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The Groom To Have Been

abstract:The Groom to Have Been, Saher Alam’s first novel has been lingering in my head ever since I opened its bright cover. In essence it is a story about finding love, but with a twist that makes the modern world meet a much more traditional ideal. It poses a lot of questions that are sometimes hard to debate or formulate a good argument for or against. How does traditional religion fit in with our everyday lives? Are we shifting in such a way that these ideals no longer transcend along with our modern culture? What is love and how do we decide to stay with the same person for the rest of our lives? This book intertwines the lives of several very different characters all held together by the bond of family, religion and wanting to do the right thing.

article:

January 30, 2009
The Groom to Have Been is Saher Alam’s first novel; she is a graduate of Princeton University where she studied Chemical Engineering and also Boston University where she studied Creative Writing. Born in Lucknow, India in 1973 she now lives in St. Louise, Missouri. When you read the author's history it is clear where the passionate writing of this book originates. Coming from the same place as the older generation characters she is sharing her own thoughts and culture with us as we follow the main protagonist through this intelligent and enthralling story of love, friendship, family and tradition.

Nasr is a successful business man living alone in New York City, living what almost seems a double life, split between the traditions of his Muslim parents, and the country and time he now lives in. What I find extraordinary about this book is how Alam paints a picture of the younger characters trying to entwine parts of the old and the new, finding some that work and others that don’t, for me this is an intriguing question about how we view religion flexing with time and how we learn to adapt and what happens when we don’t. Nasr gives over control to his Mother, after several years of badgering, and agrees to let her find him a wife. This then leads to a three year search process in which the reader feels very much like a fly on the wall as this intricate process opens up a very private world of tradition, with many rules on everything from procedure to dress. Alam has incredible attention to detail, sometimes as a reader not familiar with some of the terminology I found this hard to decipher, but more often than not the overall picture she creates with the rest of the writing gives you a good idea, that with a bit of imagination helps to paint an amazing picture.

“After two full weekends of shopping in converted dens, basements, and garages, fattening on pakoras that could not be declined and delicately negotiating empty-handed exits, the girls had discovered a pale-green Hyderabadi-style suit with gold mesh embroidery and sheer, short sleeves.”

Nasr finds himself on a journey that takes him, and often an entourage of his mother, sister and aunts, to different states and countries to find ‘the one’. Still in the back of his head there lingers the negative connotations associated with an arranged marriage,

"Everyone knew that arranged marriages were for desperate people; old-maidly, overeducated, semi-Westernized girls who weren’t pretty enough or meek enough to attract men on their own…"

His decision to agree to an arranged marriage doesn’t strike me as the need to belong to something, but rather the need not to belong to something else.

"He had begun to feel, after years of living on his own, in danger of becoming a cliché; the determinedly striving immigrant professional who’d been at his accounting job long enough that it was no longer something he set out to do every morning so much as something he was…"

Again this idea made me think how people may use religion and tradition to define themselves. In Nasr’s case he seems to be a character of two halves; one which enjoys the single life in New York with a high job that takes him all over the world, and in this life he doesn’t seem to adhere to any of the traditional Muslim rules. The other half sees him giving up complete control and submitting to traditions and rituals that don’t seem part of his ‘real’ life.

“Every so often Hamid Uncle and his wife, Talat Auntie, would come along on these visits – lending the occasion some Old World formality.”

The older generations seem to undergo a similar process of holding some traditions rigidly whilst letting others drift or become more flexible.

“It was only after all the guests had left that she discovered the little nest of plastic toys and smelly, half eaten sandwiches in the corner of the den, and learned that midway through the evening her granddaughters had persuaded their father to drive out for McDonalds Happy Meals.”

During Nasr’s search the world is thrown into turmoil after the September 11th attacks. Alam lets current political themes, old prejudices and fear, mingle with the preparations of the marriage and the story of finding love. Nasr seems to be searching for something perfect, and this is almost a reminder that however hard you try much of the future is out of our hands. You simply have to pick a course and your battles and then see what happens.

This already complex story takes a few additional turns as the character of Jameela comes more clearly into focus. A childhood friend Nasr has only ever found Jameela intriguing and challenging at best, but slowly we see this unfold into the realization that she may be one of the only people that Nasr can fully discuss and argue points of life with, they share a love of the arts and city living but seem to make this realization too late. As I re-read parts of the book it becomes much more apparent, Alam’s use of this character is so subtle she not only uses the characters speech as a tool but also describes her way of dress, gestures and facial expression to convey emotion.

“Jameela had a long narrow face and matching nose, and sharp cheekbones made more prominent by the amusement that constantly played across her thin lips. For an Indian, she had light eyes – almost hazel in color – that were often narrowed, darting from one spot to another with the formulation of an opinion.”

I am sure all of us can understand the concept of the un-walked path, the fork in the road where you make a decision and either live with it or regret it for most of your life. There does seem to be that similar turning point in this book, the characters find themselves heady on forbidden champagne at a party, alone in the park, and swaying on the dance floor but still neither of them are willing to break their engagements and tear apart tradition to see what would come of it. In the back of the book there is an interesting talking point about arranged marriage,

“In a love marriage, the desire to commit to someone for life comes after falling in love. In an arranged marriage, the opposite is true: with the commitment of marriage comes love.”

It then asks the reader if they think that Jameela and Nasr would be happier than the arranged couple, but who knows? I have always thought that people should be allowed to make up their own minds, but what if you are not in a religion that allows you to meet a lot of other people? What if you give that decision up, like Nasr? There are many horror stories about arranged marriages, but as with most things, it is human nature to focus on the worst. Are these questions as an outsider to the religion that I can and should be asking?

As I said at the beginning of this review, I am still pondering many questions that Alam has cleverly addressed in her first novel, a thought provoking and emotionally charged book.

Additional Links

A traditional Indian wedding ceremony has an elaborate exchange of vows and prayers.

 

 

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