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"The Marriage Bureau For Rich People" by Farahad Zama
I bought this book having read an excellent review on here and was not disappointed. If I had been trawling through Amazon I may have skipped it as there are a few rather scathing reviews about the book on there. I'll leave that to you to follow up if you are interested.
Had I not read a review on her and just found the book in a shop I would have bought it both because I love novels set in India and it has a really Indian looking front cover which appeals and I know that is not the way your should choose a book but it often works for me. The front cover is what initially attracts me then I read the blurb on the back and if that appeals then I pop it into my basket to buy.
Farahad Zama is a male which I was surprised to discover as the book reads as though written by a woman, hope he isn't offended by that but both the topic of the novel and his attention to detail as well as his style of writing all led me to think it was a woman writing. He is in fact an investment banker and moved to London from the city of Visag where the novel is set, in 1990. He has two sons who apparently think that all authors will be as rich and famous as J.K. Rowling and obviously hope their Dad will be.
Mr Ali has recently retired and is obviously slightly bored so decides to set up the "Marriage Bureau for Rich People". I just love how amazingly honest the title is, no pussy footing around, call a spade a spade sort of name. The bureau takes off very well and soon he is struggling to cope and needs an assistant. Mrs Ali who seems a very down to earth and sensible person offers to find him an assistant. Rather than using the traditional advertising for an assistant method she picks her prospective candidate from someone who walks passed their house daily. This is a young educated but poor girl called Aruna.
Aruna quickly becomes a major character in the novel and naturally we also meet her family. They are very strapped for money as her father, an honest hard working retired teacher was paid too much pension and has had to pay the overpayment back. Her mother is the traditional stay at home mum and Aruna and her sister are both well educated but unlikely to get married because the family has no money. Aruna works and her money helps them survive.
Mt and Mrs Ali have a well educated architect son who has chosen to fight the system and spends his time taking part in protests, They despair of him as he wears ripped and torn locally woven clothes, often doesn't wash, has long unkempt hair and gets in trouble with the law.
Apart from these main characters we do get a glimpse into those who come and join the marriage bureau looking for potential partners.
I really loved the Mr and Mrs Ali they were full of personality and really genuinely caring. They offered some very good advice to others and were happy to tell prospective candidates that they were being unrealistic which sometimes didn't go down too well.
Aruna was likeable and a very caring daughter. She was trapped in her family situation with no prospect of a marriage in the future. She was sensible and thoughtful, but also prepared to say what she thought if needed. She seemed normal and human
ALONG THE WAY
I have friends who are Indian and have had since I was a child but I still learned quite a bit about Indian weddings, caste and sub castes. I hadn't realized how many sub divisions there were within the castes. They also say that the caste system is no longer in India but my friends tell me different and indeed this book also shows it is still very much a part of marriage partner selection.
I know that arranged marriage still takes place in India and my friends have recently been back with a brother, advertised and chosen a wife and planned a wedding within a week. They returned for the wedding a few months later and now the immigration papers are going through so the husband and wife will not live together for at least 6 months. The new wife has moved in with her in laws in India while it is all going through. The husband has returned to Germany. 'Love' marriages are not completely forbidden by arranged ones are still very much the way of doing things.
I was fascinated by the little details I learned about the different religions and their wedding celebrations. Marriage traditions such as the jewellery the wife must be given, the symbolism of the flowers and fruits, the different marriage ceremonies depending on the religions. Aside from all the wedding traditions life continues in the various household and food is prepared, work is done, people pass by the gate and customers come in and join the bureau.
As life goes on within the families we also learn about many serious issues in modern day India. We are reminded that many people cannot afford basic health care; other like Aruna's father have problems with their pensions; there is still ill-treatment of wives and widows and while these are mentioned they are not dwelt upon in a heavy handed way. We are just made aware that they are still there as problems for the ordinary people to cope with in their daily life.
