Well, this past month I read A Window to Her Dreams by Harshali Singh! It’s a story that follows the journey of an Indian woman (like me!) who has been through a lot of emotional and physical abuse. I was intrigued when I started it.
Note: Readomania compensated me for this review with a free copy of the book. However, as always, all opinions are my own.
Here is the description of the book as found on Amazon:
Aruna, a young divorcee, marries Bhuvan, an averagely successful young man. Both make promises of ever after with preconceived expectations—hers, freedom from a judgmental society and validation of herself and his, unconditional love and partnership. Despite their best intentions, life plays rogue. On the one hand, Aruna’s learned conditioning, developed as a result of her past, keeps coming in the way of their married normalcy and on the other, Bhuvan cannot fathom the signs of her distress. Their good intentions are tried at every step until the day when Aruna’s past revisits her. Bhuvan’s silences, Aruna’s distrust and the resurrection of her troublesome past lead to a downward spiral in their life that shakes Aruna to the core. As she stands on the precipice of a second failed marriage, Aruna tries one last time to take control of her life, something she had willingly surrendered last time. Does she succeed in saving her marriage? Or is she held back by her own apprehensions, choosing to stay victim?
The description gives away a LOT of the plot, now that I look at it again. A lot of time is spent on the time right before Aruna gets married, as she doubts and prepares herself, and then a lot of time is spent describing what their new marriage is like. In fact, the “downward spiral” described in the above summary doesn’t happen until the last 50 or so pages.
But when I first read it, I was drawn to the idea of a story about an Indian woman like myself that has been through something similar to my own abuse. I was curious about what the story would be like, and I also wanted something to relate to.
Unfortunately I was a little disappointed. There were definitely some good things about the novel, but I found they were overshadowed by the bad.
I really enjoyed reading about India, because though I’m not from there, I relate to the culture. There are words in italic that are in Hindi which was really neat for me to read, as I understand some Hindi… but for someone who doesn’t, it might be a little confusing. Most of the time in books that include another language, like A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (both of which I highly recommend, by the way) the words in italic are easily understood through context. With A Window to Her Dreams, there were times when I felt things would not have been clear for someone who doesn’t understand any Hindi, but maybe that’s because I do understand it. Anyway, personally, it was really fun!
There is also unique aspect of the novel where the haveli (the house where Aruna’s large family lives) narrates part of the story. It’s a neat perspective, playing on the traditions and history of her family with some foreshadowing and interesting, insightful ideas. The only thing is I kind of wish there had been a clear point to the haveli perspective. I kept expecting something to happen, and it never did.
About halfway through the book we learn about Dheeraj, Aruna’s sister, who has thus far been kind of mysteriously in a corner, always in his bedroom studying. Turns out he’s studying for an entrance exam to be a chef, something his father frowns upon. They had fought because his dad wanted him to follow through his footsteps and manage the family business, a saree shop. When Dheeraj tells him he wanted to be a chef, his father tells him it is woman’s job, asking “Are you a woman?” This results in Dheeraj distancing himself from his father, and a strained relationship from then on.
I thought this was a great turn in the story, because thus far the gender roles of Indian culture hadn’t seemed challenged. It seemed like they were going to be, but I had waited a while before anything happen. It was neat to see! There’s more of it as well, with the self-talking that Bhuvan does about his emotions, admitting his feelings and knowing he wouldn’t do so out loud because of the male expectations.
There is also emphasis on the strength of the women, and many of the women don’t choose to follow gender roles. Uma, Aruna’s mother, is the driving force behind Arun, her husband, in a financial fight he has with his brother, and she appears to always be this person to him, the one who really gets things done. Charu and Bhavya, two of Aruna’s sisters, both leave their home to pursue their own lives elsewhere — something that isn’t always forgiven in Indian families. Bhavya is a character I related to very well, as she has always had big dreams to travel the world and do more with her life, but her independence is almost seen as a disappointment. “Are you asking my permission? You’ll do what you want to,” her father said to her. And when her friend says, “Go, if your father allows it,” she responds by saying, “What do you take me for, a woman who needs permission?” Even Aruna, who finds herself in a terrible situation, has found herself there against her father’s will — he didn’t want her to marry her first husband, Rafi.
