The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama is a sweet and funny new book. Set in modern day India, it is the story of Mr. Ali, a newly retired man with too much time on his hands. I got a good laugh from this exchange between Mr. and Mrs. Ali early in the book (it reminds me of my parents!). Someone has just leaned over the Ali’s gate and pulled a flower off Mr. Ali’s hibiscus plant:
He struck his forehead with his hand in frustration and Mrs. Ali laughed.
“What?” he asked. “Do you think it’s amusing to lose all the flowers from the garden before the sun has even risen fully?”
“No,” she said. “But you are getting worked up too much over trivial things. After retiring, you’ve been like an unemployed barber who shaves his cat for want of anything better to do. Let’s hope that from today you will be a bit busier and I get some peace,” she said.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
Mrs. Ali rolled her eyes. “I have been running the house for more than forty years, and the last few years since you retired have been the worst. You keep interfering and disturbing my routine,” she said. “You are not the first man in the world to retire, you know.”
So Mr. Ali, a Muslim, puts a sign out front and opens up a marriage bureau; a matchmaking service for those who can afford it. He is willing to work with all the castes and major religious groups. Soon he has more work than he can handle alone, so his wife suggests an assistant. She finds Aruna, a lovely Hindi girl with amazing organizational abilities, who becomes invaluable to the bureau.
As customers come in and express their wishes for a match for their son, brother or daughter, or even for themselves, the reader gets a real sense of Indian society. From arranged marriages to the caste system to religion and food, it’s a cultural lesson wrapped in a charming story. Some customers think they know what they want, but Mr. Ali (with Aruna’s help) is sometimes able to convince them to widen their search and consider other possibilities. Mr. Ali has great success, facilitates many matches, and even gets invited to a wedding.
It’s so easy to fall in love with these endearing characters. Aruna, young and smart but without marriage prospects due to a failed engagement and her father’s health problems and resulting financial woes, falls in love with Ramanujam, a handsome, wealthy customer. Marriages must be arranged; Aruna cannot find her own future husband! Brides must have substantial dowries.. and her family simply cannot afford a marriage to a man of means. And Ramanujam’s family is looking for a very different kind of bride. When their wishes and choices go against family expectations, Aruna and her intended face a serious dilemma. Do they respect their elders, or find a way to be together? Can they do both?
This is a light and breezy book written with much affection for India and it’s people. I learned a lot about the customs and culture without actually trying. My only quibble would be that the dialogue felt stiff and stilted at times.. it was like reading English being spoken by someone for whom English is not their first language. But maybe that was intended.
The Marriage Bureau for Rich People offers a wonderful sense of place; the heat, the rains, cows wandering into the garden, the dust, the sites and smells, and the beautiful people. While there are significant cultural differences between us, people are people wherever they live. Book clubs would have many universal themes to touch on in discussions.
Many thanks to Jaclyn at Penguin for sending me this lovely book to review. Highly recommended.