An un­happy ar­range­ment

The Mar­riage Bureau for Rich Peo­ple By Fara­had Zama Aba­cus, 276pp, $ 29.99

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Re­becca Star­ford

MOST mar­riages in In­dia, es­pe­cially those in pro­vin­cial and ru­ral ar­eas, are ar­ranged. ‘‘ Love mar­riages’’, though ac­cepted, usu­ally oc­cur with parental con­sent. ‘‘ Mar­riage is a won­der­ful in­sti­tu­tion,’’ Grou­cho Marx once said, ‘‘ but who wants to live in an in­sti­tu­tion?’’ The pol­i­tics of mar­riage have been the stuff of lit­er­ary satire for cen­turies.

In his first novel, The Mar­riage Bureau for Rich Peo­ple , Fara­had Zama ( in­spired by Jane Austen, the blurb tells us) takes the the­matic ba­sis of the ar­ranged mar­riage and at­tempts to shape a mod­ern tale of ro­man­tic tribu­la­tions.

With great po­ten­tial for a per­verse com­edy, Zama fails to launch the novel into the realms of true satire; it lacks the nec­es­sary wit, fi­nesse and com­pelling nar­ra­tion. The story is bogged down in stodgy char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and stilted di­a­logue.

In the coast city of Zizag, Mr Ali is bored in his re­tire­ment and de­cides to open a mar­riage bureau. ( The ti­tle is some­thing of a mis­nomer; fam­i­lies from var­i­ous wealth ech­e­lons pa­tro­n­ise the bureau.) Mr Ali em­ploys Aruna, ‘‘ a mod­est, sen­si­ble girl’’, and with her as­sis­tance the busi­ness flour­ishes. Aruna comes from a poor fam­ily whose fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion pre­vented her com­ple­tion of post­grad­u­ate stud­ies. Poverty also has thwarted Aruna’s mar­riage op­por­tu­ni­ties: her fa­ther can’t af­ford to pay for a wed­ding.

When the hand­some lo­cal doc­tor Ra­manu­jam comes into the bureau looking for a wife, he meets Aruna and an at­trac­tion de­vel­ops be­tween the pair. It is an ill-fated ro­mance. Ra­manu­jam’s fam­ily will set­tle only for a beau­ti­ful, rich, so­phis­ti­cated young woman, one who will bring pres­tige and a large dowry.

There are snip­pets of gen­uine in­ter­est in The Mar­riage Bureau : par­tic­u­lars of In­dian cus­toms. And the colour­ful scenes at a mango plan­ta­tion and the in­tri­ca­cies of the Mus­lim and Hindu mar­riage cer­e­monies are il­lu­mi­nat­ing. Trou­bling, how­ever, are the per­ceived in­equal­i­ties that still ex­ist be­tween hus­band and wife: If a man fell ill or lost his job soon af­ter get­ting mar­ried, ev­ery­body blamed the poor bride for bring­ing bad luck into the fam­ily. Strangely, it didn’t work the other way around; it wasn’t the man’s fault if the woman fell ill af­ter mar­riage. In fact, the woman was scorned for not be­ing a healthy bride. More frus­trat­ing is the un­der­done ex­pla­na­tion and eval­u­a­tion of the In­dian caste sys­tem. For those less in­formed, Zama’s rudi­men­tary over- view late in the novel pro­vides lit­tle in­sight into how this in­trigu­ing, al­beit ar­chaic, so­cial hi­er­ar­chy in­flu­ences spousal se­lec­tion. The sub­plot in­volv­ing the Alis’ ac­tivist son could have been de­vel­oped fur­ther. Over­whelm­ingly, Zama’s prose lacks re­fine­ment. In­con­se­quen­tial di­a­logue adds pad­ding be­tween the scenes and there are odd turns of phrase, such as ‘‘ Wife, come and see this!’’ and ‘‘ Con­grats!’’; peo­ple are fre­quently de­scribed with a ‘‘ muti­nous look’’ on their face. Cliches abound. The man­u­script was in need of a more ju­di­cious edit. Mr Ali, notably, throws in some weird pearls of wis­dom. ‘‘ Think of your­self as a prod­uct, a valve, an im­por­tant and unglam­orous valve,’’ he tells a young man in search of a wife. ‘‘ The cus­tomer needs it but she doesn’t know it yet. It is your job to con­vince her that you are just the right prod­uct.’’

Later he philosophises that, ‘‘ Mar­ried life is the great­est plea­sure if you com­pro­mise; oth­er­wise it is hell on earth’’, which, one imag­ines, would re­pel most prospec­tive cou­ples. But his ob­ser­va­tion at a wed­ding, a love mar­riage, demon­strates the novel’s scram­bled val­ues: The af­fec­tion be­tween them was clear to ev­ery­body. Mr Ali knew from long ex­pe­ri­ence that this ro­man­tic love would not last for more than a cou­ple of years and they would have to forge a dif­fer­ent kind to last them a life­time. Al­though his char­ac­ters, in their own ways, strive for nup­tial suc­cess, we never have a sense of Zama’s po­si­tion on mar­riage, ar­ranged or oth­er­wise. For all the drama of Aruna and Ra­manu­jam’s ro­mance, nei­ther char­ac­ter is im­bued with es­pe­cially pro­gres­sive at­ti­tudes. The obli­ga­tions of caste and ed­u­ca­tion are ful­filled; the only real com­pro­mise is a mon­e­tary one.

Th­ese ir­ri­ta­tions could be over­looked if com­edy — es­sen­tial to all good satire — played its part. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a funny line in The Mar­riage Bureau for Rich Peo­ple. It is an in­nocu­ous sort of novel, di­vert­ing in places, but ul­ti­mately dis­ap­point­ing. Re­becca Star­ford is deputy ed­i­tor of Aus­tralian Book Re­view.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.