The Making of a Marriage Bureau – Farahad Zama

Could you give our readers a flavour of the story?
‘The Marriage Bureau For Rich People’ is set in Vizag, my home town in South India. It has two major stories intertwined in it – a retired couple, Mr and Mrs Ali, who have opened the marriage bureau and the young girl, Aruna, who joins them as an assistant.
Mr and Mrs Ali are worried about their son who is leading a protest against a government takeover of farmers’ lands. Things get so bad that Mr Ali refuses to talk to his son. Aruna is a poor girl with a tragedy in her past. A motley set of clients walk in through the doors of the bureau and their marriages are arranged, but you will need to read the book to find out if Mr Ali reconciles with his son and if Aruna can overcome her past and find a husband of her own.

What inspired you to write?
My father, mainly. He is a published Telugu novelist in India and has always believed I had a book in me. Another factor has been the rise of puritanic Islamists who believe that theirs is the only true interpretation and the reactionary anti-Muslim sentiment across the West. In the months before I started writing the book, it seemed as if I could not open a newspaper or magazine without coming across one article or another that presented Muslims in a negative light, usually by focussing on the actions of some foolish or misguided individual or group. I wanted to write about a gentler culture in which people live together despite belonging to different religions and following different customs.
But I didn’t want to write a heavy, difficult to read book. The Marriage Bureau For Rich People is an easy-to-read story with characters that readers will easily identify with and hopefully fall in love with.

Did you write from experience of having your own arranged marriage?
Not specifically. Obviously, the experience of my own marriage informed is part of my ‘knowledge base’. I also come from a large family – I have sixteen uncles and aunts and lots of cousins with whom I grew up. Most of them, except two or three of them, have had arranged marriages so I have seen a lot of such weddings.

When did you find the time to write? And how long did it take you?
I initially started writing for an hour or two in the evenings after the kids were asleep. Once I was sure that the book was a serious project and not a passing fad, I bought a laptop and that made it much easier. I write on the train during my commute. The train journey is about half an hour and I aim to write between one and two hundred words in that time. In the evenings, I sit on the sofa next to my wife as she is watching soaps and write some more.

Why did you set the story in India ? And did you go back to your home town during the novel writing process?
My life can now be divided into two almost equal parts – my childhood and college days in India and my professional life in London, so I guess setting it in India was the natural choice. With India as the backdrop, you don’t have to invent anything! It is a maddening, colourful, desperate, wonderful world of its own and all you have to do is choose the bits you want to highlight.
I went back to Vizag twice during the writing and I think the bits I wrote while I was there are slightly more vivid than the rest of the book. When you read the book, try and figure out which are those passages!

You’re now working on the sequel to this debut, what prompted that decision? And what can readers expect?
I have so much material in my head that I didn’t exhaust it in the first book. When I first met Jenny Parrott, my editor at Little Brown and told her that I was thinking about writing a sequel, she asked me if the second book would also have Mrs Ali and Aruna in it. When I said yes, she offered me a two-book deal which was great!
The sequel continues the story of Aruna and Mr and Mrs Ali’s son Rehman. He falls in love with the TV journalist, Usha, from the first book. I’ve also introduced a new character called Pari, a widow who has learnt English by listening to the BBC world service and who I think readers will love. The marriage bureau is flourishing of course, with new clients, and Mr and Mrs Ali continue their loving-bickering relationship.

Richard and Judy have picked your debut for their book club…how did you feel when you found out?
Great, obviously! I was in New York on a tricky assignment (in my day job) when the email came in, so a quick, YES, and then it was back to work. Later I called my wife and she was more excited than me, I think. I had just been told that the publishing date was being put back from January to March next year to fit in with a particular promotion and so I was more pleased with the fact that the R&J selection meant that the book was coming out about six months sooner than it would have otherwise.

And what are your hopes for the debut generally?
The debut has already exceeded my wildest hopes for it. It is being published in the UK and the US and it is also being translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish and Dutch. It’s apparently being considered for translation into other languages as well.
Now that the book has been selected by Richard and Judy, I hope it reaches a much wider audience with its message of humanity and multi-culturalism.

Did you ever think that one day you would be a published novelist? What experience did you have of writing prior to this?

Not really. I knew that it was extremely difficult to find an agent and get published, so I didn’t think it would ever happen. I wrote the book because I almost felt impelled to – it was as if the desire to write just filled me up and had to find an outlet on paper (or computer screen).
I wrote a prize-winning short story for my college magazine (many years ago) about a fight that breaks out between fans of Kapil Dev and Gavaskar at a cricket match and also published a humorous article in Indian Express on my first encounter with an escalator in the Calcutta metro, again when I was in college.
The Marriage Bureau is my first writing after that. I love programming (computers) and I wonder if it is a coincidence that I wrote this book soon after I stopped coding seriously and went into management. Since Little, Brown have accepted this book, I’ve met several writers who keep writing despite many rejections and I am awed at their perseverance and bravery. I don’t think I could have written another book while my first book remained unpublished.

How did you go about finding an agent?
After I finished the manuscript, I looked on the Internet and tried to find agents who represented Indian and other Asian authors. I followed their submission instructions and sent the first three chapters and a synopsis to a couple of agents. At the same time, I asked around among my friends if they knew any agents – a friend of a friend knew an author who put me in touch with his agent. I think this is an exercise that definitely requires perseverance. Make your manuscript as good as you can and then drip-feed it to a few agents at a time – after all, even JK Rowling was found on the slush pile!

Finally what advice would you give to our readers?
If you think and act like a victim, you will remain a victim. We are fortunate to live in an open country and it is up to us to set our own limits and make our own future.