Mr. Hyder Ali, recently retired clerk, has decided to open a marriage bureau to keep himself occupied and out of his wife’s hair. He and Mrs. Ali clean off their front porch–they are fortunate to have a house of their own with a bit of land around it–uncommon in many Indian inner cities.
While this may sound odd to acculturated Americans, for whom the dating service is the norm, and participants in same are looking for partners on their own behalf, a matchmaking service isn’t so far-fetched in India. Arranged marriages are serious business in India, where it’s still accepted that the parents will select a spouse for their children, dowries are still crucial to a girl’s marriageability and caste is still a dividing separation between groups on a par with religion. Standard procedure for marriage brokers at the time is to accept payment upon completion of a successful union, but Mr. Ali decides to reverse that business practice. He charges a much smaller up front fee and provides a list of possible matches from his files of potential candidates, from whom his customers may select possible candidates. After that, they’re on their own; he makes no guarantees other than that they will find someone. Well, the lists he hopes to have soon…and to his surprise, he does well.
Well enough that he soon has more business than he can handle, and must start looking for an assistant. Several applicants respond to his ad, but in the end it is his wife who strikes up a casual conversation with the young woman who proves right for the job…not to mention right for one of Mr. Ali’s clients, though inadvertently, by Mr. Ali’s own marriage bureau. As the story progresses, Aruna takes an increasingly central position in the book, at least equal to that of the Alis–her family, her concerns, and in the end, her love.
There are a few serious notes. The Alis’ servant confesses that her grandson has a brain tumor and the family is scrabbling to pay the hospital fees; in a land without health insurance as Americans understand it, this is a serious matter even if the family may take their child to a government hospital. The Alis’ son, Rehman, is arrested and imprisoned as the result of his political activism on the part of poor farmers whose land is being purchased at below market rate by a rapacious corporation; without other resources, these ill-educated farmers will have no other recourse or income once their farms are sold.
A very pleasant book to read; it is perhaps predictable–I guessed who was going to marry or reconcile with whom easily enough–but an interesting glimpse into a society strange to me by someone who is a member of that society. (not that people who aren’t part of what they’re writing about CAN’T create good accurate tales, mind. Indeed, sometimes gifted writers who are outsiders have the distance to better describe the alien society.) In many ways, it reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe series or perhaps more accurately Nicholas Drayson’s A Guide to the Birds of East Africa; there’s no mystery, but rather a romance at the center of this book. It’s a world in which the predominant cultures are very different from that of many (though not all) residents of the United States: clothing, cuisine, religions, marriage traditions, family structure.
While I would not compare it to Jane Austen, but rather Smith and Drayson, that should not be construed as dismissive! As with those two books, it’s as much an interesting peep into a strange place and culture for most Anglos in the United States as it is a sweet romance. Lightweight and uncomplicated, this is several steps above your average beach reading or chicklit. And he’s written sequels!