arahad 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, pales in 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 Ali's 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 the 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.