Fake-dating can work as a romantic trope, but one that can be difficult to fully master. I have to admit that I stepped into this with mixed feelings – the fake relationship trope can get tiring quickly, and once I watched To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, I didn’t think it was for me. However, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar made me re-think about my own past, my history with ‘friends’ at my old high school, and even my relationship with my brother – there was a time when we weren’t rock-solid.
I started this book expecting a regular meet-cute romance that started with fake dating. I couldn’t be more wrong.
The book is about two Bengali teenagers – a Hindu and a Muslim – living in Ireland. Ishita “Ishu” Dey is an ambitious, antisocial 17-year old who wants to become a doctor and make her parents proud. Humaira “Hani” is a bisexual Muslim who’s filled with sunshine – but struggles to stand up to her white friends when they refuse to understand (and at times accept) her culture – as a Bengali, and as a Muslim. The two of them come up with a plan to ‘fake date’ – for Humaira, it would be a way for her friends to accept her bisexuality. For Ishu, it’s a ticket to becoming the Head Girl, a goal that her parents want her to achieve, and one that her sister couldn’t.
Of course, things go awry, but not in a stereotypical sense. The two don’t betray each other but realize that their goals and wants are damaging. For Hani, her struggles to fit in with her white Irish friends took precedence, and she chose to manufacture a fake relationship to ‘prove’ her identity. For Ishu, her ambition was driven – in part – by her parents, and Ishu’s drive to satisfy them, to be a better daughter, took over her own comforts and dreams.
Ishu agrees to ‘fake date’ Hani to become more popular (does anyone remember Faking It on MTV???), and win votes to become the Head Girl. Using relationships to gain social points isn’t unheard of – we see it in Payton and Alice’s fake breakup in The Politician, when a breakup was used to help gain sympathy votes for Payton, to win the elections for the Student Body President.
Ishita’s relationship with her sister reminded me of mine with my older brother. Though the age gap is bigger (they’re 2 to 3 years apart, but my brother is 4 and a half years older than I am), the similarities were striking. My brother was… not the best kid in school. It meant that I tried hard in school to avoid having teachers call my parents, cause they already dealt with that from my brother. We fought a lot, too. Ishita’s distrust of her sister reminded me of my earlier relationship with my brother – the constant quarrels, the anger, and helplessness – I remember being happy when he finally went to college.
The kicker? Nikhita (Ishita’s older sister) comes back a changed woman from university. My brother did, too. After a year in uni, he was… nicer. It was like seeing a 180-degree change. He went from being my annoying older brother to someone who’s always in my corner. I used to hide everything from him, and now he’s one of the first people I share anything with. Our relationship went from arguing every day to just talking to each other, and even though we do argue sometimes, I know that he’ll always be there if I need it – and that I’ll be there for him.
Hani’s relationship with her friends, too, struck a chord. Hani’s two best friends – Aisling and Dierdre – have known each other since kindergarten, and stuck together through thick and thin. However, it also meant that their relationship with Hani became different. As a Muslim, Hani doesn’t drink – however, Aisling and Dierdre ask her why she doesn’t, since she doesn’t wear the hijab, and Hani is forced to justify her beliefs to her friends who don’t understand. They don’t understand her devotion to her parents, either – she tries to help her father’s campaign, but her friends aren’t interested. Of course, Ishu notices this – and it’s not the only time Ishu points out Hani’s friends’ flaws (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you).
In her first book, Henna Wars, Adiba Jaigirdar focuses on similar themes of diversity, queerness, and religion, and the struggles of coming out to family and understanding one’s identity within a larger familial structure. Here, Jaigirdar also talks about what it means to have layers of difference – what it means to be Bengali in Ireland and to be bisexual in a heteronormative society. She plays with intersectionality well, and it’s so rewarding to read about multi-dimensional characters, ones who have difficulties that many face because of how their differences are perceived in society.
What I liked about this book was how different Hani and Ishu were – despite their shared cultures and values. I’m not just talking about personalities either, but cultural traits, too. Hani and Ishu speak different Bengali dialects, which means they don’t really understand each other in their mother tongues. It’s a great acknowledgement of how diverse Indian languages – and dialects – are, and that even though someone is from the same region (though Hani is Bangladeshi and Ishu is Indian), customs, cultures, and even languages can be very different.
Jaigirdar also approaches Indian families with that same mindset. Ishu’s family is rigid, traditional, and driven – determined to see their daughters succeed as doctors. Hani’s family, on the other hand, is far more accepting and welcoming, but focuses on family and community – familial and community ties are extremely important, and kept in high regard. The way the author describes Hani is amazing – for her, being a Muslim is a part of her identity. She finds peace in religion, and comfort with the mosque. What’s even better is that she’s so many things more; she’s funny, kind, soft-spoken, and not very confrontational, and she’s also Muslim.
Reading this book felt like a violent tug back into my past despite not being Bengali or Irish. I related deeply to Ishita’s relationship with her sister – a relationship broken by competition, and one that Ishita’s sister tries to heal when she realizes that she was trying to fulfil her parents’ dreams, and not her own. I’ve had my fair share of toxic friendships too, and I was finally able to solidify a true group of friends in my junior year of high school – they’re people that I see myself growing old with.
Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating was everything that I didn’t expect in a YA romance novel. It’s been a while since a book made me think about my own past, confront my own history with friends and family, and reflect on how far I’ve come to finally be comfortable with who I am, and who I surround myself with. Don’t worry Hani and Ishu (and all the girls who see themselves in you); speaking from personal experience, things get better.
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