When I heard this book described as a cross between Jane Austen and The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency set in India, I could hardly contain myself. Just how many things that I love reading could one author load into one book? And really, how well could an author incorporate all of these disparate elements? Color me thrilled to be able to tell you that Zama incorporated them all beautifully. I really did love this book.
Mr. Ali has been rather at loose ends since his retirement so he and his wife think that a marriage bureau will provide the perfect solution to his boredom. However, it is not long before his agency is awash in more work than he can handle, becoming more than the hobby it was intended. Mrs. Ali finds Aruna, a young woman who seems to be the perfect employee, despite the slight air of melancholy surrounding her. The novel weaves shorter stories about the people who come to Mr. Ali to find them their perfect match with the more involved stories of the Alis' son and the mystery in Aruna's life that accounts for her sadness. While seemingly simple in scope: connecting like-minded people in arranged marriages, there is more depth here than one originally suspects. But Zama doesn't dwell on the heavier subjects like the caste system, the disparity between the wealthy and the poor, reverence for and obedience towards parents, and the practice of corporate land grabbing. Instead, he touches on them lightly, acknowledging their importance in Indian life, but keeping this charming book less about the politics in India and more about the politics of marriage.
The episodic feel of the marriages Mr. Ali arranges lend credence to the comparison to The No. One Ladies' Detective Agency and the thwarted romance between Aruna and one of the wealthy clients of the agency is his nod to Austen. But this novel is pure India and these pages will transport the reader to the sights and sound and people of the subcontinent. The cultural side notes and evocation of place were authentic and fascinating, reminding me of our own visit there a couple years ago. The characters were endearing and delightful and completely real. And the descriptions were vivid, colorful, and completely enticing. Even the cadences of the conversations between characters reminds me of being in India. I hope that other readers find the joy in reading it that I did.