Book Review: Marriage Material
I wanted to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands. Not only because it made it to the Booker long list even before it was published, but also because she has a beautiful, evocative writing style. A friend who read the book slammed it, though, saying it was nothing new, just the same set pieces of Bengali characters living abroad who were unable to cut the umbilical chord to Calcutta. On the same day, I read an article on Firstpost comparing Lahiri’s book to Sathnam Sanghera‘s Marriage Material, and I thought it sounded interesting. I didn’t give it too much thought until I saw that it was one of the titles up for review, and even then, it wasn’t my first choice. But as luck would have it, my first choice was unavailable, and I got handed the leftovers.
I read that back cover and resigned myself to the fate of every book reviewer – along with the amazing books that come our way, we also sometimes find ourselves holding the short end of the stick. Convinced as I was of being stuck with a dud book, I found myself giggling almost instantly.
“YOU LEARN TO expect certain questions in this business. Like ‘Are you on the phone?’ And ‘Do you have any bags?’ And ‘Where are the eggs?’ And ‘Why are you always on the phone?’ And ‘Could I have a bag for the eggs when you’re off the phone?’ But there is one query that comes up more often than any other: ‘Are you open?’ A pet irritation for many shop owners, given that they probably wouldn’t choose to wake up at 4 a.m. seven days a week to stand in front of a fag stand unless they were actually trading.”
That’s witty! I thought to myself. Perhaps I’d been too hasty to dismiss the book before I even gave it the semblance of a chance. And so I settled in to read the book, which spans three generations of the Bains family. The story is told by Arjan Banga, a third-generation Indian-Brit who has left his father’s small shop in Wolverhampton behind to strike out in the field of graphic design in the teeming cultural melting pot of London. He’s all set to marry his white girlfriend Freya and settle into the normalcy of a Sunday-supplement London lifestyle. But the sudden death of his father and his mother’s refusal to shut shop forces Arjan to return to Wolverhampton and really examine what it is that he has left behind.
Jumping between the past and the present, between the era of Enoch Powell and the Wolverhampton Transport Department turban wars of 1968 and the riots of August 2011, Sanghera paints a portrait of a fast-changing Britain that still hasn’t changed much when it comes to racial stereotyping.
Arjan himself is stuck with cultural baggage: the only son of a typical Punjabi family who thinks he is firmly entrenched and accepted in the UK. But he’s forced to question his views when he watches local children “running into the shop just to shout ‘Paki’ at my mum before running out again” and looks despairingly at his girlfriend Freya, who reads books to try and understand Sikh culture “how can you learn about the culture from books?” And when he finds himself defending his shop during the 2011 riots, he’s shocked to hear himself scream out “bhenchod gora”.
Juxtaposed with this is Sanghera’s spin on Arnold Bennett’s classic novel The Old Wives’ Tale – the story of the Baines sisters Kamaljit and Surinder, who help their mother, the senior Mrs Baines at the shop. But Kamaljit, the seemingly docile daughter, ends up marrying a chamar, while Surinder, who wants to break away from the shackles imposed on her as a Punjabi girl growing up in England in the 1970s, runs away with a traveling salesman.
In Sanghera’s skilled hands, Marriage Material presents a detailed portrait of immigration and integration during the 1960s and 1970s. He also tackles the issue of the immigrant identity and cross-cultural relationships with wit, humor and charm. There’s a very distinct Punjabi flavor to the novel, a certain large-heartedness and “koi gal nahin” vibe that permeates the story.
In a landscape of moaning immigrants courtesy Ms Lahiri, Sanghera’s novel is a breath of fresh air. Highly recommended!
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