How did the idea for this story come to you?
I learned of a cousin’s wedding in India and imagined standing squished in a crowd of relatives in a hot Kolkata courtyard. I wondered how I would feel. Fascinated? Happy to be with family? Completely disoriented?
The rest of the story followed quickly. Lina’s far more audacious than I am — I would never invent an imaginary man!
Oh, really? Then how do you explain Raja Prasad?
You caught me! I guess I do have a fertile imagination. When the Pee-wee Herman clone practically drooled on Lina, I couldn’t help rescuing her. The handsome, debonair Raja popped out of my — I mean Lina’s — head.
Have you known a man like Raja? Where did you find him?
He’s a composite of every dashing man I’ve seen in the movies. He’s inscrutable (Keanu Reeves), rough-edged (Tommy Lee Jones), sophisticated (George Clooney), sexy (Brad Pitt), and dangerous (Christian Bale), with a touch of the exotic. Phew! As Lina would say, he’s Vin Diesel with hair.
If we sat in a restaurant, could you identify shimmering threads between potential mates?
I’d be a terrible matchmaker — I couldn’t see a shimmering love thread if someone dangled one in front of my face. I grew up immersed in science and the laws of physics. My father is a chemical engineer and my mother has a doctorate in science and math education. I broke the mold by studying anthropology and psychology and then pursuing the arts.
Which aspects of your life correspond to Lina’s?
I was born in India, but I grew up in Canada. Most of the novel takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I lived for several years after graduating from U.C. Berkeley. I struggled through many boyfriends before finding my husband. We now live in the Pacific Northwest with five cats and plenty of surrounding wildlife.
Do you feel the same conflict between cultures?
In some ways, yes. I was one of only a few Indian kids growing up in a Manitoba town. Although I made close friends there, a couple of small-minded bullies called me names. I didn’t always feel comfortable in my brown skin.
I also felt out of place when we visited Indian families whose children spoke their mother tongue. My parents sometimes spoke in Bengali to each other, but they never taught me Bengali.
Yet Indian culture infused our lives. My parents were affectionate and demonstrative, as Indian families often are, while my friends rarely hugged or kissed their parents. My parents cooked Bengali food, had close Indian friends, and we returned to India a few times. On weekend mornings we lounged in our pajamas and drank cha (Indian tea with lots of milk and sugar). When I stayed overnight at friends’ houses, I found it strange that everyone got dressed to have a formal breakfast together. What, no tea in bed??
Now that I’ve moved out and established my own life, I have a better understanding of my unusual family background, and I don’t feel much conflict between cultures. I feel like a North American, and yet I’m also proud of my Indian heritage.
Your family didn’t try to arrange your marriage?
Heck no! My family is much more unconventional than Lina’s. My parents fell in love; their marriage was not arranged. They were adventurous, the first members of their family to seek an independent life in a foreign country.
As such, they emphasized education and encouraged me to excel in my studies, piano lessons, figure skating, swimming, and ballet. Nobody bothered me about getting married until one day, when I broke up with a longtime boyfriend, my mother let slip, “Now you’ll never get married!”
How many Indian weddings have you attended?
None actually in India, but I recently attended my cousin’s traditional South Indian wedding in California. What a fascinating, exotic affair. Two priests performed the rituals for family and friends. The bride wore a heavy blue silk sari in the beginning and switched to a heavy red silk sari for the second set of rituals.
Within India, there are many different types of wedding traditions. The movie Monsoon Weddingdepicts a typical upper middle-class Punjabi wedding, while the wedding in Imaginary Men is Brahmo Samaj, a more reserved Bengali ceremony.
The scenes set in Kolkata are sensuous and vivid. Did you do research to create such a seemingly authentic sense of place or did you rely on firsthand experience?
While I did some research to sharpen the details, I relied mainly on firsthand experience. I was born in Kolkata — then called Calcutta — and I’ve returned a few times. A complex, energetic city, Kolkata conjures images of crumbling colonial facades, enchanting beauty, culture, chaotic crowds, traffic, squalor, poverty. Everyone who’s been there has to agree — Kolkata is unforgettable.
The relationships between Lina and her sisters, Durga and Kali, ring wonderfully true. Do you have sisters?
I’m the eldest of five children in a rather unusual family. When I was four, we adopted my younger sister, Nita, from a Cree reservation in northern Manitoba, Canada. She’s the other kind of Indian — Native American. After my parents divorced and remarried, my father and his Italian wife had a son and adopted two daughters from India. They spent their school years in California and holidays in Italy. So I have three Italian-speaking Indo-American siblings and one Native American sister. Our cultures are all over the map.
When did you start writing?
As a child, I typed stories, stapled the pages together, and pasted copyright notices inside the front covers. I guess I inherited my grandmother’s love of writing fiction. A British author, she married a Bengali man and moved to India. My mother grew up in Kolkata. When my grandmother visited us in Canada, she pretended to edit my drafts. She just scribbled a note here and there in the margin.
What were your favorite subjects in school?
In high school I enjoyed English literature, writing, French, writing, psychology, writing, art, and did I mention writing? In college, as a psychology and anthropology major, I loved writing papers and answering essay questions. While other students chewed their pencils and stared at the blank page, I was already scribbling in the margins.