As soon as a girl reaches her mid-20s in South Asian communities, everyone begins worrying about her marriage. Nosy neighbours, relatives, friends, even strangers at a party — they all want to know why the girl is still unmarried. But is wanting to choose her life partner on her own terms an acceptable reason for the delay?
Set in California, Zara Raheem’s debut novel The Marriage Clock is a tale of love, family, friends and marriage. Leila Abid is a 26-year-old, American Muslim woman of Indian heritage who teaches English at a high school. She lives with her parents and, although Leila is satisfied with her life, her parents are concerned because she has crossed the ‘marriageable’ age. Leila’s parents want her to settle down as they think marriage is the only way to attain happiness in life.
However, Leila has a different outlook regarding marriage. Having grown up watching Bollywood films where the hero and heroine meet, fall in love and live happily ever after, she is convinced that real love occurs before marriage and not after. Inspired by film heroes, Leila formulates a list of 46 items for her Mr Right which includes good looks, chivalry, gentlemanliness, muscularity, charm and a sense of humour. But when Leila is pressured by her parents who have begun looking for doctors, surgeons and businessmen, she feels her lifelong dream of finding a Bollywood-type ‘real’ love is slipping out of her hands. It is then that she strikes a deal with her parents: if she hasn’t found her future life partner in three months, they can find one for her.
Raheem’s writing is engaging and she knows her way with words. There is fun, tongue-in-cheek humour and satire that keeps readers hooked. The Marriage Clock is a fast-paced story with lots of laugh-out-loud moments, especially when the protagonist goes on dates with men who can only be described as weird. There’s the doctor who is more interested in Leila’s family’s medical history; the financial analyst who never looks away from his mobile phone; the recently divorced fellow who is only looking to rebound, and the poor chap suffering from an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. One of the most interesting dates is with Omar, who seems like a hero come straight out of a cinema screen. Strangely, though, when Leila does meet her perfect Bollywood hero, it is a total disaster.
A debut novel set amongst a desi immigrant family in the US tackles the thorny issue of the search for the perfect marriage partner
The story is riveting and all the desi elements in particular, such as culture, language, parental expectations, nosy relatives and Bollywood references, are enjoyable bits to read. Moreover, Raheem is very good at drawing her cast of characters. One of them is Mrs Abid, Leila’s mother; she can be unreasonable at times and it is likely possible that, because of the wide generation gap, Leila’s mother cannot understand her daughter’s feelings. But it is evident that Mrs Abid is more or less like all South Asian mothers who think that they are doing the best for their children. There are times when Mrs Abid reminds one of Mrs Bennet — Elizabeth’s mother in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice — because even though the two characters are from resoundingly different eras, readers can still draw parallels. Both women share the same problem: the marriages of their daughters.
Leila, meanwhile, is quite a relatable character; she is like every other girl who has grown up watching romantic films, but there are times when she comes across as fairly judgemental and, to a certain extent, childish, especially for the unrealistic list she has made for finding Mr Perfect. She wants a person who is non-traditional, yet when one of her dates asks to split the cheque, she loathes him. She is also indecisive and confused; she cannot make her own decisions and most of the time follows her friends’ advice.
Raheem portrays a solid foundation of female friendship in her story. Hannah, Liv and Annie (non-desi) and Tania (desi) are Leila’s best friends and, in true sisterhood mode, they help Leila make her life decisions as best as they can. Another strong bond that Leila develops is with her cousin Meena. Raheem uses this relationship to deftly explain how parents’ comparisons among cousins — very much a common South Asian trait — can lead to creating feelings of envy and hatred among people who would otherwise get along just fine. After years of harbouring antagonism, it is only when Leila travels to India for Meena’s wedding that she discovers a lovely friend in her cousin and all bitter feelings vanish.
The lighthearted manner in which Raheem targets many other South Asian stereotypes throughout her story is commendable. There is the age-old issue of the power wielded by a light complexion in matters of marriage. As Leila points out, “A fair-skinned bride has more marriage value than a dusky complexioned bride.” There is discussion of the sexist and chauvinistic attitudes of traditional men who think they have extra privileges over women, such as in the case of Asad; in one meeting with Leila, he says he is very open-minded, but his statements — “I will permit my wife to dress as she likes,” or “I will allow her to work and meet her friends,” — reveal his chauvinism. Men such as Asad are ignorant to the fact that words such as ‘permissible’ and ‘allowance’ do not support the idea of equal partnership in a marriage.
Another stereotype tackled is that of the divorced woman. In a South Asian community, she is considered a black spot on a family’s respectability and Raheem’s portrayal of Tania aptly shows the struggles of a sensible, independent, educated, beautiful, hijab-wearing woman who is rejected by her partner’s mother for the sole reason that she is divorced.
Another important aspect of South Asian marriages is the matchmaker. Raheem describes the tedious task of filling out an information form in the search for a prospective groom. It is no less taxing than an exam paper; so many questions must be answered and, if the answers do not meet the matchmaker’s criteria, the applicant is considered unsuitable for marriage. Raheem also incorporates details about modern dating systems such as online dating, speed dating and family dine-out meetings.
As for the main romance, the author brews a beautiful love story. There is innocence and purity, as well as heartbreaks. Raheem subtly implies that not every knight is your hero; sometimes what you see is not real, it may be a betrayal of your eyes.
Given the generation gap between children and parents, Raheem expounds in detail about love and arranged marriages and differing viewpoints on companionship. Leila believes in equality and the sharing of responsibilities between life partners whereas, in her parents’ opinion, the wife’s sole responsibility is to cook and clean and the husband’s is to earn a livelihood. Other than that, what more does one need? After all, didn’t Leila’s father choose her mother after just looking at a photo? But Leila wants to know more about her partner than glancing at a photo will tell her. Besides, what worked for one doesn’t always work for another. Leila’s parents had an arranged marriage and it lasted. Tania’s arranged marriage led to divorce. Every marriage is a risky undertaking and, in Raheem’s opinion, one can never know a person unless one spends time with them, because every day you discover new aspects of each other’s personality.
Which is also what the novel itself does, in that it shows the personal growth of the protagonist and her journey to self-love and self-acceptance. She begins by challenging cultural stereotypes about marriage and, despite starting off on her quest with the idealistic goal of finding ‘the one’, she realises by the end — after a few hiccups and heartbreaks — that this is not what she wants.
The reviewer is a student of English literature, a freelance writer, an avid reader and a blogger
The Marriage Clock
By Zara Raheem
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 1st, 2019