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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Marriage Material’ by Sathnam Sanghera

Award-winning journalist and author Sathnam Sanghera returns to his birthplace of Wolverhampton, but this time in a more fictional vein.

His first book, ‘The Boy With the Topknot’, was quite literally a memoir of all the secrets and lies his British Sikh family grappled with during his formative years. In contrast, his first novel is a far more unbridled ride through the town he grew up in, bringing a palpable sense of personal catharsis to the account.

‘Marriage Material’ is replete with a poignancy that makes you wonder how real some of the fictional characters may have been – undoubtedly an amalgamation of quirky Wulfrunians the author came in close contact with over the years.

The result is an extremely evocative account that takes you through Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech that set the anti-immigrant tone of 1960s Britain right up to the 2011 riots. The underlying message is stark: times may change but class struggles just take on different hues.

Sanghera acknowledges the debt to Arnold Bennett’s early 1900s iconic novel, ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’, based around the lives of two sisters who worked in their mother’s drapery shop to set the scene in an Indian-owned corner-shop.

Our protagonist is Arjan Banga, someone many of us immigrants can instantly identify with – believes in the perceived fairness and meritocracy that a country like Britain offers and eschews all notions of right-wing extremism, whether it comes from the “goras” or the “desis”.

The Londoner is all set to marry his English girlfriend when his father’s untimely death drags him back to the city and corner-shop he had distanced himself from long ago.

Gradually, we see Arjan sucked in deeper and deeper into the local politics of Wolverhampton, which is struggling to come to terms with its once glorious manufacturing past.

His concern for his elderly mother’s safety in an area where white teenagers walk in to her store simply to spout racist nonsense, is a heart-warming reminder of how none of us can ever really run away from our past. And this sets Arjan off to trace the whereabouts of a long-forgotten massi (aunt) who he feels would have the right sibling influence to convince his mother to sell up shop and retire to a more easy life.

Sanghera’s expertise lies in flitting chapter by chapter between the past and present – the story of Arjan’s mother and sister growing up in a hostile alien land intertwines seamlessly with modern day Britain.

If there are hidden pronouncements on the caste system and prejudice within communities that far out-weigh attacks from an outsider, they are made with subtlety.

He strikes a perfect balance between the “eye-rolling clichés of a man arriving in Britain with just £5 in his pocket” and attacks like “smelly Paki” being all in a day’s work for a corner-shop owner with roots somewhere in South Asia.

A must for anyone on the lookout for a breezy and smooth read that has a strong point to make about race relations but never tries to ram it down your throat. At heart, ‘Marriage Material’ remains a very human, touching story told by a deft fellow journalist with immense talent and versatility.

– Aditi Khanna

Marriage Material’ is published by Random House

Aditi Khanna is the Editor of India Incorporated (www.indiaincorporated.com) and a London Correspondent for the Press Trust of India.

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