The author is pretty direct with trying to fight gender stereotypes, with Uma always shutting down arguments that her husband brings up about where Uma should be, and what she should be doing there. Arun tells Uma she shouldn’t “waste” her gold on an education for Dheeraj to become a chef, but to marry his girls. She says, “Marriage isn’t anything.” I seriously cheered her on at that point!
The sexist expectation that women owe intimacy in marriage is also discussed directly, mentioned as “the law and land” allowing men to take their “marital rights” to sex from their wives. I loved this, because I know how important this has been in India over the last several years. It has been a major focus for Indian feminists.
But I think the thing I like most about A Window to Her Dreams is how well Harshali Singh captures how it feels to be in an abusive relationship. I definitely got emotional and teared up at parts, especially as I related to Aruna’s struggle in trusting her new husband after her abusive one. I found myself picturing how I’d react if I was faced with the same shock she experiences at the end, feeling all of her terror and numbness. All of the parts describing what she is thinking throughout the story really hit home for me, too, especially these lines on page 160:
Was it because she felt cherished with him, safe enough to pull back the dust covers from the other ‘Aruna’ that hid beneath? This sudden thrill bewildered her; as much as it possessed her. Had she repressed her sensuality, or was it that she had never discovered the facet to herself? It had always been about the act itself and Rafi’s pleasure.
This is pretty much exactly how I feel as I try to rediscover who I am after my sexual assault. I also feel like I either lost who I am sexually, or I had never really been truly myself because it had always been about the act, performing and not really connecting.
There are also passages where Aruna talks about her past abuse with her new Bhuvan without any emotion. This is something I know I do about pretty much every traumatic event in my life: it’s accurate and relatable for me. Later, Aruna explains that she is suspicious of every person she meets even when logic tells her they are a safe person. I related to that too.
The big one for me is when she wants to have sex with Bhuvan but is afraid to. She she readies herself, making herself up in the mirror and leaving the lights dim, totally into it, but then hesitates. She gets scared and can’t do it, fighting herself the whole time.
This is pretty much my struggle all the time now.
So in terms of a book about a survivor, A Window to Her Dreams is strong.
It really touched me to read something so accurate to my experience.
The story is written a little too flowery for me, with overly big words and dramatic phrases that distracted me from what was happening in the story. This does die down about halfway through the story though… either that or I stopped noticing.
I also found the descriptions a little too long. Not in a George R. R. Martin Game of Thrones kind of way, but in a, “Okay, but what’s going to happen?!” kind of way. There is so much description that I lost interest early on, because I didn’t feel it supported the story or imagery very well. A little less than a third of the way through things start getting more interesting, when Aruna finally marries Bhuvan like we know from the summary. But the story goes back to feeling like it is taking forever, describing everything without a lot of progress.
Don’t get me wrong — I love books with good imagery, with more to it than just dialogue to progress the plot. So I don’t think it’s a matter of taste. And I really wanted to love this book! But I didn’t. I think the reality is that while there are some beautiful parts to it, there was too much going on.
The story feels like it moves forward and then goes backwards because there are frequent flashbacks and changes in perspectives. They do add some depth early on, but I often found myself just wanting to know what would happen. Perhaps if it were organized by chapter, it might have been easier to follow and enjoy.
Then, over halfway through, I wondered why the story doesn’t focus completely on Aruna. I wondered where the story was going, because the haveli’s narration was absent for a while, and when it came back it was unclear as to why. A new conflict had been introduced, with Aruna’s brother Dheeraj, and I felt confused about where the story was going.
