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Authors: Lesley Jorgensen

A Matter of Marriage


A Matter of Marriage

(Previously published as
Cat & Fiddle

“A big-hearted, clamorous comedy of East-meets-West . . . This jet-fueled melodrama crashes from one unprecedented crisis to the next, taking in desperate family secrets, betrayals, misunderstandings, walled-up mysteries, and delicious coincidence.”

—The Sydney Herald

“Occasionally you love a book so much that it's difficult to close the door on its world. [
A Matter of Marriage
]—with its warm, evocative, and hysterically funny story—is such a book. A whiff of
Pride and Prejudice
is brilliantly mixed in with colorful layers of Indian culture.”

—Good Reading Magazine

“This is a big, fat, satisfying read, which will appeal to fans of books featuring intricate plots, family webs, rollicking love stories, multiculturalism (particularly with a subcontinental theme), and clashes between tradition and modernity, religion and culture. I adored this sprawling, funny novel. This is highly recommended late-summer reading.”

Bookseller & Publisher
(starred review)

“Lesley Jørgensen explores [her characters'] lives with exquisite sensitivity and delicious irony . . . [Her] benevolent storytelling . . . has a whimsical surface on which the most commonplace happenings are greeted with something like wonder . . . A remarkable accomplishment.”

—The Saturday Age

“Jørgensen steps so adroitly in and out of the heads of these wonderful characters that it's as if she's at your shoulder, the perfect traveling companion on the novel's journey: chatty, warm, compassionate, and funny. An exuberant debut, bubbling with energy and insight.”

—Cate Kennedy, author of
Like a House on Fire


Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

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USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

A Penguin Random House Company


Copyright © 2013 by Lesley Jørgensen

“Readers Guide” copyright 2014 by Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

BERKLEY® is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

The “B” design is a trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-14748-5

An application to register this book for cataloging has been submitted to the Library of Congress.


Originally published by Scribe Publications Pty Ltd as
Cat & Fiddle
/ 2013

Berkley trade paperback edition / December 2014

Cover design by Danielle Abbiate.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.


To my parents, Margaret and Allan Jørgensen, for the moral and practical support without which this book would still be an unfinished manuscript. With love and thanks.


Praise for
A Matter of Marriage

Title Page



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

Chapter Thirty-four

Chapter Thirty-five

Chapter Thirty-six

Chapter Thirty-seven

Chapter Thirty-eight

Chapter Thirty-nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-one


Readers Guide


good wife and loving mother end up with not one but three unmarriageable children? Mrs. Begum rocked back on her heels on the sitting-room floor, in the middle of a patch of late-afternoon sunshine and with the comfortable sound of Dr. Choudhury's newspaper behind her, and chewed contemplatively on the wad of paan tucked into her cheek. She patted the photos spread out on the carpet. How handsome-clever they were. At least she could say that, for all the pain they had given her mother's heart. They could not have grown so beautiful for nothing.

She picked up a photo of Tariq, in his robes on graduation day, and sighed with pleasure. Like a young Shah Rukh Khan he was, so proud and handsome, despite that dirty beard. Tall and light-skinned like his father, but her own face, not his father's,
. And book-clever like Dr. Choudhury but without being a fool in the world.

Except for that fundamental business. Dressing like a village elder and talking that way too. “No smoking,” he had said to his father. “It's a drug, against the Qur'an, as bad as alcohol.” His own father.

“How about honor your father and mother then, boy?” Dr. Choudhury had said. Not that the boy knew the first thing about that, going off to South Africa almost two years ago now. Not a visit for all of that time. What had they come to UK for, if not for him, and then he leaves them to go somewhere else. No wonder she had a hole in her heart.

Ten months you carry them in your womb, then they turn around and stab you in your heart. A mother's lot, yes, she understood that, but why did he have to abandon them? What did it say about the love in their family, that it could not hold him close, stop him from flying away from them all as if they had died?

Mrs. Begum sat back on her haunches and sucked noisily on the paan, feeling the betel nut's relaxing buzz start to run through her blood. Yes, she knew all about pain, from her own children. She stroked the line of light in the photo that followed Tariq's perfect, straight nose, just like her own. What a lucky boy, not to have his father's nose. Or sticky-out ears like Prince Charles. The Queen had done the best she could for Charles, the first time. Just a pity she had not managed Diana a bit more. Of course a motherless girl neglected by her husband was going to go off the railways—she could have told the Queen that. Warned her.

She looked up, toward the sitting-room window where, even from the floor, Bourne Abbey could be seen, balancing its bulk on the hilltop opposite. As big as Masjid al-Haram that one, and twice as much trouble, taking them away from their little house in Oxford and the Bangla community there. Though, given the curse that this family was under, probably a good thing that there was no community here.