WHAT OTHERS HAVE SAID:
A writer of charming and breezy prose, Zama pays homage to Jane Austen in a contemporary love story firmly grounded in classic wrangles over family, property and class'
Emma Hagestadt, INDEPENDENT "A witty, affectionate picture of modern India"
Kate Saunders, THE TIMES "If you're in need of something to chase away the encroaching winter gloom, look no further than this joyous debut"
Melissa Katsoulis, SUNDAY TELEGRAPH "A courteous, light read"
Catherine Taylor, GUARDIAN "Charming, warm-hearted and funny, a delightful debut . . . a read treat"
While others have complained about the simplistic style of writing and even at times stilted I didn't find this a problem. I felt he was writing as someone in India might talk and I don't mean that in a patronizing way but I think he captured the intonation and rather formal way Indians from India speak. In the same way as Alexander McColl Smith captured the African ways of speaking in the "No 1 Ladies Detective" books.
I found the characters to be real and likeable. It is a rather gentle story as there is no major catastrophe or disaster or murder that takes place but that doesn't mean nothing happens and that it is all happy and gooey and romantic. A lot of sad things happen and there are many trials and tribulations that have to be dealt with by the characters. I found myself really caring what happened to the people in the story; I wanted things to work out well for them and couldn't put the book down some nights when I was reading which is always a good sign
I felt it was a sort of "Bride and Prejudice" homage to Jane Austen combined with a similar style to Alexander McColl Smith set in India. The planning of weddings certainly harks back to Jane Austen's time and her books while the style has echoes of McColl Smith and his uncanny ability to capture people's foibles and idiosyncrasies.
You have to accept that it is a story. Some things fall just a little too neatly into the plot. Aruna being employed at the agency when a very suitable and handsome, wealthy young man happens to come in and fall for her is rather too convenient but it is a STORY. The success of the marriage bureau when all these people have to do is advertise in the paper themselves rather than Mr Ali advertise for them makes you wonder why it is so successful. Would a Hindu be prepared to have his daughter's marriage arranged by a Muslim? I doubt it somehow but again, it is fiction remember.
If you start to analysis the events too closely you lose the romantic simplicity of the story. You just have to accept some convenient happenings and suspend belief at times to sit back and enjoy a bit of an escape into a lovely rather gentle, almost timeless story.
WOULD I RECOMMEND?
Yes I really enjoyed this book and in fact I enjoyed it so much that I have also bought and read the next book written by Farahad Zama "The Many Conditions of Love". If I manage to get myself going I'll review that one in the next few days.
Thanks for reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.
~"Like a barber who shaves the cat for want of something to do" - Mrs Ali~
Mr Hyder Ali, Government Clerk (retired) has been struggling to fill his days since he gave up work. It's not easy for his wife either. She's going crazy at him fussing around the house and wishes he'd get out from under her feet and find something to do. You might suppose he'd take up golf, collect stamps or spend more time at the mosque but instead he comes up with the unlikely idea of starting a marriage bureau. With decades of his own happy marriage behind him and a keen understanding of human nature, it's just the job for a man in need of distraction. Of course it's not just 'any' marriage bureau because Mr Ali is smart enough to know that all good businesses need a point of difference, something to make it stand out in a busy marketplace. His business is thus the "Marriage Bureau for Rich People". Oh if only we could be so blatant in our branding!
~Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make me a Match~
The setting for our tale is Vizag, a coastal town in southern India which I had assumed was a fictional place until I checked it out on google and found it really does exist. Vizag has a number of nicknames including 'City of Destiny' which seems like it ought to be a good place for match-making. Mr Ali's mission is to bring joy and happy marriages to everyone - Christians, Hindus and Muslims, it makes no difference to him - he's an equal opportunities matcher. For 500 rupees up-front payment (about £8) he'll advertise your needs, send you lists of potential spouses and - when needs must - step in with advice on all matters matrimonial. With his assistant, the lovely Aruna whose filing skills are second to none, Mr Ali is soon building a vibrant and successful business from his veranda, making matches and building his client 'lists' like an American pyramid seller. It might not be quite what Mrs Ali had in mind for him but Mr Ali is a natural at the business of matchmaking.
~Find me a Find, Catch me a Catch~
For Aruna there's deep irony in her new job because she has a failed engagement behind her and little prospect of future happiness. She's of an age to marry - perhaps a little older - but her father's illness has eaten up all the family's resources and they just can't afford a marriage let alone a dowry. Who would help her parents and support her sister through college if Aruna married and wasn't working? They may only have a one-room home but even their modest needs are beyond their budget and she has the double difficulty of being both poor and ridiculously high-caste. For Mr and Mrs Ali not quite everything in the garden is lovely either. There's the small matter of their son, the political activist, who still hasn't been married off and keeps getting arrested.
