Right from the off, novelist Sathnam Sanghera talks about how the profession of a shopkeeper somehow makes you anonymous rather then a person with an identity.
“There are few more stereotypical things you can do as an Asian man,few more profound ways of wiping out your character and individuality”
If you weren`t around in the 1970`s, you certainly felt that you were, with Sanghera`s vivid portrayal, with a story that`s interspersed with the period`s immigration politics of the time, courtesy of the eponymous Mr. Enoch Powell, and fully immerses you in the period of flares, funk, and undoubtedly some (although not all, it has to be said) sartorial faux pas.
Sanghera is a capable wordsmith with his novel serving as a clever handbook on the art of delivering well written pathos and serves you big dollops of the stuff loaded with a generous measuring of sentimentality and wry humour in the mix.
The novel centres on the the bitter-sweet story of life for two sisters Kamaljt and Surinder, who migrate from their homeland to live in Wolverhampton and provides a window on the Asian immigrant experience.
Limited in career choices, but not stunted in their ambitions, women were arguably defined by the kind of men they were expected to marry. Womens` rights to equality were still in its embryonic stages, not just on the political agenda but also were not part of the zeitgeist either, and much more so presumably if you were a young Asian woman in 1970`s Britain. For Asian women, seemingly, education was not seen as a passport to a better life but instead seen as something of an inconvenience.
Sanghera delivers a wonderful insight into Asian family life, albeit a dysfunctional one. In the novel he describes the moment when the well meaning School Head Teacher Ms Flanagan, in a desperate bid to get Surinder to stay on at school, writes to Ms. Bains to meet with her. There is a wonderful moment when there is a comedic call and response. As Ms.Flanagan reels off Surinder`s qualities, Kamaljit feels duty-bound to translate it into more palatable Asian-freindly versions, to make sure Ms. Bains is won over. Ms. Flanagan talks about Surinder being an accomplished student translated into she is good at school. She has great potential translated into “She`s particularly good at cookery”. She is the most diligent girl I have known translated into “she is good at maths.”
We get slices of Arjan`s own life in the modern metropolis, that is London, and his relationship with his English girlfreind Freya . She tries to understand his cultural ties and in someways forces him to challenge them, particularly when it comes to deciding how best to manage his mother`s future by considering the prospect of putting her in a home for the elderly.
The story is allegorical in prompting Asian readers to evaluate just how British are we?. Undoubtedly there are some cultural ties, that are clearly non-negotiable, and some we just naturally off-load, but its an uneasy alliance between being true to our Asian roots and being a British Asian.
In his desperation for the perfect nuclear family unit no doubt, Arjan goes on a quest to track down his estranged aunt Kamaljit, eventually discovering her by chance working as a successful hotel manager. For what should have been a showboat moment in the book, ended being a damp-squib of a piece.During the telling moment when Freya and Arjan discover they finally tracked down Kamaljit, Freya asks Arjan so “what do you make her then ? to which Arjan replies “cold… She seems cold” Frankly with no sense of anticipation, and no journey to follow to that climactic moment, the reader was left cold as well.
Sure we get whispers of Kamaljit`s past life with her husband, the cold, angular, harshness of life living with a man too intoxicated to be a good husband and having to battle his own demons no doubt, insecurity being one them.There is a wonderful contradiction as well with Kamaljit being tough and resourceful and secretly squirrelling away her cash,her instinct for survival ever present, coupled with moments of vulnerability, when she hankers for her traditional home-cooking, the burning embers of her own past. Yet we see how her cultural past is somehow off-loaded as excess baggage when she gets married. When being Asian was about being punctillious,she had now firmly shut the door and become persona non grata as far as her family was concerned. When they are eventually reunited, there is no attempt to unravel the past, to heal old wounds or properly bridge the seemingly impossible chasm between them. It seemed that Sanghera had somehow airbrushed all these points right out of the book and I think the novel is poorer for it.
Without even daring to sound the alarm for a spoiler alert, (I wouldn`t dare), the final part of the book shows an elaborate man-dance of fisticuffs and general testosterone fueled action between Arjan and his long-time freind Ranjit. If this was a film ending, then you would probably be witnessing a Bollywood film scene with some truly ham acting, that would see even the great De Niro wince in pain. It is a moment of orchestrated theatrical fighting, seemingly under-scored by a rousing Bollywood soundtrack. One cannot help thinking, Sanghera was indulging in some jolly japes with any thirty something Brit-Asian readers, who may have been force-fed 70`s Bollywood fodder, during their childhood.
In the novel, he delivers a gentlemen`s guide on where one should take women, when about to deliver the trite its not you but me speech and particularly highlights Pizza Express as a perfect venue down to its quick service and hence express getaway from the crime scene (not quite the product placement they had in mind no doubt)
“Though Pizza Express has advantages beside economy. Quick attentive service, useful when the shit hits the fan”
Overall Sanghera`s novel is a sentimental read without ever being mawkish. He has fearlessly grabbed the gauntlet of taking the well trodden Asian immigrant experience narrative and produced a hold up to the light- honest and entertaining read, that gaurantees to have you guffawing out aloud.
Marriage Material is published by Windmill Books .