Monday, January 18, 2010

41. “The Marriage Bureau for Rich People” by Farahad Zama

Year of first publication: 2008
Genre: novel
Country: India

In italiano: “Agenzia Matrimoniale per Ricchi” di Farahad Zama, edito da Sonzogno Editore (2009), € 18,00

Plot: Having recently retired, Mr Ali decides to open a marriage bureau in his home city of Vizag. With the help of his wife and Aruna, his beautiful assistant, the business is going on very well: a lot of people are willing to find the right match through the services of Mr Ali. When Aruna falls in love with Ramanujam, a young, handsome and rich doctor whose female relatives are determined to find the perfect wife for, things become more complicated. Despite the fact that Aruna is from a respectable Brahmin family, she is in fact poor and cannot afford the marriage Ramanujam’s family is expecting.

Some thoughts: This is a nice, easy-to-read and lighthearted book about marriage customs in India. It reminds me a lot of Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, a series of books about investigations led by Mme Precious Ramotswe in Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana. They have much more in common than the fact that they are both about an agency. This excellent article from The Financial Times illustrates very well what the similarities are. According to Adrian Turpin, McCall Smith’s “imitators” have “cartoonishly bright ethnic covers”, they share “an aesthetic of simplicity” with linear stories and short sentences and they are set in the developing world but are aimed at the western market, causing them to have long descriptions of local customs that seem to be taken from guide books*. Even though The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is not a detective story (but neither McCall Smith’s series could be ascribed to that genre without hesitations), the cover certainly has bright colours and it’s ethnic in its pointed arch, arabesques and woman in sari. Moreover, there is no doubt that the language is simple and straightforward, plus the plot doesn’t involve nasty surprises or too much unpleasantness in the depiction of a developing country. It is clear that the book is aimed at the western reader, to the point that at the end of the book the author inserts a sort of appendix of a few passages (camouflaged as Mrs Ali’s English compositions) describing the city of Vizag, Indian cuisine, Hindi and Urdu words for family members and the caste system. All elements that help the western reader, who knows little about India, to better understand the novel. Personally, I prefer to be thrown into the complexity of another culture and gather the information I need from the context or the plot, imagining or researching the rest by myself, but other people might find the compositions helpful.
With this said, The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is not a bad book: it’s enjoyable, like a Bollywood movie. The book is not devout of insights into Indian culture, in particular regarding marriage customs. It is also a book about love marriages and arranged marriages, their pros and cons, especially. Mrs Ali says that in marriage you should be content with what you have, because the perfect wife might never come. To learn what the criteria to choose a good wife are in India is a bit shocking for a westerner: height, fair skin, education, cooking skills, caste and sub-caste, financial situation of the family, religion and of course the dowry. In no case the tastes of the two newlyweds, their interests or the physical attraction between them are considered. You might consider Indian culture to be materialistic with regards to this practises, but after all it used to be exactly like this just a few centuries ago here in Europe. Think of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for instance: Mrs Bennett has the same urgency to find a good husband for her daughters that every parent in Zama’s book has. And think of the opening sentence of that book: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. As a matter of fact, Farahad Zama puts a citation from Pride and Prejudice as an epitaph for his book, but this doesn’t mean, as some readers suggested in their reviews, that Zama is trying to write a masala-style Pride and Prejudice (this has already been done at the cinema, didn’t you know?)*2.
In the book, extreme poverty or nasty things are featured, but they come and go very quickly, they always have a happy ending and are treated a bit superficially, because it’s not the aim of the book to make you think about the problems of India. Mr Ali and Mrs Ali, who are Muslims in a predominantly Hindu town, are concerned with their son, who’s a political activist for the rights of poor people and has no intention of getting married and find a good, well-paid job like his parents want. From what I’ve learned through my recent “Indian reads”, in Indian culture it is very important to please your parents and it feels like the author himself does think so. However, Mrs Ali learns to accept his son for what he is, which means that she learns to be content, just like she advises that you'd do with marriage.
In a nutshell, this is a pleasant book to read where you can sniff some curry (among the food cooked by Mrs Ali) or have a trip to the store to buy a sari with Aruna and her sister Vani.

About the author: Farahad Zama was born in Vizag, on the eastern coast of India, but has been living in London since 1990. The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is his first novel.

*The rest of the similarities are aimed at detective stories that came out in the wake of McCall Smith’s series (Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant or Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, for instance).
*2 Speaking of works that could be prefect if turned Indian-style, I keep thinking of a comedy by Goldoni called Sior Todero Brontolon (“son el pare del pare, e son paron dei fioi, e son paron de la nezza, e de la dota, e de la casa, e de tutto quelo che voggio mi” – “I’m the father of the father, I’m the master of my children, and the master of my grand-daughter, and of the dowry, and of the house, and of everything I want”).


  1. L'ho appena preso in prestito dalla biblioteca (non mi sembrava valesse la pena spendere 18 euro). Tutta questa facilità di lettura e leggerezza non mi convince molto (sono un po' prevenuta, lo ammetto), così come l'appendice finale che suona molto una cosa del tipo "l'India in 10 pagine".
    Vedremo, ti farò sapere!

  2. Io l'avevo trovato superscontato e visto che qualcuno me l'aveva suggerito l'ho preso. :-)

    Diciamo che non è la più profonda delle letture, però come ho già scritto è un libro piacevole. Certo non gli si può chiedere che sia "letteratura alta".
    L'appendice è utile a quelli che non vogliono prendersi la briga di cercare sull'atlante dove si trova la cittadina in cui è ambientato il romanzo o non hanno voglia o non sanno come cercare informazioni sulle caste e le religioni in internet. Personalmente preferisco che alcune cose vengano omesse e venga data più fiducia al lettore, uno dei cui compiti è approfondire le tematiche presentate nei libri. Mi chiedo se "l'India in 10 pagine" sia stata voluta dallo scritore o dall'editore...

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  4. Dopo averlo letto, concordo con la tua recensione: è piacevole e abile ad evitare cose spiacevoli.
    A volte il fatto di spiegare l'India agli occidentali finisce anche nel testo del romanzo oltre che nell'appendice, il che è un po' fastidioso (per esempio, trovo eccessivo spiegare che Ganesh è quel dio che ha la testa di elefante).
    Avrai notato la questione della dote, diversa fra musulmani e indù: per i musulmani è lo sposo a sborsare, mentre per gli indù è la sposa.

  5. Invece mi era sfuggita la questione della dote! Una cosa che mi ha colpito invece è l'intransigenza dell'autore nel confronto della questione caste. Se noti si ribadisce più e più volte che la famiglia di Aruna è della casta dei brahmini come lo sposo e anche i clienti dell'agenzia se non sbaglio sono altrettanto irremovibili su questa cosa. Non mi sembra ci siano grossi esempi di strappi alla regola o mi sbaglio? Da questo punto di vista non trovi che l'autore sia "poco occidentalizzato" (che non per forza dev'essere una cosa brutta!)?

  6. Anche a me la questione della casta pare di fondamentale importanza.
    In questo penso che sia stato realistico, nel senso che penso che sia proprio vero che nei matrimoni è una questione importante, tanto più per dei bramini. Comunque è chiaro che la vuole descrivere nel modo più incisivo possibile (l'autore stesso poi è musulmano, quindi esente da caste).

    hai letto che è già uscito un sequel? e sta pure lavorando al terzo libro, sempre di argomento matrimoniale!
    Nel secondo, sembra che il figlio di Ali si sia innamorato della giornalista, una non-musulmana... Un casino cosmico: altro che caste, si travalicano pure i confini religiosi!

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