by Alice Kronenberg
“Friends can talk about things. They can figure things out. Get past things. Dou you want a friend in your life who you can never disagree with? A friend who you can’t grow with?”Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, pos. 2808 (kindle)
Humaira Khan and Ishita Dey are nothing alike: While easy-going and amiable Hani socializes with her friends, introverted and ambitious Ishu spends her days studying to prepare for university. Despite being pushed into the same box by their classmates for being the only two Bengali girls in their year, Hani and Ishu have very little in common and do their best to avoid each other on most days.
That is, until Hani’s friends tell her that she can’t possibly be bisexual if she has only dated boys and she hurriedly invents a fake relationship with Ishu. Hesitant at first, Ishu soon agrees to Hani’s fake dating proposal, hoping that it will make her more popular and secure her classmates’ votes in the election of Head Girl.
In this sunshine x grumpy, fake-dating story Jaigirdar brings to life a breezy, heart-warming romance while simultaneously tackling more serious issues like racism, biphobia, toxic friendships and family conflicts. Keeping the tone appropriate for a young readership, she sends her characters on a journey of growth and challenges, putting them through many uncomfortable moments and painful realizations. In the end, however, the positive feelings outweigh the negative ones, making this a story of queer joy rather than queer trauma.
Both of the main characters have their own story in addition to their shared one. Hani starts out as a very accommodating character, constantly assimilating to her toxic white friends who don’t show any respect for her culture, her religion, or her sexuality. She is somewhat caught in between wanting to commit to her Bengali and Muslim community and her fear that her friends will exclude her if she does. Thus, a big part of her character development is learning to stand up for herself, to choose her own happiness over her friends’ opinion, and eventually to leave behind a friendship that she’s held onto since early childhood. Thanks to her relationship with Ishu as well as her loving parents, she realizes that she deserves people who support her culture and sexuality instead of mocking it.
Ishu, on the other hand, is utterly unapologetic. She doesn’t care what others have to say about her culture or her appearance. She does care, however, about her parents’ approval – more than anything else, actually. Especially ever since her older sister announced that she wanted to take a break from med-school to get married, Ishu has felt the responsibility and pressure of being the ‘good daughter’ who achieves exactly what her parents expect from her. Over the course of the book, Ishu realizes that her sister might be right in choosing a different path for her life than she initially promised her family, and finds herself questioning her own plans for the future. The more she sides with her sister Nik, the more criticism she receives from her parents, and on top of that, she has to deal with people at school attempting to ruin her chances in the Head Girl election. In the end, Ishu lets go of her desire to please her parents and learns to put herself first.
Adiba Jaigirdar thus created two contrasting main characters who somehow give each other exactly the type of encouragement the other needs. Through the duo-POV narration style, Jaigirdar shows how differently people connect to their culture and how varied the lived experiences of two brown queer girls can be. Her writing style and choice of words is engaging and easily accessible. Some passages may sound a bit juvenile, but if you consider the targeted age group, the language definitely feels appropriate. What stands out positively are the many Bengali foods, clothes, and traditions that were woven into the main story – as a non-Bengali reader, I really enjoyed learning about this culture through the characters.
One aspect I’d like to discuss critically is the motivation behind the protagonists’ decision to fake-date each other. For one, there is no mention of many other friends or acquaintances Hani has outside of her trio that would speak for her popularity, so it is a bit hard to believe that Ishu actually has a shot at becoming Head Girl just because she’s dating Hani. It would have been nice to see Hani engaging with other people or being part of a larger social circle at school to show that she has an influence on the other students (e.g. by making her part of a sports team or popular school club). Also, as understandable as it is for Hani to want to prove to her straight friends that she is bisexual, and as much as I personally enjoy the fake-dating-trope, I wish there was a moment where she realizes that she should never need to invent a girlfriend to convince people of anything. She doesn’t owe her friends an explanation, much less a whole relationship, to prove her sexuality. Even though Hani did ‘break up’ with her friends at the end of the novel, it felt like it was for other reasons – for framing Ishu, for making her ditch her father, for how they treated her after she came out to them. But she never says anything along the lines of, “And by the way, I literally got a fake girlfriend when I really shouldn’t have to, and you’re still not taking me seriously”, and I think that’s the one thing that could be missing in her otherwise well-rounded character development.
Nonetheless, this is an amazing sapphic love story full of tropes we love. Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating is both light-hearted and deep and provides the perfect balance of cheesy romance, coming of age themes, and more serious social issues. Jaigirdar handled the difficult aspects very carefully, responsibly, and thoughtfully, providing a rich variety of perspectives and experiences for the reader to consider. What I also like is that the novel ends on a positive note, but not a perfect one. There are still conflicts for the protagonists to resolve – Ishu is experiencing an estrangement from her parents, Hani has just lost her two best friends – but for now, both girls are happy with their lives and their growth. So, you close the book with a sense of knowing that Hani and Ishu will continue to work on themselves off-page, and I think that’s beautiful.