There is also lot of conflict that happens because Aruna doesn’t tell Bhuvan things right away, which I didn’t feel justified the type of conflict it creates. I mean, okay she kept something to herself for a week, and it’s been tough for them because her entire issue is trust. But seriously, it’s a small thing she keeps to herself. What the hell is wrong with that? Why is that lying? Bhuvan gets mad at her “deception,” when she kept one thing to herself. Suddenly she’s not allowed to have her own thoughts, and she’s supposed to tell Bhuvan every little thing. It feels like the entire premise of the conflict is just a little far-fetched, especially when this is supposed to be finally a good relationship for her.
What frustrated me most about the story is that while it appeared that it was trying to be a feminist piece, there was a LOT of victim blaming and negative generalized comments about both men and women. Uma makes negative comments about the size of men’s brains, and their apparently inherent stubbornness. And right after Aruna explains to Bhuvan what happened to her when she was being abused, he still asks her why she didn’t go to Rafi’s parents, or call for help. And Bhuvan is supposed to be this super understanding man in the story! Then, later on, when Aruna’s sister is upset and she is worried that she’s also been in an abusive situation, her sister says she wouldn’t let anyone hurt her or put herself in a situation where she would be.
There is also so much emphasis on how Bhuvan has to “control himself” to not have sex with Aruna, as they don’t for several months into their marriage. There’s a lot of emphasis on how awfully painful it is for him to resist Aruna, and this bothered me. I mean, I get that going a long time without sex is tough, especially if you haven’t had sex your entire life. But the fact that the story frames him to be such a good, respectful partner for Aruna and then stresses how sad it is that he has to resist the urge to “take her now” (literally how it’s phrased) quite frankly pisses me off. Like, seriously… no.
There’s also moment when Aruna smiles “the smile of a woman aware of her ‘seductive power,’” and that pissed me off too. It wasn’t called her “feminine appeal” or anything — which would be problematic in itself — but it was describing her womanliness has inherently sexual, and after a lot of victim and woman-blaming before this point in the book, I lost my patience.
But wait: there’s more.
When Aruna and Bhuvan finally do explore each other sexually, there’s a line where Bhuvan is described as giving her the “gift” of choice and control.
Let’s be clear: it’s not a freaking gift to give someone choice and control over their body.
At this point, as well, narration didn’t seem to be from either Aruna or Bhuvan’s perspective. There are times in the story when the narrator seems to take on a neutral, third person perspective, and that’s the impression I had during this scene. Perhaps the switching perspectives is what made this difficult, because if it were meant to be Aruna’s perspective it would make more sense — as she isn’t used to being in control, she would feel it was a gift.
But it wasn’t clear. And so that particular sentence made me really angry.
Besides that, the sex scenes were awkward… but I also don’t have a lot of experience reading them so maybe that’s just the way they are.
Finally, as much as I think the abuser is not to be pitied for their abusive behaviour, I think Aruna’s abuser was made out to be some kind of villain in a cheesy superhero movie — complete with corny lines and droning tone. I think it’s totally valid to see your abuser as a villain. Some abusers really do seem to be pure evil. But I think it’s important to remember that they are human. They are not always visibly evil, like Rafi is made out to be. They are your friend, your relative, your sister’s boyfriend. If we make them into a villain, we distance ourselves from them and forget the reality of who they are: people we know and trust.
The book does a lot of good in terms of being a survivor’s story, with a lot of amazing description in terms of what it really feels like to be in an abusive relationship and the aftermath of that. But it’s written in a flowery way and feels like not a lot is actually happening. When stuff does happen, it feels pretty overdramatic and sudden, and then dies down again.
A Window to Her Dreams is a decent introduction for someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to have been through abuse, and it’s all right for someone who has to find something to relate to, if you can get past the overly elaborate writing. So I won’t spoil the ending, in case you do want to check it out, but I will say this: I found the ending unsatisfying. But I would love to know what you think!
What are you reading this month? I’d love some recommendations! Please share in a comment below 😃
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