An unhappy arrangement
The Marriage Bureau for Rich People By Farahad Zama Abacus, 276pp, $ 29.99
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.