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A Charming Tale, Tenderly Told

THE MARRIAGE BUREAU FOR RICH PEOPLE by Farahad Zama. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009. Hardcover, 293 pages. $24.95.

There is something about the way that Farahad Zama imbues his characters with  warmth and empathy that makes you want to see them in three dimensions.  When I read this book, I couldn’t help but think  of how much I’d like to see it on the big screen.

Mr. Ali, a retired government clerk, enlists his wife to help him set up a marriage bureau on the porch of his house. Aruna, an impoverished young woman who is the sole breadwinner of her family, becomes Mr. Ali’s full-time assistant. Aruna discovers she has a natural talent for finding perfect matches for the young men and women who come to the bureau, but she feels she herself is destined to be deprived of the joy of marriage.

The book is a collection of vignettes of the various clients of the marriage bureau and the challenges Mr. Ali faces in lining up suitable matches. A subplot deals with the Alis’ worry over the well-intentioned but impractical antics of their only child, Rehman, who fancies himself a social acitivist.

Zama’s novel gives interesting perspectives on the arranged vs. love marriage debate and the importance of families in Indian society. While recognizing both systems of matchmaking as viable alternatives, Zama does so with great sensitivity, which is not a requirement in a book of fiction, but a nice touch, nonetheless. I found myself pondering over the significance of an institution in which so many conditions must be met and obstacles overcome for it to have a happy outcome.

Mr. and Mrs. Ali have a tender wisdom about them that is incredibly endearing. Mrs. Ali’s observations at a Hindu wedding are keen and respectful, and she comes across as a sensitive and intelligent woman who lives in the shadow of her husband but has her own thoughts and opinions.

While all of the action takes place in India, the book’s themes of love and acceptance are universal. Interestingly, Zama wrote the book on his commute to his job as an investment banker and later at home in front of the television. I wonder if it is his own contentment with marriage and a happy home life that helped him craft such moving and satisfying scenes between people who love and care for one another.

Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.