When Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, she perhaps was not aware that all marriages do not follow this simple logic – especially Indian marriages. Indian marriages are a more intense affair – a marriage is not just between the bride and the single man in possession of a good fortune, but between two families.

The whims and fancies of the families often command more attention than the couple themselves. It is not for the faint-hearted. Families from Kolkata, even those living in England, have prepared all their lives for it. White English families are simply no match. And herein begins the troubles of the impending marriage of Yasmin and Joe, correction, the Ghoramis and the Sangsters.

Eastern roots, Western aspirations

Love Marriage is clear in its intentions. It’s a story of love and marriage, and since they are a charmed couple, a story of love marriage. We are briefly told about how Joe and Yasmin got together, but Ali does not reveal how either family reacted to the cross-cultural relationship – whatever they might have been, the Ghoramis and Sangsters seem to have accepted the union and marriage is the last logical step awaiting the couple.

The novel begins with the tried-and-tested formula of Indian conservatism – families too meek to discuss the-birds-and-the-bees while the younger generation indulges in sex and pornography, feminist or otherwise. Ali establishes the dynamics within the Ghorami family in the very first chapters.

Anisah and Shaokat have made the long journey to England to offer the best life to their children – they are frugal and logical; Yasmin and Arif have grown up experiencing all comforts of the first world and despite limited freedom in choice of career and run-ins with racial discrimination, they are confident and optimistic. What starts off as a social comedy about Indian mothers’ obsession with Tupperware and tendency to overfeed to communicate affection, quickly spirals into grim issues of addiction, lies, and betrayal.

A doctor himself, Shaokat makes a journey to success that is of cinematic proportions – he is the very picture of rags to riches. From the streets of Kolkata, Shaokat finds his way to England aided by passion for medicine and a charitable father-in-law who sees him as an “investment”.

Shaokat is a firm believer in hard work and perseverance, there is no place in his life for the creative talents that Yasmin had shown in school or the allegations of racism that prevent Arif from finding employment. Shoakat reminds his children that Modi’s India is more brutal for Muslims than Europe can ever imagine to be – they are lucky to be here and mild racial discriminations are just minor inconveniences.

Tell me – how are you different from a liar? How is this creative writing different from lies?

Ever the dutiful daughter, Yasmin takes up medicine despite her lack of interest. Arif has no such plans – he will make it big as a documentarian, on his own. When Yasmin meets fellow-doctor Joe, she is impressed by his “chaste” ways – he does not rush her into sleeping with him, sex is “normal” and regular, and he is patient and kind. After some months of courtship, the couple decides to tie the knot.

While Yasmin does wonder about the lack of passion, she pins it on her “frigid” ways. In an attempt to truly renounce her backward Indian ways and co-opt her mother-in-law’s radical feminist ways, Yasmin decides a court wedding will have to do and an Islamic nikah is out of question.

What does love have to do with marriage?

The first hundred pages of the book stew over the great dilemmas of wedding planning. Anyone who has ever participated in it knows exactly how high-stakes this can be. Yasmin and Joe seem unperturbed by the cultural shocks of wedding planning but the Ghoramis are new to it. To accommodate the other family and come off as true liberals, the Ghoramis and Sangsters are only too eager to incorporate all elements of the other’s culture. It’s a messy situation that brings to surface some ugly truths.

For all his insipidness, Joe has secrets of his own. Turns out growing up with an absent father and an overprotective mother is not ideal for a child – Joe is a sex addict. He owns up to cheating on Yasmin and his promiscuous lifestyle before they met. However, he’s incapable of admitting to his addiction.

Surprised and hurt, Yasmin decides to have an affair of her own – with a colleague twenty years older. It’s not so much a revenge as it is discovering her own desires, a rectification of her “frigid” ways. The lies and betrayal are hardly ideal but that’s the thing about life – it’s incredibly hard to be righteous.

She understood him now in a way that wasn’t possible before. She knew how it felt when you cheated. She knew it didn’t mean you were a bad person. She’d cheated and she wasn’t bad.

As trouble brews in Yasmin-Joe paradise, Anisah and Shaokat are not spared either. Distraught by his son’s waywardness and his wife’s reluctance to rein him in, Shaokat lashes out at Arif. Anisah leaves home and (in a reversal of roles) moves in with the Sangsters.

Obstinate in his ways, Shaokat does nothing to placate his wife and Anisah is finally free to explore her freedom – sexual, intellectual, and entrepreneurial. As Yasmin assumes charge of her disbanded family, she realises her parents’ marriage is not the radical “love marriage” she had thought it to be – uncovering the secrets of her parents will have far-reaching consequences in the Ghorami household.

An astute writer that she is, Ali juxtaposes the anxieties of domestic life with social tensions. She takes no prisoners while calling out the hijab hypocrisy in Europe, the inefficiency of the NHS, and even alluding to the Delhi riots of 2020. With a length of 500 pages, Ali has enough space to be ambitious. And she is.

Love Marriage takes on multiple issues at once. While an unassuming reader might have expected a comedy of errors at most, Ali piles them with narratives of addiction, racial injustice, abuse, and more. Most of it works in her favour, while some don’t. There is an earnestness in these narratives – they remind us that social and political tensions have a way of manifesting themselves in our personal lives, including marriages.

As Joe and Yasmin lay all of their cards on the table and navigate the rough waters of a Bengali-British marriage, Love Marriage asks us if marriages are indeed the result of love or products of urgency and convenience.

Love Marriage

Love Marriage, Monica Ali, Virago.