A deft, warmhearted debut from Indian-born Londoner Zama about a retired civil servant who opens a matchmaking service on the verandah of his South Indian home.
Growing bored of a life of leisure and not nearly pious enough to spend his days praying and socializing in the local mosque, Mr. Ali clearly has to do something to get out of Mrs. Ali’s hair. Enter Ali’s Marriage Bureau, boasting the “widest choice among Hindu, Muslim, Christian Brides/Grooms.” That is not true, but with a combination of common sense and clever grassroots marketing, Ali, a born people person, soon has a bustling little business. His clients range from a nerdy salesman who doesn’t quite get why a prospective bride and her parents would not be fascinated by valves, to a tiny young woman whose father insists she get a tall groom to give his future grandchildren the chance at normal height. Business is good enough for Ali to hire an assistant, a young woman named Aruna. Sweet-natured and modest, she shows a real aptitude for the job, which she needs to help support her parents and younger sister. Though Aruna secretly longs to be a bride, she has resigned herself to the fact that her proud, penniless family cannot afford the lush Hindu wedding and dowry expected of their aristocratic Brahmin caste. Fate seems cruel, then, when the eminently eligible young doctor Ramanujam walks into the bureau with his family looking for a suitable girl to settle down with. He and Aruna hit it off, but their future looks dicey. Love matches are frowned upon in this community mired in tradition, and it is up to Ali to come up with a solution that will make everyone happy—if such a thing is possible. The novel touches upon the religious, class and gender inequalities of modern Indian society without getting weighed down by them.
A charming, modest cross-cultural confection. Fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s intrepid Precious Ramotswe are likely to find an equally engaging protagonist in Mr. Ali.