Will Aruna meet her match, will the Ali family keep their son out of trouble and will Mr Ali's clients all find their own happy endings?
~Me and this book - a Perfect Match?~
In a style very reminiscent of the Number One Ladies Detective Agency and with a plot that's positively Jane Austin-ian, Farahad Zama has created a community of characters with whom I couldn't help but fall in love. I won't claim I believed EVERYTHING - I thought a certain degree of suspension of disbelief was perhaps needed to accept the idea of a multi-religion agency run by such an angelic man with such a detailed knowledge of all the Hindu castes and sub-castes. At times the son of Mr and Mrs Ali didn't seem to be the right age for the activities he was engaging in and the sick child of Leela the cleaner fitted a little too neatly into the final romantic plot twist but on the whole, I was more than happy to put those doubts aside. Zama paints a picture of a simpler, gentler society of good honest people in search of a good match for their children or siblings. I suspected that any such agency would probably get a lot more abuse and a lot less success but I was content to occupy this simplistic idyll for the duration of the book. Despite its contemporary setting, there's a total absence of the trappings of modernity - no computers, no databases, no ipods or downloads. It could be set at any time in the last 50 years and as a result it has a timeless quality that should give it good bookshelf longevity. In the west, we're all too quick to reject the idea of arranged marriage and often quick to equate 'arranged' with 'forced'. Mind you, in societies based on love marriage and making our own choices, we've not proven to be very successful at picking for ourselves if the divorce rates are anything to judge by. I'm willing to be open minded about the Indian system and to accept that families would need a helping hand in order to find a match outside their immediate social circle.
Suitor by suitor we are introduced to (mostly) very believable characters as Zama builds a delightful and endearing tale of modern Indian matrimony across religions and caste structures. I would guess that I probably know more than many readers about Indian religions and the caste system but I still found this fascinating stuff. When we go to India on holiday I always enjoy the matrimonial advertisements in the local newspapers with their precise specifications and clichéd descriptions - does anyone outside India really know what a 'wheaten' complexion is? As Mr Ali takes us through the thorny issues of dowry and political intrigue between and within families, we can't help but conclude that the issue of finding the perfect match is almost infinitely complex. Through Mr Ali and his assistant I learned about how even the most exacting specifications could be matched and how certain impediments to matrimony (divorce being probably the worst and lack of money almost as serious) could be overcome. We attend weddings with Mr and Mrs Ali and listen in on his advice - to one man who has no family to negotiate for him, he advises him not to talk to the potential in-laws about his job in the 'valves' trade and how to 'spin' what he has to offer in the best possible light. It is quite simply a delightful and joyful little book.
People often worry about whether a book set in India will be full of 'lingo' that they just don't understand. Many such books come laden with a glossary of local terms in the back but there's no need for anything of the sort with this. There are admittedly a lot of complex caste and sub-caste names but quite honestly I didn't know them, didn't remember most, and didn't feel I missed anything for not having that knowledge. Relax - this is easy-India and a million miles from the slumdog-genre of poverty and misery that characterises many of my favourite Indian novels. There really is room for joy on the sub-continent and this jolly little tale proves that.
One thing that totally surprised me - and revealed some of my own prejudices along the way - was the discovery at the end of my second reading of this book that the author is actually a man. So much for all my theories that you can tell the gender of the writer by the style of the book. Despite the mail lead character, I was completely convinced this was written by a woman but I was totally wrong. Not only is he not a woman, he's not got a typical background for a writer of a light romantic comedy. He's an engineer by education and worked for an investment bank. He now lives in London, works in the city and writes on public transport whilst he commutes to work. So maybe not all investment bankers can be tarred with the same brush.
I didn't get round to writing a review when I finished this book and I kicked myself for being lazy. I actually sat down and read it through a second time just so I could write about it - the first time I've done that intentionally (I sometimes do it accidentally) in many years. Today, a few weeks later, I've just started on the follow up to this book - the Many Conditions of Love - and I'm confident that if it's even half as good as this one, I'm going to love it. It could just be a match made in heaven. Through posting an earlier version of this review on curiousbookfans.co.uk I've now made contact and got the opportunity to 'interview' the author for the site - I'm just trying to work out how to phrase the question 'Do you mind that I thought you were a woman?' I hope he doesn't!