Sonali Dev: Tackling Moral Themes With Humor and Grace

Long before I met Sonali, I had so many friends singing her praises and encouraging me to try her books, that I decided to see what all the gushing was about. Well, I’m now among the gushers! Her stories are just as warm and interesting as the woman, herself. From growing up in India, to immigrating to the U.S., she enlightens and educates as much as she entertains. It is honestly like immersing oneself in all the wisdom and experience of the ages mixed with the energy and excitement of life just visiting with her. I definitely walked away much wiser, but even more curious.  Read on and I think you’ll know what I mean!

InD: We are so interested in your books and your incredible background! Tell us a little about it.
: Well, I was born and raised in India. I came to the U.S. at 23 to go to grad school, as a newlywed. At this point in my life, I have lived in the U.S. longer than I have lived in India.
InD: What was your childhood in India like?
: It was great. My father was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, so when I was very young we lived on military bases all over India. When I was in the 2nd grade, my father went into commercial flying so we moved to the Bombay area, which is a huge melting pot city. However, since my dad was a commercial pilot, we traveled all over the world, so I had a large exposure to many different cultures. It was in ideal childhood.
India itself is still very traditional, and a hard culture to explain because there are about 5 million completely different cultures in one place. In Bombay alone, there are 26 different, fully developed languages, not counting the dialects. There are so many different kinds of food cuisines and music and literature, as well.
InD: Are those 26 different languages similar enough that you can understand them?
SD: No, 26 completely different languages. It is like if Europe was just one big country. France, Germany, Italy, and the other countries there speak different languages. Each area in India is like that. A full culture in itself, because when colonization happened, it was regionally divided and almost separate cou
ntries, called kingdoms. Colonization united everything under one umbrella, which even included the rest of South Asia. It would be like if someone went to Europe and was to say, “All this is now one country.”
InD: Were they able to keep their identities?
Yes, their identities stayed because they were very strong. So, there is the sense that everyone is Indian, but each region has its own identity, their own cuisine, dress, language, festivals, and holidays are different. Bombay is a city where all those different cultures cohabitate. It is a melting pot and the wildest experience to grow up in! The city also has the entire economic spectrum.
It has the biggest slum in the world, and some of the most expensive houses in the world are there also. It is all of humanity living together. Here in America, it’s hard to understand because we tend to divide up our economic bubbles, but India, and especially in Bombay, you can step out of your 50 story building, walk out of the gate and right into the slums. It is a very interesting way to grow up. I grew up watching a lot of Hollywood and Bollywood films. There was a lot of English and British literature and local history and stuff like that.
InD: Was it hard to find your personal identity growing up around all of that?
: Not really. The bubble I lived in with my parents, and my one older brother, was modern and Anglicized, so in terms of how I was raised and treated, as a girl, was very equal. My parents were as demanding of me as they were of my brother. They were equally affectionate, but as soon as we stepped out of our home, the world was different. Women were treated very differently.
In terms of identity, it was a really interesting scene because I started to identify the differences quite young. Throughout my life, I have always recognized and known of the unfairness when people are treated differently whether it is gender, class, or in the caste system. All of these differences were very visible to me.
Even here in America we talk about rungs of the ladder type privilege, the educational privilege, and generational wealth, which gives you the awful word “class” and we all simply navigate it. We are still born into boxes. I grew up privileged in India. The only privilege I did not have was that I was a girl.
InD: You say your parents were very progressive and you and your brother were treated equally, but when you walked out of your house, you noticed how you were treated “as a girl”…
The culture is different with men and women on how women are treated. I have raised a boy and a girl, one is 20, the other is 22. They were born here in America and still we see how they are treated differently. There are reasons boys want to play football and girls want to put on makeup. One of the things that has been interesting is having to learn both sides, because I belong to India and the United States.
I will say the sexism here in America is much more silent and very easy to deny. It us so easy for us to say it does not exist because it is not visible, but what you cannot see is hard to fix. Growing up in India, the problem is so starkly visible that once people started to talk about it and noticed it is a problem, there's no denying it.
As soon as a daughter is born in India, they start thinking of her getting married. This was the thing of my mother's generation. Once you were married, you were given off to another family, changed last names, and became part of that new family. When I was very young, people would say that women who study medicine waste that position because they would just have kids and all the education would go to waste, when there are only a limited number of spaces for doctors as it is. All of those opinions are visible in India.
With my generation and the generation after me, those opinions are being addressed every day, but here in America we don’t think things like that happen because we can't see it, but yet, just 30 years ago, a woman could not get a credit card without her husband signing off on it, which seems bizarre now.

Read the entire fun and informative interview in the May 2022 issue of InD'Tale magazine.

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