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The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, by Farahad Zama.

April 5, 2012
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The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama. Berkley Trade (2010), Paperback, 304 pages.

A pleasant novel set in south India where traditional practices are being challenged by changing conceptions of individuals’ duty to family.

In the small city in which Zama places his story, Muslims and Hindus are not only tolerant of each other, they can be close friends. When Mr. Ali opens his own marriage bureau, Mrs. Ali finds him a perfect assistant, a young Hindu woman whose Brahmin family has fallen on hard times. With essential contributions from Aruna and Mrs. Ali, the marriage bureau prospers and many people find marriages that are “rich,” defined by the Prophet Mohammed as those which bring “self-contentment.”

Zama introduces us to a wide variety of individuals needing the support of a semi-modern marriage bureau. Through them we see individuals working out conflicts with their families or within themselves. But both Mr. and Mrs. Ali or Aruna also have problems of their own. Aruna has to figure out what duties she has to her parents. The Ali’s son rejects his duty to them by joining a group dangerously protesting the encroachments of a multi-national corporation. All ends well in the end, of course, as the reader knows it will in such a cheerful book.

Throughout the book, Zama gives us rich detail of both Muslim and Hindu ritual and life. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the wedding ceremonies of each religion. The women are shown as strong individuals, although Mr. Ali is the major character. Here and there, however, I felt bits of discomfort. I gritted my teeth as the bride’s father and the prospective groom left together to finalize marriage arrangements in which the prospective bride has no say.

Zama is no revolutionary or feminist. He sees and describes the people of India as learning to make compromises between traditional practices and beliefs and newer, more tolerant, ones. He has a positive vision of what his country can become. News stories out of India, however, indicate that his vision can not be assumed to have been achieved yet in the country as a whole. Maybe books like his can have a positive influence.

I recommend this book, especially for those wanting to learn about non-western people at the same time they are enjoying a comfortable reading experience.

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