A Pinch of Henna, Luxurious Saris and of course, Good Wedding Biriyani

For what do we live,  but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Richness does not mean having a great amount of property: rather, true wealth is self-contentment.
Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him) Salih al-Bukhari Vol. 8: #453

Farahad Zama’s debut novel The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, from its very beginning, makes it clear that weddings are a lot less straightforward than just a simple matter of ceremonies and finding a bride. In an engaging, almost cheery tone which is reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series, Zama’s colourful narrative style, friendly characters and rich descriptions of South Asian culture provide a suitable vehicle for depicting Indian weddings and their traditions.

In a system where height, colour, age and caste are all measured to determine a sense of ‘suitability’ in potential partners, Zama cleverly shows how discrimination of this kind is still alive in today’s society and even condoned. Mr Ali, the central character in this tale, with his wife Mrs Ali, sets up a marriage bureau for rich people, and takes advantage of these discriminations for a more beneficial purpose – assisting the respectable and the rich in their search for a partner, drawing on these values into being seen as socially acceptable, so that the search for “totally unsuitable candidates” becomes a business dealing in physical traits and social standing. With complaints of prospective partners being either “too dark or too old or too short”, Zama turns the idea of a ‘Jane Austen’-type society on its head, where propriety and politeness becomes its own currency in this city, and where courtly manners hide selfish values and family politics.

Also a familiar vein running through this novel is that of gossip in various forms, whether they are chatty exchanges between two neighbours, or in remarks of the more serious matters discussed by business men. Similarly, there is a dual mix of village life and bustling city landscape – which is an apt reflection of their mentality. As one client of Mr Ali’s marriage bureau sums up, “For all that this is supposed to be a city, Vizag is just an overgrown town”, implying that everyone are conscious of ‘people talking’ and making assumptions based on gossip. In this way, we how various people are restricted by the idea of respectability, suggesting that they are governed by unspoken codes of society in which affects how they are viewed by their peers and their ideas of ‘proper’ behaviour.

The fact that the marriage bureau itself is set up for rich people reflects the class divides and discrimination, such as clients requesting Brahmin (a high caste in the Hindu caste system) brides being giving priority, while others who request ‘no preference’ are seen as having lesser values and being perceived as more common. Although the author is careful to maintain a strikingly amiable relationship between the Hindu and Muslim inhabitants of the city, he simultaneously highlights the how class differences and caste prejudice are still present, and this is a fact which is always simmering beneath the pleasant tone and fun of arranging marriages. While there is a seemingly pleasant hotpot of cultures and religions, Zama shows that how this inequality is perpetuated by the members of this culture themselves; indeed they see it as an acceptable way of life and something not to be questioned.

This is contrasting jolt to the reality exposed by the Alis’ son, the youthful and morally righteous Rehman, and his refusal to accept these prejudices. His fight for justice for the working class farmers against the attempts of the government to buy out their land adds a double narrative to the novel and gives a more serious tone of the novel. Also in addition to this are the dilemmas of the inadequate healthcare system for poorer citizens, who are unable to access affordable healthcare due to hospital fees and the lack of respect from doctors. Thus we see the conflict between the young and the older generations, as both struggle to assert themselves and what they believe in. While the elder generation struggle to preserve their traditions and the status quo, the younger generations appear to challenge it in order to improve the society they live in, although this feels to be a slow process, trickling through with not a lot of information on consequences.

Similarly, we see how the value of women in certain roles of jobs, marriages and within the family are also subtly picked up upon, showing how they are expected to surrender to expectations and family politics. The dilemmas and unspoken rules that women have to follow in marriage – in pleasing their mother-in-laws, sisters-in-laws and husbands – and in turn, how to overcome the marginalisation that they experience show they are forced to create their own rules in order to cope with and meet expectations. Similarly, the representations of women who choose to work also influence their positions as members of society as well as of within their family units, in their own attempts to be independent. The character of Aruna, the Bureau’s assistant, particularly represents the working-class woman, who is forced to work due to her family’s poverty. Zama delicately highlights the effect on both her and her family due to her silent role as the embarrassed family breadwinner. Ironically the readers are always reminded of the difference of a potential son who could be the proud source of income, and change the pride of their family. In this respect this is also a feminist novel – by highlighting the strained pressures that are on South Asian women have to follow, Zama also shows how these expectations can often be the causes of a difficult marriage or family. However, one criticism of this novel is that although the author points out continuously how society appears to follow superficial, tradition-bound rules which can cause difficulties, the author does little to address this properly. The dilemma of Aruna and her secret love for a richer, higher status suitor is explored, and the reasons behind her anguish detailed as being due to social values, yet this social caste system and people’s perceptions are not addressed.

With constant references and quotes from various stories and sources, religious stories and city gossip, Mr Ali (and by implication, the author) appears to be well versed in both Muslim and Hindu texts, suggesting that he is representative of the wise, generic storyteller. Yet his narrative at times glosses over true social problems, highlighted only in flashes such as Rehman’s fight for justice for the lower classes, or Aruna’s realisation of her restricted status as a woman and a poor person. With plenty of wedding scenes, references to pop and Bollywood culture, traditions and class rules, it can be argued that Zama does capture a reflection of Indian city life, and certainly it can be argued that it is more true to life that we would like it to be. There are certainly prejudiced based on class, physical traits and caste which still exists today, and Zama does not seek to ignore this, but by representing it as it is. It can be argued that Zama attempts to create awareness for these types of mentalities in order to point out what is wrong with it, as well as showing how South Indian minorities have their own ways of coping with marginalisation.
And of course there is plenty of humour, and this light-hearted tone abounds despite the heavier issues which subtly emerge. There are conspiracy theories ( “In Naidu’s opinion…the British were justified in taking the Koh-I-Noor diamond for their queen’s crown jewels because they had set up the postal service in India”) and light-hearted humour involving situations of potential matches, and it is this which our author urges us to enjoy. Even though this novel is set in India, its issues are still relevant to those of us in the Western world today; the sensitivities and politics of marriage, the treatments of those more disadvantaged than us, and the relationships between family, friends and neighbours.

Farahad Zama, The Marriage Bureau for Rich People (Abacus: Great Britain 2008) pp.276 £7.99


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