When I read The Marriage Bureau for Rich People I was hooked immediately. I have an extensive collection of books set in India and whilst it’s a country I love to visit and to read about, I have to admit that happy light-hearted fiction set there is hard to find. I asked Vladimir to approach the author – Farahad Zama – and ask if we could interview him. Below you’ll find the results of that interview.
I’d certainly advice any of the Curious Book Fans reviewers to consider approaching writers as getting direct contact must surely be one of the most interesting ways to fulfil some of those ‘curious’ yearnings to learn more about a book or writer you’ve really enjoyed.
Farahad Zama: Yes, my wife’s uncle was our neighbour and that’s how the marriage was arranged. I met my wife for the first time in October and we were married on New Year’s eve, six weeks later.
I wrote an article on the subject which was published in the New York Times:
CBF: Who was the inspiration for Mr Ali? Is he entirely fictional or do you know someone on whom his character is based?
Farahad Zama: Mr Ali is somewhat based on my father. Actually, Mrs Ali is based much more closely on my mother. When I started writing the book, I conceived Mrs Ali as a fairly minor character and so I didn’t hesitate in basing her quite closely on her. Of course, as the story went on, Mrs Ali’s part grew and in the end she plays quite a substantial role.
CBF: Now that you live in the UK, how do you find the attitude of local people to the idea of using a marriage bureau or of having an arranged marriage?
Farahad Zama: Over the years, my wife and I’ve met many people who have been extremely surprised to find that our marriage was arranged. Many people in the west assume that arranged marriages are the same as forced marriages. And so when they talk to my wife, who is far more outgoing and articulate than me and nobody’s idea of a doormat, they are very intrigued. That was one of the reasons that I set the book in a marriage bureau when I started writing.
CBF: Do you think we might be more successful in the UK if we engaged the services of people like Mr Ali?
Farahad Zama: Possibly! We can’t go too far wrong, given our current divorce rates. But I think marriages are more easily arranged in stable societies where doctors and engineers are more highly valued than chefs or DJs. So, I think we are on our own in modern-day Britain!
CBF: A little bit of back story would be nice. I just wondered if you have thought about how Mr and Mrs Ali might have met and what their secret is for an enduring happy marriage?
Farahad Zama: Yes, I do have some thoughts about Mr and Mrs Ali’s turbulent early years and how they worked through their differences and reached the calmer shoals beyond. The Marriage Bureau For Rich People is now a series. The second book, The Many Conditions of Love is just coming out in paperback in the UK. The third, Not All Marriages Are Made In Heaven, is out next year.
CBF: I’ve read that you write your novels on public transport commuting to work in the City. I wonder what you think the commuters around you think you’re working on and whether they would ever imagine that the guy with the laptop is writing romantic comedy.
Farahad Zama: They probably think I am a lawyer working on a brief! I see a lot of them working on documents on the train. One or two people have covertly looked with interest at my screen, but because this is England, nobody has asked me what I am doing. If this was India, I am sure several people over the years would have asked me what I am writing…
CBF: Imagine that someone wanted to make a film or a TV serious of your book. Who would you want to cast in the lead roles?
Farahad Zama: I’ve had an approach from a producer and they even made an initial offer. It didn’t go ahead, unfortunately, but who knows – it might still happen. Many people have told me that my book reads like a film waiting to be made.
I have some ideas for Mr and Mrs Ali, but they are Bollywood actors, so I am not sure if they’ll mean anything to the readers of your website.
Farahad Zama: Yes, definitely. As part of my research for the book, I spent some time with a marriage bureau in Vizag. There are parts of India where communities are divided and there is little interaction between them, but happily, Vizag is not one of them. It’s a beautiful, scenic coastal town with lovely beaches on one side and mountains on the other. And the people are just as great.
CBF: I don’t want to give away anything about the plot in the second novel but I would like to know if you’d ever put a ‘happy ending’ ahead of the need for a character to ‘do the right thing?’
Farahad Zama: Every book is different! In The Many Conditions of Love, I went with the characters. While that’s generally the right thing to do, it’s difficult to make a rule about it because most readers do want a happy, redemptive ending.
CBF: Your writing has been compared to that of Alexander McCall Smith and I can’t help but notice a certain Jane Austin touch in some places. Were these writers influential to your writing and who else helped make you the writer that you are today?
Farahad Zama: Yes, definitely. Alexander McCall Smith’s writing is so warm and effortless and that has been an influence. I believe that Jane Austen is a foreign writer to British people today because the society she writes about is so exotic to them. For Indians, arranged marriages, dowries and financial issues over inheritance are every day matters, and her world doesn’t seem strange at all. Besides them, I love R K Narayan’s portrayal of small town India and my decision to set my book in Vizag is a nod to Narayan’s Malgudi.
I also love K Viswanath’s Telugu movies and I can see my books as one of his movies.
CBF: If you could write a book in the style of another author, who would you choose and why?
Farahad Zama: This is a difficult question to answer. I tend to like individual books rather than an author’s oeuvre. I like Jane Austen for the precision and freshness of writing that shines through after three hundred years, Kazuo Ishiguro’s way of drawing you completely into the story, Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the details that stick in your mind – like the man who is followed by butterflies or even the opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
The beauty of that sentence, clear as ice, while looking forward into the future as well as into the past, gives me goosebumps. As you can see, I am a ‘sentence junkie’, as I think, many authors are.
CBF: This one comes with a question and an apology. Do you mind that I assumed you were a female writer?
Farahad Zama: I can see why you might think that. In the modern world, ‘romance’ has been deemed to be a feminine trait. Throughout history, of course, most of the great lyric poets have been men. In my third book, Not All Marriages Are Made in Heaven, there is a dialogue between Mr Ali and his niece on what it means to be romantic and whether it is men or women who are more romantic.
‘Love isn’t just about pink balloons and heart-shaped cards, you know. It is something much deeper.’ He put a hand to his heart. ‘Here, where it matters, men are more caring. Ask any young woman what kind of man she wants to marry and the answer will be a prince or a millionaire. Ask the same question to a hundred men, and very few will say princess or rich girl. They want somebody beautiful and kind.’
‘Yes, beautiful,’ said Pari, raising her eyebrows delicately.
‘Boys want a girl for herself – for what she is and has within herself. Girls, on the other hand, look for things external – money, status and so on. Tell me, which is more romantic?’
Pari shook her head widely. ‘Chaacha, let us just agree to disagree on this one.’
CBF: I heard that you are already working on the third book in the Marriage Bureau for Rich People series. Do you already have an idea of how many you will write or where you’ll go next when the Bureau has run its course?
Farahad Zama: The above dialogue answers part of that question! I am writing book 4 at the moment. Beyond that, I have some ideas for a book 5, so we’ll have to see how it goes.
CBF: How many books do you think you need to sell before you can give up the commuting and write full time?
Farahad Zama: A lot of books! Making a living purely from books is hard work, except for a very few at the very top. I started writing as an escape from my day job in a bank. If I took up writing full time, I may have to go back to working in a bank as an escape from writer’s block….
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