With Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words, Annika Sharma kicks off a new contemporary rom-com series about four South Asian friends living in New York City. Four besties make up the Chai Masala Club, also known as the CMC. Kiran, Payal, Akash and Sonam are as varied and vibrant as the Empire State, which Sharma has imbued with a heartbeat and perspective to rival the story’s other secondary characters. The city is more than just a place; it’s the foundation for everything that happens to the CMC.
A perfect literary companion to the author’s popular podcast, “The Woke Desi,” this romance focuses on Indian immigrant Kiran Mathur, a biomedical engineer and dynamic woman raised by traditional, conservative parents. She often feels the pull of opposing obligations among her family, her culture and herself, but her list of things she’d like to accomplish before turning 30 is her own, for the most part. The things that were quickly crossed off, like seeing the Empire State Building and a Broadway play, were fun and easy. Riding a horse, playing games at an arcade and dancing under the stars are so far unchecked but, again, fun and easy to accomplish. The things that really matter, like falling in love and reuniting her older sister, Kirti, with Ma and Baba . . . those are more serious. More daunting.
Kiran’s new neighbor, Nash Hawthorne, is a fellow big-city transplant whose goal is to become a child psychologist at a hospital downtown. He’s handsome, tempting and as interested in Kiran as she is in him. But whereas he lost his parents as a child, Kiran grew up in the shadow of her family. Not only does Nash have to learn about Kiran’s Indian parents, he has to learn about the obligations any child feels toward their parents.
Sharma packs every sentence with information in this book. And every bit of information hints at important decisions the characters must make. Nash is uninformed about Kiran’s culture, but he works hard to learn about and understand her. Where he sees disapproval and isolation, Kiran sees tradition and responsibility. Kiran has to take into consideration the fact that Kirti was disowned for falling in love with a man her parents didn’t choose, and that her parents would be devastated if Kiran didn’t marry an Indian man.
It’s a lot of responsibility, and the heaviness of tradition weighs profoundly on Kiran’s shoulders. She works hard to stay present, but her wants and desires are constantly in battle with her parents’, and with her own reluctance to step out of line. Sharma poses the difficult question of how younger generations can evolve while still observing the practices of generations past. How lenient should we be with our parents and grandparents about their outdated opinions and practices? Are they even outdated? Should we try to teach them to be better? More future-thinking and progressive? How do you move forward if everybody stays on pause and never grows?
There’s a lot to think about in this forbidden love story, chiefly how brave someone must be to follow their heart. Falling in love is terrifying, but in the end Kiran and Nash find their four-letter word.