This book was cute. I would have given it four stars, but I deducted half a star for the absolutely terrible title. The cover design is great though, so I’m certain whoever designed the cover certainly didn’t come up with the title too, which literally means “swap a Dirndl for a Sari”. A Dirndl is a tradition Germanic women’s costume recognisable to Brits and Americans only due to Oktoberfest. Yes, that apron-dress thingy with ample cleavage (although traditionally, not so much ample cleavage).
So, you could tell from the get-go that it was going to be a light read. It’s also co-(possibly ghost?)written by Stefanie Ramb, as Schöneberger is more of a filmmaker than a writer. The premise is pretty simple: It’s the real-life story of a Bavarian woman who ends up marrying a south Indian man, and the bureaucratic, cultural and logistical hurdles which they overcame in the process. It’s a touching story which focuses on their personal romance, so for better or worse, not much else comes into it, apart from Franziska’s journey from film student to filmmaker. The book contains illustrations drawn by Franziska’s husband, Jayakrishnan, which did help me to conceptualise the characters and added another personal touch. The book isn’t very long (under 300 pages), so I finished it in just over two days.
At times, I find the character of Jay a bit flat and infuriatingly passive. The scenes where Franziska meets Jay’s Tamil parents for the first time is arguably the most interesting in the book, and it’s full of tension and subtext. Jay has traditional Indian parents who would have much preferred to have arranged a marriage for him with a Hindu Tamil girl. Franziska, a Catholic Bavarian, is possibly the exact opposite of what they had hoped for in a daughter-in-law. However, instead of jumping in to help smooth over the awkwardness between his parents and his girlfriend, Jay says absolutely nothing during the whole scene, effectively throwing Franziska under the culture-clash bus. I found his reserve and self-retreat at times bordering on selfish. The meeting was filmed, and the book is actually based on the storyline of the documentary film (Amma & Appa) they were making at the same time. The film was a moderate success in India and Germany after its release, but hasn’t yet been released with an English voiceover or subtitles. And yes, Jay really is that passive in real life. But that’s not really an issue with the book, it did just leave me wondering why Franziska bothered moving heaven and earth to marry this guy.
Because the book is based on their documentary film, I found it really insightful and entertaining to watch the trailers on YouTube after I finished the book so I could re-experience the exact scenes they were describing. The descriptions of India and Indian culture in the book are one of its highlights – I’m also fascinated by India as a multicultural country of extremes, both steeped in history and brimming with contradictions. The heat, the sounds, the smells, the religious festivals and the people are beautifully described, and many scenes are both heartwarming and disturbing. One of the chapters which stuck in my mind the most was when Franziska accidentally gives herself third degree burns whilst showering (the boilers have no temperature controls) and had to go to the hospital. The male doctor refuses to examine her chest area and Franziska has to wait hours to see the only female doctor in the hospital. After Jay appears, one of the doctors insists they have to notify the police of the incident. They explain that it’s surprisingly common for men to arrange for their fiancees to have an accident in which they get horrifically burned in order to bargain for a bigger dowry with the woman’s family. The chilling logic behind it all is this: if a woman is scarred and her looks are therefore ruined, the prospective husband can demand more money for taking her off her family’s hands anyway, as she has effectively become worthless. These more disturbing passages are mixed in with the more lighthearted ones. I really enjoyed the passage where Franziska is getting ready for her second wedding ceremony in Tamil Nadu- the process of henna’ing, waxing, styling, dressing and make-up takes days, and the women at the salon are among the friendliest and most hospitable Franziska has ever met.
Overall, this was a quick and enjoyable read which sagged in some places. The book starts off fairly weakly with the usual travelogue spiel ‘I was always fascinated by India…’, and gets much better towards the end where the culture clash intensifies and more is at stake.