19 November 2012

Mrs. Ali’s Road to Happiness

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Farahad Zama’s books liken themselves to Jane Austen in ways that are more unkind to Zama than to Austen. The expectations that the comparison engenders are unrealistic. Social hypocrisy and the veil of appearances are certainly important themes in Zama’s work. But, her very fine penmanship aside, Austen had a capacity for irony that revealed her quiet bitterness in the same breath as her extraordinary wit; her biting sarcasm, her fantastic sense of humour, and her capacity for parody have rarely been equaled in literary history, and Zama, whose work is almost nothing like Austen’s, will surely pale in the comparison.

A better, and kinder, comparison would be Alexander McCall Smith or, closer home, R. K. Narayan. Zama’s portraits of small-town life call for all those weary, cringe-inducing clichés that dominate blurbs of both Smith and Narayan: charming, warm-hearted, good-humoured, and (of course) exotic. The clichés ring true for all three of these writers.

Mrs. Ali’s Road to Happiness is the fourth installment in the award-winning Marriage Bureau for Rich People series, set in the sultry seaside town of Vizag in Andhra Pradesh. Mr. Ali, who has quickly decided that retirement does not suit him, begins the marriage bureau in the first title. He is jolly and kind and astute, if a little madcap, and his wife, watchful and unfailingly discerning, reigns powerfully over the household. His paternal common sense and her matriarchal pragmatism tinge the episodes abundantly with culture-specific and practical philosophies that are recognisable and familiar, if often a little politically incorrect.

The books are populated with lively, winning characters, several of whom are members of the Alis’ family. Quirky special appearances from Mr. Ali’s diverse and often frustrating clientele are tossed liberally into the melting-pot. By the time the fourth book comes around, the main cast of unlikely heroes is well-established and they’re all interesting enough to inspire curiosity. The Alis arch, like the wise old banyan of Indian folklore, over the second generation – Rehman, their idealistic son, Aruna, their efficient assistant, and Pari, the indefatigably cheerful widow of their nephew – lovingly, despairingly, and protectively.

Zama really seems to have come into his own in the third and fourth titles, flowing from the breezy lightheartedness of the first two titles that rarely ventured out of the social comedy of arranged marriage, into rougher waters, dealing capably with such contemporary issues as Maoist insurgency, homosexuality, religious strife, developmental inequity, and single motherhood. Rehman and Pari, especially, grow colourfully and engagingly as the series progresses. Pari becomes engaged to a young gay man from Mumbai named Dilawar despite her growing feelings for Rehman, who is in the throes of love with a hotheaded young journalist named Usha. Dilawar himself struggles to come out to his family and friends, while Aruna, who has had a whirlwind romance, learns to negotiate with her new and substantially wealthy family.

Pari comes to adopt a little boy called Vasu (the son of Rehman’s best friends who have both had tragic deaths) and the crux of Mrs. Ali’s Road to Happiness is the religious tension that Pari’s decision has given rise to. Hindu fundamentalists are furious that the boy is being raised in a Muslim household, while the new imam at the local mosque is determined that the boy be converted to Islam. The clashes put both Pari and her son in very real danger. Of course, this is popular fiction and happy endings always loom prettily in the distance. But it is to Zama’s credit that the way these happy endings transpire is rarely predictable.

Austen pioneered the use of free indirect speech as a tool in characterisation, and since Austen, few writers have employed the technique as cleverly or as unaffectedly to provoke both empathy and contempt. But Zama does wield that spear regularly and effectively in his books. Especially with Mrs. Ali, this becomes revelatory. Zama’s omniscient narrator rarely passes judgement on any subject, but the disguise of indirect discourse shrewdly blurs distinctions between the narrator and the characters without visible arbitration. Thus, what could often be considered morally didactic within the narrative becomes confessional stagecraft in free indirect speech.

Zama does not seem to write for an Indian audience at all. Dosas are described as black gram pancakes. Idlis are steamed rice-and-lentil cakes. Things that ought to be obvious to the Indian reader are constantly and repeatedly explained, translated, and parenthetically defended. But once the lens of the non-Indian reader is donned – that is, once one tunes these nagging little explanations out – it becomes much easier to enjoy Zama’s books for just what they are: not great literature or even groundbreaking content, but a series of cheerful vignettes of community-centred life in a sleepy South Indian town, all cleverly poised to inform the reader’s understanding of social milieu, almost as if to say, this is India, too.