narayan explains. She had hoped one friend in particular would “hoot over some turn of phrase, wry observation or absurdity.” It’s true that the sharp writing provides much of the appeal in Love, Stars and All That, especially as Narayan astutely captures Gita’s calamitous attempts at dating. (“It was all depressing: no sardonic widows or red roses, just this confused boy.”) It turns out that being convent-educated in India isn’t actually an advantage when it comes to navigating the minefield of social and cultural cues of your would-be beloveds in Berkeley, California. Who knew?
Narayan — now a distinguished anthropologist and professor — also leans heavily into academic satire, deftly mocking the cringeworthy, appropriative academic culture. This is especially apparent with characters like the dreadful Norvin Weinstein, a 40-something professor who insists on speaking to Gita in Marathi (presumably assuming all Indians speak the same language), but she doesn’t understand a word. (By the way, have you ever heard a more boner-killing moniker than Norvin Weinstein?) The bad news is: Reader, the starstruck Gita married him.
As such, Narayan is somewhat reluctant to reduce Love, Stars and All That to a single genre: romance. “It’s a comedy, a coming-of-age story, an immigrant arrival story and an academic send-up,” Narayan explains, while her editor Jane Rosenman saw it as “this absolutely delightful comedy of manners.” Romance may not be the book’s core concern then, but it does, as Rosenman notes, address “the larger issue. How do you find love? What is love? How do different cultures look at it?”
However, Narayan — who published a memoir titled My Family and Other Saints in 2008 — is eager to dispel the notion that Love, Stars and All That is some kind of memoir-lite. Despite the other cultural and educational similarities between the author and her protagonist, “I truly never found myself nude in a communal backyard hot tub in Berkeley,” she tells me, somewhat disappointingly.
Hot tub letdowns aside, Narayan’s nearly 20-year-old romance-that’s-not-just-a-romance remains impressive, at once touching on issues that still feel fresh to this day: astrology, diversity, the nightmare that is academia.
“God, I’ve gotta reread that book,” says Rosenman.