Shuma Raha criticizes Monica Ali’s “Love Marriage”


A funny and engaging novel about race, identity, love, sexuality, feminism and more, in today’s multicultural Britain

A funny and engaging novel about race, identity, love, sexuality, feminism and more, in today’s multicultural Britain

After his impressive debut with brick path (2003), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Monica Ali made a point of refraining from writing about the South Asian immigrant experience. But these experiments proved disappointing. Indeed, his latest novel, A story never told (2011), part conspiracy theory, part fantasy tale about Princess Diana, drew serious criticism from critics. With Love marriage, Ali, who is a British author of Bangladeshi origin, returns to more familiar territory. But Love marriage is not brick path redux. Around the core of the Bengali immigrant experience in London, Ali crafts an engaging novel about race, identity, love, sexuality, feminism and more, in contemporary Britain.

Yasmin Ghorami, a 26-year-old doctor trained in geriatric care at St. Barnabas’ Hospital in London, is engaged to Joe Sangster, also a doctor at the same facility. Yasmin’s parents, Shaokat and Anisah, who had emigrated to the UK from Kolkata, approve of the match because Joe’s profession as a doctor makes him “automatically fit”. When the book opens, Yasmin is about to take them to meet Joe’s flamboyant feminist mother, Harriet, who lives in a large house in an upscale part of London.

Unfounded fear

Yasmin dreads meeting, because her future stepmother is everything her parents are not. While the word “sex” is never mentioned in the Ghorami household, Harriet had posed for nude photos before, and her next book is a treatise on the penis. She is also embarrassed by how Shaokat and Anisah will behave in front of the elegant Harriet. His father, a doctor, is a serious, hard-working and important man; her mother Anisah is a warmer soul, but her style of dress is extremely awkward and her idea of ​​smart attire is generally a violent mixture of East and West. In honor of the occasion, Anisah prepares a mass of pakoras and other flavors for Harriet and takes them out in Tupperware boxes packed in carrier bags. And the overcautious Shaokat insists on leaving very early, thus arriving at Harriet’s a full, old-fashioned hour before the appointed time.

But contrary to Yasmin’s fears of a clash of cultures and an ensuing social disaster, the meeting turns out to be convivial. Harriet, who may be more liberal than the most staunchly liberal of her upper class, surprises everyone by suggesting that the young couple have an Islamic wedding. This instantly endears her to Anisah, but Yasmin, who is a-nun, is appalled at the thought.

Soon, she has other worries than the format of her wedding ceremony. It turns out that Joe has been unfaithful to her. He confesses his fault and she forgives him. Yet, almost immediately, she plunges into an explosive affair with a hospital chief medical officer. Revenge sex feels good, and her impending wedding no longer feels like the heavenly kind she had imagined.

Unexpected twists

Ali pushes the plot forward and throws many unexpected twists. Along the way, the narrative also presses any hot buttons it decides to push. At the hospital, Yasmin faces racism from patients’ relatives who want a real (read: white) doctor to care for their loved ones. When she denounces this racist attitude, she is reprimanded by the hospital administration, led, ironically, by a head doctor who is also brown.

No less ironic is the rigid class consciousness of his father Shaokat. Despite his humble origins — he started out as chai wallah — Shaokat coldly despises his son Arif’s white working-class girlfriend. Ali also gently pokes fun at Harriet, whose repudiation of class snobbery manifests itself primarily in her enthusiasm for gathering around her all manner of “diversity” as so many charming curiosities.

Harriet forms an unlikely sisterhood with Anisah, and even offers her refuge in her house when Anisah goes out on Shaokat to protest her tyrannical ways. Under Harriet’s tutelage, Yasmin’s mother blossoms into a ‘feminist’ – and, incredibly, it transforms her from a devout, homemaker, frying pakora matron into someone who likely has an alliance with a young lesbian performance artist.

Multiplicity of Worthy Themes

Love marriage has other issues to delve into – sex addiction, dysfunctional relationships and using psychotherapy to overcome them, the hijab debate, an overstretched NHS, Islamophobia… There’s also a wink ironic to the arbiters of literary questions. At an awards show, someone tells a black author to stick to what he knows best. Ali probably heard that a lot when she was trying to write about topics that weren’t rooted in her own immigrant background.

The multiplicity of interesting themes can make Love marriage feeling a bit overloaded at times. But Ali manages to keep it all together without turning off the comic, easy-to-read style of the book. The novel’s conclusion, however, is a bit of an anti-climax. It’s almost as if the author has decided that now that the characters have faced the disruptive fireworks of their lives, it’s time for them to settle into their calmer destinies.

Love marriage is extremely funny in places, and it’s not just because of Yasmin’s parents, who are quite Dickensian in their idiosyncrasies. But although they are vividly engraved, their Bengali is never in evidence. Ali occasionally adds a Bengali word or phrase such as ” kyabla(idiot) or “ Nikuchi Korechhe(Damn it!) to remind readers (or herself?) that this is a story centered on a Bengali immigrant family, but the words seem stuck and might as well have been omitted of what is above all a novel about today’s multicultural Britain.

Love marriage; Monica Ali, Virago, ₹899

The critic is a journalist and author.


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