Even before his novel starts, the author makes a confession. Mrs Ali's Road to Happiness, he says, is dedicated "to London where my head lives, and Vizag where my heart abides". Thus explains Farahad Zama's personal tussle between Britain – where he works as an IT director in an investment bank – and India's sleepy town of Vizag; his birthplace and, clearly, the space he mentally inhabits at every other waking hour.
Zama wrote most of his debut novel, 2008's The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, during his commute to work and at weekends while his wife watched television. It was enough to win him the Melissa Nathan award for Comedy Romance. His latest novel returns to the same setting of Vizag, a few years later. It charts the personal struggles of Mr and Mrs Ali, who are now running the marriage bureau in the face of increasingly difficult circumstances.
Mrs Ali is the ultimate Asian matriarch, wanting nothing more than for her family to remain content and united. But as a Muslim in an increasingly fractious Hindu town, she finds that forces are slipping out of her control. The home and business are under threat from a local government road widening scheme, while her niece's adoption of a destitute Hindu boy is causing widespread distress, infuriating Muslim communities and spurring Hindu activists to try to banish the family altogether. It forces obvious observations: "Was there such a shortage of unloved children roaming the streets in India, scavenging for scraps from dustbins and rubbish heaps that these people could get so worked up about a boy who was cherished and cared for in a loving environment?"
Modern Indian writers including Aravind Adiga and Vikas Swarup use cosmopolitan hubs such as Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi as backdrops for their stories. It lends their novels urgency while allowing them to explore the human consequences of India's rapid modernisation and shifting social structures. In opting for Vizag – an unassuming, indeed somewhat forgotten steel town in eastern India – Zama has deprived himself of such luxuries. What remains is a charming tale of ordinary folk battling with everyday issues that local people have contended with for centuries: family disputes; friction between religious communities; government policy implemented purely for the purposes of winning elections. Clearly deeply personal, the novel has a flair and comic confidence, but doesn't really hit its stride until the second half.