Mrs. Begum turned to the other photo of Tariq and gave a heavy sigh. This was one of Mrs. Guri's nephew Hakeem's artistic efforts, with Tariq a few years younger, clean-shaven and much less stern, wearing his best deep-blue
with the silver embroidery and looking dreamily past the photographer. That was his first year away at Oxford, before he became so angry about Dr. Choudhury's occasional pipe and Rohimun's blue-jeans.

Mrs. Begum, still squatting on the carpet, put Tariq aside and turned to the pile of eligible matches in front of her, each with its studio photo attached. Everyone now gave out these fancy ceevees, just like Hakeem had said: age, height, favorite Bollywood heroes. And the boys too: favorite sports, good jobs, what car they drove. Inky, ponky, poo . . . how does one choose? All nice girls and boys, all looking the same.

Soon Tariq would be back at last from those godless South Africans. What better time, when he would be feeling the first full rush of family love, to talk quietly one night of future plans, just mother and son. To say, how nice-nice it would be to see him happy and settled, now that she was beginning to feel her age. And then she would get up to make chai, leaving the photos and ceevees of all these pretty girls on the table. What man could resist a peek? Planting the seed, that was the important thing.

And Shunduri, her baby, look how stylish she had become, what a modern girl with her good bank job and studying still at the polytechnic. Surely she would be finished soon. And then a good boy for her, someone to keep her busy with lots of babies and a nice house. Not too near: it must be visits for a week or a month, not this next-door-just-a-cup-of-tea business.

Mrs. Begum picked up Shunduri's photos, a whole bundle: each time a different sari, different jewelry. No smiles, chin as high as the sky, eyes half closed, breasts thrust forward. What had Hakeem been thinking of? Only one or two of them were suitable for a marriage ceevee. It was all her father's fault. Calling her Shunduri, Beauty, was asking for trouble, and Dr. Choudhury should have known better.

Mrs. Begum selected the photo of Shunduri that most closely approximated maidenly modesty and thrust it up and behind her. It smacked into Dr. Choudhury's wall of newspaper, and she felt his knees jump.

“What a beautiful daughter, nah?” Dr. Choudhury hurrumphed, and Mrs. Begum felt the photo pushed back into her hand. She thrust it up again. “
, nah?”

An irritated cough. “Yes, yes.”

She could hear the newspaper being put aside now, so she swiftly retracted Shunduri's photo and picked up one of Tariq's. “What a handsome boy. A

Silence. An annoyed-but-listening silence.

She held up one of the prospective brides' photos next to the photo of Tariq. “Mrs. Guri, you know, Hakeem's auntie just here yesterday, said this girl very homely, does not go out. A good family.”

“Why are they wanting to send their daughter to South Africa then?”

She huffed sharply and turned to face her husband. “Tariq is coming home any day now. Any day.”

“Any day, any day for months now.”

“He called, two-days-ago-now. He said soon.”

Dr. Choudhury leaned toward her and tapped Shunduri's photo with one long finger. “And what is the community going to think of this number-one silly girl? Maybe she thinks if she looks like a Bollywood actress she will get a hero in Mumbai.” He snorted at his own humor and sat back, reaching for the newspaper.

Mrs. Begum's quick retort—“How could you say this of your own daughter?”—was lost as her paan was swallowed prematurely. By the time she had finished hawking, Dr. Choudhury's newspaper was held firmly in place, in a manner designed to resist further photographic incursions.

Well then. She turned her back on him once more and pulled out a manila envelope from underneath the other photos. She gently slid its contents partway into her palm, trying to ignore the burning lump that the paan was becoming, just below her breastbone. More eight-by-ten glossies, these of a pretty young woman, short and slight, with long rippling dark hair, but no Bollywood poses here.

Her Rohimun, Munni, her first daughter, Tariq's favorite sister, the other knife in her mother's heart. Half smiling, half frowning, her
crooked and her fingers hooked into her bracelets as if she was trying to pull them off. As she probably had been. Mrs. Begum blinked tears and pressed her lips together. Look at Munni's nails: broken and dirty as if she'd been planting rice in the paddies, not studying at that expensive royal college. Fine arts indeed. More like dirty arts: stinky oil paints that ruined good clothes, got in her hair and made her smell like Mrs. Darby's port-and-stilton.

And what did that oh-so-so-big Royal College of Arts scholarship get Rohimun in the end? Her face in the papers like some pub-girl, laughing with men. Ruined for marriage, lost to her family, a blight on Shunduri's prospects and maybe even Tariq's. The pain in Mrs. Begum's diaphragm climbed higher, and she burped quietly. She must put less lime powder in her paan.

There was a faint rustle behind her, and she sat perfectly still with Rohimun's photos fanned out in her hand. The little room with its briar rose wallpaper, Taj Mahal clock and peacock fan fell silent. Nothing was said, but she knew that he had seen, and that nothing would be said.

After a short while, Mrs. Begum slid Rohimun's photos back into their envelope and wiped her face with a corner of her sari. She bundled up Tariq, Shunduri and all the eligibles' ceevees and stood up briskly. No more spilt milk, as Mrs. Darby would say. Time to make a curry of what remains. She would talk again to Dr. Choudhury.

