Zara: Where in India does your family originate from? What special memories do you have of this place?
Balli: Both my paternal and maternal grandparents were born and raised in Punjab. My dad’s parents migrated to Singapore when he was very young, and my mother was born in Singapore after her parents migrated. I don’t have many memories of India as a result of being a second-generation Singaporean, but many cultural values of the diaspora were embedded in the small Punjabi-Sikh community in Singapore. India always felt more like a concept than a place to me, but the cultural strictures and traditions were still very prominent in my life. There was free-flowing chai every afternoon and I had to attend Punjabi class on Saturdays.
Balli: What is your favorite family tradition?
Zara: Birthdays have always been a favorite in my family. When I was younger, we would have these big, themed birthday parties with all of my friends and family, and I just remember it being so fun. As adults, we have this ongoing tradition where each family member will try to be the first one to wish the other a happy birthday, and it often leads to some serious competition! What usually ends up happening is the family chat becomes flooded right at midnight with texts and voice messages as everyone tries to outdo each other with memes, emojis, and GIFs. It can be quite entertaining! And regardless of how busy or far away we might be, we always make sure that every birthday is celebrated with lots and lots of cake!
Zara: Do you feel a sense of responsibility to write stories that reflect your cultural identity?
Balli: I don’t feel a sense of responsibility so much as a desire to explore and make sense of my cultural identity. The most fulfilling reason to write is to try to understand the world. When you feel as if you don’t fully belong in one place, or your identity isn’t easily defined, you naturally gravitate towards stories about people who are outsiders. I do feel a responsibility to portray my cultural identity authentically though, and I don’t shy away from addressing taboos even though some people in my community would rather I used my voice to only highlight all of our successes and downplayed the areas where we aren’t so inclusive.
Balli: Marriage is a significant cultural milestone in South Asian families, but American women also experience societal pressures to settle down: how has your dual Indian-American identity shaped your definition of marriage?
Zara: For a long time, I equated marriage to sacrifice simply because this was what I saw around me. I assumed that all marriages required, of women in particular, to give up their dreams, ambitions, independence, and identity for the sake of their relationships. However, I believe this definition of marriage no longer applies according to today’s standards. There is a much greater balance of equality and choice existing in marriages today than was in previous generations; so I no longer view marriage as a sacrifice, but more as a mutual gain—a fusion of two people’s hopes, dreams, and ambitions as they work together to grow with as well as alongside each other.
Zara: What inspired you to be a writer?
Balli: Stories that gave me a sense of belonging made me want to write. My childhood experiences with reading were really transformative. I loved Judy Blume books when I was growing up. Unlike other adults in my life, she spoke with such honesty and frankness about the pains of adolescence. I remember feeling safe and seen in the worlds that she created. Those early reading experiences taught me the power of an empathetic voice and a good story. I had so many unanswered curiosities about the world, and I wanted to explore the truth through fiction too.
Balli: Leila takes various approaches to finding a partner, including online dating and speed-dating. Did you go on these matrimonial sites, or sign up for speed dating* yourself?
Zara: I did! Aside from speed dating, I’ve tried all of the methods that Leila approaches in the novel (including a few ambush dates—none of which, I should mention, were by choice). I drew upon a lot of my own experiences with the dating process when I was writing out these scenes because I do think the challenges that Leila encounters in her search to find a partner are ones that many young women can relate to.
Zara: If you could offer one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Balli: Sulfate-free shampoo will sort out those curls and have surprising consequences for your self-esteem, little Balli.
Balli: What's your favorite Bollywood song?
Zara: This is almost as difficult as when people ask you what your favorite book is! One song that is an all-time favorite of mine is Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh from the movie “Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai.” I first stumbled across this song when I was a teenager while listening to my parents’ old cassette tapes, and it was immediately on repeat for months afterwards. I love everything about this song: the music, the lyrics, the deep sense of longing in Lata Mangeshkar’s voice—altogether it’s just magic.
Zara: If your life was the plot for your next novel, what would be the title?
Balli: Broccoli Wrapped in Cheese and Other Lies I Feed My Toddler