Naina Kumar practises law in Texas, US, by day and indulges in her passion for romance reading and writing by night. When not immersed in writing, she enjoys taking her rowdy rescue dog for walks and binge-watching the dramedy series, Gilmore Girls. Say You’ll Be My Jaan, published as Say You’ll Be Mine in the USA and Canada, is her debut novel.

In this book, Kumar crafts an undeniably romantic tale filled with humour and heartfelt moments, centred around two Indian-Americans who, for vastly different reasons, choose to enter into a fake engagement. As they delve deeper into their pretend relationship, genuine emotions surface, making way for a whirlwind of events and unexpected blooming of love. Layered with elements of “brown” culture, familial expectations, and the complexities of modern-day dating, the book feels reminiscent of the early 2000s Bollywood romcom era.

Kumar spoke to Scroll about her detour from law into writing, what love means for her, and why she chose to address cultural issues in a romance novel. Excerpts from the interview:

How did your transition from practising law during the day to crafting heartfelt, swoon-worthy romances come about? Could you share more about your journey towards becoming a published author? Also, many congratulations on being on the USA Today Bestselling list!
So, I’m still working in law! I’ve been a lawyer for several years, but have always been a romance reader at heart. During the pandemic, I found I had a lot more free time than usual so I spent my nights and weekends trying to write a romance novel, and Say You’ll Be My Jaan was the result. My journey to publishing it was surprisingly smooth. It took me about a year to draft and review the book, and then I started sending it to literary agents. A couple of months later, I was lucky enough to find an incredible agent who loved and understood the book. She sent it to publishers and pretty soon we had an offer.

Your book authentically depicts “desi” issues such as the pressure to pursue engineering and the prevalence of arranged marriages whilst navigating life in the States. Why do you think it was important to shed light on these aspects of Indian culture in your narrative? In addition to this, were any of these aspects based on your own real-life experiences?
Expectations from parents and family to succeed in school and find a stable career exist in every culture, but I think it’s especially true for South Asian families. Though I was never pressured to pursue engineering, I was highly encouraged to pursue a career in medicine. Thankfully, I chose something that was a better fit for what I wanted, but I know firsthand how hard it can be to disappoint parents and fail to meet those expectations. For me, reading about characters who’ve experienced similar things as me can help me feel seen and understood, and that was what I hoped readers, especially South Asian readers, would feel when reading this book.

Karthik’s struggle for parental approval is a recurring theme, again, similar to so many Indian and South Asian lived experiences. How crucial do you think it is for individuals to break free from societal expectations, particularly concerning parents and/or family? And why so?
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with wanting parental approval, but things get tricky when meeting that approval means sacrificing personal happiness. My hope is that people will take the time to know themselves deeply, to find out what they really want, and pursue it anyway, even if it flies in the face of societal and parental expectations, but I also know there are so many circumstances that make that difficult or impossible. Still, that’s what I hope for – for everyone to be able to pursue what truly makes them happy, in life and in love.

Fake dating fake engagement, in the case of your novel is a favourite romance trope amongst readers. However, if not executed well, it can feel flat and unmoving. In your book the fake engagement between Meghna and Karthik leads to genuine emotional connections and at no given point in time it feels unbelievable. Could you tell us about the approach you took in portraying authenticity and vulnerability in their relationship, especially considering its unconventional beginnings?
Fake dating is one of my all-time favourites, and I think what I really love about it is that it forces two characters – like Meghna and Karthik, who would probably never have dated in real life – to spend time together. And as they spend time together, the characters begin to really learn about one another, rely on one another, and slowly the love between them grows. That’s what I tried to show in each of Meghna and Karthik’s interactions. I tried to put them in situations that made them see that the other person was different from what they’d thought, and I gave them opportunities to lower their defences and trust each other. And I think that trust and the foundation they built allowed love to grow.

Karthik’s evolution from being sceptical of marriage to someone open to embracing it is a central arc in the story. Do you believe finding the right partner can fundamentally change one’s perspective on relationships and commitment?
I don’t think we can ever change someone who doesn’t already want to change. And here, I think Karthik was more scared of who he might be in a marriage than secptical about marriage completely. He was worried he wouldn’t be good as a partner to someone else, and I think getting to know Meghna made him realise that he wanted to let go of that fear, but it required that he do most of that work on his own. So, I don’t know. Maybe meeting someone can make us want to change, or make us want to change our beliefs about something, but I still think we need to make that decision to change and take the steps toward that change on our own.

Your book has great cinematic potential, reminiscent of the early 2000s Bollywood movies like Saif Ali Khan and Preity Zinta’s, Salaam Namaste! or the more recent smash hit Netflix original series – Never Have I Ever. Have there been any discussions or developments regarding a potential adaptation? If it happens in the future, who would you envision portraying Karthik and Meghna on screen?
Thank you so much! A TV or movie adaptation would be a dream come true, and I do have a wonderful film agent, but there’s no news to report on that front! And I loved the second season of Bridgerton so I’d love to see Meghna played by either Simone Ashley or Charithra Chandran! And Sendhil Ramamurthy in his thirties would have been a great Karthik.

From Colleen Hoover to Sarah Adler, everyone’s been saying such good things about your debut, including glowing reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. Has the positive reception truly sunk in for you yet? In addition to this, what message do you hope that all your readers take away from your debut?
Oh, thank you! And no, not really. I think I’ll always have a little bit of imposter syndrome, but I am happy to see that the book seems to be resonating with readers. My hope always was to write a feel-good, happy story that allowed readers to feel safe and seen. A book that provided a little bit of an escape for a time, because the world is hard and romance novels have always provided that escape for me. And I also hope that reading about Meghna and Karthik working through their issues to earn their happiness together might inspire readers to do the same.

Finally, what’s next? Are you currently already drafting your next book and if yes, could you share more on what it is about and how it’s going to be similar yet different from this book?
I’m currently revising my second book which should be coming out in early 2025! It’s similar in that it’s a romance, but the plot is pretty different. Book Two takes place in Houston, Texas, and it’s about two estranged spouses who haven’t seen each other in years and end up getting trapped together in a house during a hurricane. They have to work together to survive the storm, and they might just end up falling back in love in the process. There’s a sneak peek of the second book in the back of Say You’ll Be My Jaan if anyone’s curious about it!