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When I read Farahad Zama's first book 'The Marriage Bureau for Rich People' I was completely bowled over by the gentle tale of Mr Ali, the retired gentleman making matches across racial and religious divides. It felt like I'd found a blend of Jane Austin and Alexander McCall Smith and he'd hit the jackpot for me by setting it in India. I read his second book which I liked but not to quite the same degree as the first and when I spotted the third was about to be released I asked Curiousbookfans to see if the publishers could let me have a copy. Hence just a few days after it was released the postman brought me a copy of Zama's third book - The Wedding Wallah.
In the southern Indian coastal city of Vizag, Mr Ali is still running his marriage bureau under the watchful eye of his redoubtable wife and with the efficient support of his assistant Aruna. Mrs Ali's in a conflict with the neighbour who has poached her maid and Mr Ali's son Rehman has split up with his Hindu girlfriend. It's a source of disappointment to Mr and Mrs Ali that they can't get their son married off - it's like the shoemaker's children going badly shod for the matchmaker's son to be off looking for a love marriage. Rehman's a bit of a drifter, a well-meaning campaigning do-gooder who's more focused on helping others that sorting out his own problems. In The Wedding Wallah, Rehman spends a lot of time with Mr Ali's niece (well second cousin a few times removed if I remember correctly) Pari who's a young widow. Pari is in the process of trying to adopt Vasu, the orphaned son of Rehman's old friends. Confused yet? There's a lot of different plot lines in this one.
Meanwhile a well-to-do local family are looking to marry off their son and the mother has her eyes set on Pari - something to do with her having a rather fine nose from what I could make out. Since any widow is unlikely to attract a good husband, especially one who's in the process of tying herself to someone else's child, we're naturally suspicious about why the family wants her. She's an unconventional 'catch' for a good looking young man with a swanky apartment in Mumbai and a good job with a multinational who surely could do better. There's something afoot and it won't be long before we're introduced to an Indian taboo even greater than widowhood - that of male homosexuality. I've been reading Indian books for many years and I'm struggling to recall any that have ever been brave enough to attempt to paint a sympathetic portrait of the subject. I can remember a few in which anyone gay is pretty much doomed to a life of misery and ostracism, but it takes a certain bravery (and maybe moving to the UK) to allow a writer to tackle the topic, especially in a light-hearted romance. I suspect that this is a book that Zama would have struggled to write in India. He credits fellow writer Suketa Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found for helping him with insights on the Mumbai gay scene. I've got this book at home and am so inspired by Dilawar's story that I intend to bump Maximum City up my reading pile.
If we want a bit more controversy let me ask you if you know what the word Naxalite means? OK, if you do I'm surprised but I'm guessing only those with a really obsessive interest in India said yes. Aruna and her husband Ram go out to the country for a holiday and to buy some land and they get kidnapped by Naxalites. By introducing a band of Maoist insurgents into the plot, Zama has taken his story in a very different direction. There's a lot of morality woven into this book - more so than its predecessors. Zama gives us 'Politics and Sociology Light', weaving strong messages into gentle stories. Do I entirely believe the kidnapping story? No not really - it's all a little bit contrived but that doesn't matter. I can't help but think the writer is yearning to step out of the light romance genre and into something more weighty. I'll keep watching and waiting for the 'literary' novel that I'm sure is still to come but I hope there are more volumes of the Marriage Bureau for Rich People series still to come.
Will Pari marry her gay suitor, will Aruna and Ram escape their captors, will Rehman and Usha get back together and will Mrs Ali ever get her cleaner back and Mr Ali get his morning tea on time?
With any book series it's always likely that readers will get more pleasure from the later books if they've read the ones that go before and the Marriage Bureau for Rich People series is no exception. After a spectacular first volume, subsequent books tend to assume the reader is already familiar with the players and to do little more than offer a brief reminder. You can read this without reading the books that go before but I think you're likely to enjoy it less and if you're one of those who's prone to reading books in the wrong order, you'll spoil things if you do that with this series.
What I loved about the first book was the deeply developed characterization and the detail invested in the intricacies of the matchmaking process followed by the Bureau. I was fascinated by the complexities of matching up family expectations and the business negotiations that go with the process. The second book drifted a bit too far from the Bureau but happily the third book takes us back to the Bureau once again. I adore Mr Ali and I'd have liked to see a bit more of him and his worldly wisdom - I hope book four might bring that back again. For me Mr and Mrs Ali are the stars of the show but I fear the balance between the older and younger generations is moving against me.
The Wedding Wallah by Farahad Zama was very kindly sent to me by his very lovely publisher, Jenny, at Little Brown and this review first appeared on curiousbookfans.co.uk where you can also find a Q&A I did with Farahad earlier this year, as well as a review of his first book.
I can't wait to see what Zama will squeeze into his next book!