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Ok, four. I got carried away.
The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, by Farahad Zama and published in 2010, is the story of a charming retiree (and his wife) in the suburbs of an Indian city. Mr. Ali is bored after a lifetime of hard work, so he sets up a match-making shop on his front porch. Soon overwhelmed by the paperwork associated with his many clients, he hires a young (hard-working) women named Aruna. Throughout many interwoven stories of matches served by Mr. Ali’s little business is the overall arc of Aruna’s personal life and Mr. and Mrs. Ali’s struggles to reconnect with their estranged son.
The narrative style of the book is a detached third person point of view – it doesn’t go in much for revealing deep emotions of the characters by delving into their brains, instead illuminating their feelings by noting the ways they depart from or sidestep their normal (delightful) daily routine. This is a story about the quiet lives of nice people, and how they touch the lives of others with tact and (sometimes) wit.
Zama seems to be attempting to do several things. One is present a portrait of a fairly comfortable working-class India as a good life interspersed with some trials and difficulties (but overall, a decent and enjoyable existence). He’s also touching on the notion of relationships and marriage, not only with the subject matter of the book (which allows for a lot of “oh man, THAT would stink”) but also with the couples presented. Specifically, Mr. and Mrs. Ali’s view of relationships (as long-term commitments and a lifetime of gracious compromises) colors the tone of the book – the important thing is to continue to genuinely care for your partner.
I’d call this book simple. It doesn’t move mountains.
I’d also call this book good. Because it wasn’t trying to create giant explosions of mind-bending relationship advice, it succeeded in the whole “marriage is mostly simple but rarely easy.” So, success on that front.
Where it fell a bit flat was in the portrayal of the complications of the rigid caste system in India. Caste was often mentioned (because it’s apparently a big deal in marriage arrangements) but the book included no real handholds for a Western reader trying to understand why/how caste was such a complication. For a such a deeply ingrained and influential social convention that matters so much to marriage, I didn’t get it. That’s a fail.
No biggie, though, because I can just Google it.
Loved the narrative style, loved the story. I want to read more by this author. Thumbs up.
Book Club Questions:
1) Think of someone in your own life who is unmarried. Come up with a list of “must haves” and “doesn’t matter” that you might bring to a matchmaker for them.
2) Mr. Ali tells Irshad to think of himself as a product, an uninteresting but important product, much like the valves Irshad loves so much. Is this deceptive or astute? What examples from your own experience inform your opinion?
3) The novel deals with levels of tradition, which ones are solid and which are flexible (and when and for whom). Discuss marriage-related traditions within your own culture, with some attention to those that are negotiable and those that aren’t.
4) Zama explores female gender roles, particularly with the characters of Mrs. Ali and Aruna. How do these women represent traditional gender norms? How do they depart from those norms?
5) Can an arranged marriage work in your own culture? Who would be (or would have been) a terrible matchmaker for you? Who would be (or would have been) a perfect matchmaker for you? Do you know of anyone who had an arranged marriage?
6) Zama likens his novel to Jane Austen novels. How is The Marriage Bureau for Rich People like Austen novels? How does it differ?
7) This novel has been marketed as humorous, or a comedy. Do you agree?