The worst marriage advice I ever received was, ironically, at a wedding. I was minding my own business at a Hindu wedding in downtown Chicago a couple of years ago when a family friend approached me to talk. He asked me if I had gotten married and when I replied in the negative, he told me had some advice. I eagerly leaned in and he whispered, “Don’t marry BMW.” I must have looked puzzled because he went on to explain, “Black, Muslim or White.”
This kind of stubborn, old school mentality regarding marriage is very common in the American desi (South Asian) community, but I was still shocked. How did someone who had been in the United States probably longer than in India, still have such deep seated misgivings towards inter-racial and inter-religious marriage?
The answer is actually a lot simpler than it might seem. There are certain “rules” governing matchmaking and marriage in India and although these are not enumerated principles, they do govern much of the interaction in the Indian communities—Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, etc.—whether the processes take place in India or anywhere in the Diaspora.
Of these rules, none matters so much as the notion that most Indian marriages are not simply about two individuals falling for each other. As Aruna, a character in Marriage Bureau for Rich People tells her love interest, “We don’t marry for love, Ram. You know that. Love is supposed to follow marriage, not the other way around. A marriage is not just about two people. It is about two families.”
Farahad Zama’s Marriage Bureau for Rich People is a simple novel about families and marriage in contemporary India. The main protagonist is a Mr. Ali—first name unknown—who decides to use his retirement to start up a marriage agency to connect prospective brides and grooms with each other based on caste, sub-caste, and religion. The desperate mothers and fathers Mr. Ali works with are definitely more well-to-do and are prone to pithy, discriminatory comments about potential companions for their children. As one customer, Mr. Venkat, says, “Either they [prospective brides] are too dark or too old or too short. Or they are not educated.”
Marriage Bureau for Rich People is a good novel, but hardly great by any measure. It fits in the niche of middle-level Indian fiction, occupied by other average novels like Bali Rai’s Arranged Marriage, William Rhode’s Paperback Raita, and Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games.
The biggest weakness of the book is the simple fact that it is just unbelievable. Zama paints a picture of a totally accepting and accommodating Indian community where all religious people live comfortably and without prejudices. The entire novel unfolds in a series of such improbabilities, making the whole thing feel like a traditional Hindi or Tamil film, but on paper. A recently-retired Muslim man decides to start a marriage bureau. Upper-caste Hindu families see nothing wrong in hiring a Muslim to find matches for their children. The Muslim man tries to broker a marriage between a rich, Brahmin, male doctor and a middle-class, Hindu typist. Hindu family freaks out. Muslim matchmaker heals the rift and saves the day. Jubilant wedding follows.
Although this “warm and fuzzy” lens of Indian society is inviting, ultimately, it is simply not a good representation of the way things really happen. Rather it is the distorted view of an Indian expat—like Zama—who paints a picture not of the India he left, but the country he wishes to return to. If writers want to ameliorate the public perception of India held by the vast majority of the planet, they should write realistic fiction and not continue to perpetuate either the notion of the Temple of Doom dystopia or the Jewel in the Crown utopia.