When the ceevees were back on her recipe shelf nice-and-tidy, Mrs. Begum loaded up the pandan tray, her pride and joy, real silver, so heavy, nah? With its eight (eight! No one had as many!) matching silver bowls, brimming with their separate loads of fresh betel leaves, cumin seeds, aromatic cloves, dried tobacco leaves, pink perfumed sugar balls, acrid lime powder with its own lid and silver spoon, finely chopped betel nuts and, last but not least, the whole betel nuts, with the deadly little betel knife lying alongside.

With arms at full stretch, she hauled it from kitchen to sitting room, laid it on the tiny, twisty-legged occasional table next to her husband's chair, and only then saw the photos of Rohimun on the floor, tipped out of their envelope. Dr. Choudhury was turned away from them, his shoulders drawn up and his fingers plucking at trouser corduroy as he stared unblinking at the wallpaper. Mrs. Begum thought suddenly of her uncle the tailor who had been so thin when he died, and drew close to her husband's chair.

“I have made
hidol satni
.” His favorite. “And dahl.”

He was silent, and she drew closer. She could see the top of his head: the white hair that ran straight back from his forehead was overlain by a few longer strands that crossed from left to right, and some of these had been displaced, exposing small squares and rectangles of scalp. Mrs. Begum's right hand crept out and started to order them and then her left hand came as well, to smooth down. Dr. Choudhury did not appear to notice, but after a while he withdrew his gaze from the wall and picked up the latest
sari catalogue. His shoulders relaxed, his head tilted back to rest against a chair wing and he looked up from the pages.

Her hands moved to adjust her bracelets. “I will make you a hot salad too.”

The phone shrilled, and Mrs. Begum was in the hall before her husband had even managed to uncross his legs. At the telephone table, she stopped, took a breath and re-tucked the front pleats of her sari. It might be the Women's Institute. But then Dr. Choudhury arrived in the hall, and she snatched up the handpiece. This call was not going to be answered like some fresh-out-of-the-village type, waiting for the caller to speak.

“Windsorr Cott-hage.” She paused. Mrs. Darby didn't know everything. “

, Amma. Amma, I'm so tired like you wouldn't believe. And the weather in London's bin so stinking hot, yaah?”

“Aah, Baby!”

“Amma, what's happenin' wiv Affa, big sister? Have you heard from her? She was in the papers again! She was at some
, yaah . . .”

“What are you eating? When are you coming to visit your father?”

“Nah, Amma, the
. Have you seen dem?”

“Papers-papers. What does your mother want with papers, when no one visits us as they should? We are getting old on our own while you are a Londoni modern girl.”

“Amma, I'm busy here like you wouldn't believe: the bank, yaah . . .”

Mrs. Begum saw her husband reaching out to take the receiver and sidestepped to the right, still holding the phone. He followed, but in doing so was left square in front of the hall mirror and seemed to become distracted. She thought quickly, her desire to see her youngest child at war with her need to protect Rohimun from Shunduri's loose tongue. Surely she could manage both.

“Aah, Baby, so much has been happening here. Too much is happening to this family . . .”

“What? Amma, what's happenin'? Amma!”

“Your father is a wreck . . . What will the community be saying . . .” Mrs. Begum ended her disjointed hints with a convincing sniff and passed the receiver to her husband. Shunduri would not be able to resist coming down now, her mouth wide open like a little bird, for family drama, tears and shoutings, especially if it was Rohimun who was in trouble.

Dr. Choudhury grasped the phone and spoke absently to the mirror. “Aah . . . Baby . . . yes . . .” He slid his thumb between tie and shirtfront and slowly stroked his fingers down the length of the tie. “How are your studies?”

Mrs. Begum watched him closely, fairly certain that he would say nothing that would make Shunduri stay put in London. She hurried off to the kitchen, his voice echoing behind her.

“No, your mother may have. I only take
The Times . . .


comments, the ones that Mrs. Begum hadn't repeated to her husband, came back to her now. They had been made without preliminaries as Mrs. Guri sat in Mrs. Begum's kitchen yesterday, with as much eyelid-drooping and table-pointing as if she had been asked for her matchmaking advice.

“Oh, Mrs. Begum, your daughter Shunduri, she is so
, nah, I wonder she has time for her studies.”

Mrs. Begum had smiled and wrapped another paan leaf, with consternation in her heart. “Yes, yes, a very busy girl, a good girl, the bank . . .” Mrs. Guri had leaned forward, close enough for Mrs. Begum to smell the thick smear of Vicks under her nose. “Oh, Mrs. Begum, I
she is a good girl. A
girl. But . . .”

Trouble follows beauty
. Mrs. Begum finished the saying in her head, smiled and thought how Vicks would be of no help to Mrs. Guri if she was kicked in her fat face. What had she seen or heard to be giving such a warning?

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