Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera

published 2013








There were many astonishing things about these jaunts, not least how we looked: my mother, the shorter and stouter of the two ladies, dressed in a shapeless pastel salwar kameez, wearing chappals with thermal socks; my aunt, stately, in a Barbour jacket and fashion trainers completely unsuitable for cross-country trekking, almost always on her phone, her hair underneath a silk scarf; me, clutching a travel-sick spaniel wrapped like a sausage roll.

Then there was the unique way we tackled the walks. Mum… objected to the countryside on the grounds that ‘there is nowhere to sit down’. ..If she ever saw a corner shop, she would insist on popping in to have a look at the produce and compare the prices with those at home. Meanwhile, my aunt would combine a need to keep up a brisk pace with an insistence on sticking to clean footpaths, which in practice usually meant walking around the gardens of stately homes in circles, slightly ahead or behind me, taking a call or checking for a mobile phone signal…






observations: There’s nothing like being made to feel clever by a book – it makes the discerning reader much more inclined to like it. I started this one and was rather unsure for a while – it has a double structure which I still think doesn’t work well: a present-day story told in the 1st person, and a 3rd person story set in the past. The two tales – of a Sikh Indian family in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands - are obviously closely-connected, though it’s not clear who exactly is who at first. But it was a bit irritating, because who is telling the historical story? There’s a real POV problem with this book.

But then some way into Marriage Material, the plot of the 1960s/70s section started to seem familiar and I realized, with some incredulity, that it was taken from the Arnold Bennett book The Old Wives’ Tale – a huge favourite round here at Clothes in Books, and one that gave us a shed-load of entries in the early days. But not a book that most people have read: in fact I have never knowingly met anyone else who has read it, apart from the lovely Arnold Bennett Society, who keep the faith, and kindly re-Tweet me whenever I mention him. (I should stress that this is not plagiarism: Sathnam Sanghera writes about the Bennett inspiration at the end.)

So a huge point in favour of the book, and actually it is terrific fun: an engrossing family story, and the passage above is typical of Sanghera’s marvellous observation and character-drawing. And it is laugh out loud funny: one character, Ranjit speaks in an idiom that is horrendous and hilarious at the same time: ‘How’s it going any ways chitterface – when you coming for a glassie at Singhfellows? Innit’. And then the narrator goes to talk to Ranjit’s Dad: ‘His English was excellent, so much so that it made me realize that, as with human civilization at large, one generation of a family does not necessarily build on the achievements of another.’ There is an explanation of low dog ownership in his community – dogs are ‘relentlessly loyal and proffer extremes of emotion… given the neediness and emotional hysteria of the average Asian extended family, that’s the last thing we need.’

Apart from the entertainment value, I realized that I have read various versions of the female Indian or Pakistani view of life in Britain (eg books by Meera Syal) but nothing from the male view except Hanif Kureishi.

I thought the ending gave only an outline of how events panned out, I’d have liked more detail, but that’s a compliment to the author as I liked the characters so much by this time.

One thing I loved was that each chapter had the title of a magazine that might have been sold in the family newsagent business, chosen to reflect the events of the chapter. (One of them was Bunty, mentioned in yesterday’s entry.)

Another version of the marriage plot for young men came with Jeffrey Eugenides’ book of that name.

The top picture, from Wikimedia Commons, is called Shalwar Kameez colours. The second picture, also Wikimedia, shows a group of women in India in their shalwar kameez. The spelling varies as it is a transliteration: the outfit is widely worn in the sub-continent. Chappals are sandals.

8 comments:

  1. Moira - I can see why you'd get frustrated at the POV issue. I always like to know who's telling a given part of a story. It puts things into place for me. Still, what an interesting perspective, and it sounds like there's a solid thread of family history through the story too. And I do like a book with a sense of wit. Thanks for sharing this one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I found the details of the family's life fascinating, as well it being a great saga, and very funny - so am willing to forgive the POV problems...

      Delete
  2. Moira, great choice and review! You have read more fiction by Indians in India and Indians abroad than I have. There is a character called Ranjit in the hilarious British sitcom MIND YOUR LANGUAGE who is always at loggerheads with his Pakistani counterpart, Ali Nadim — naturally! I enjoy their diasporic conversations laced with Indian and Pakistani slangs and colloquialisms. Meera Syal is a very good writer although I have not read any of her books. Many Indian women wear the traditional salwar-Kameez or its close cousin, the churidar, at home, to work, and just about anywhere. It comes in various fabrics and colours.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the info Prashant - I just looked up churidar. That style is very attractive and seems to suit all ages and shapes, as well as being practical. I did enjoy all the cultural details in this book, and ideas about the immigrant experience. My own grandparents came to England from Ireland, and I am always interested in reading about that experience of moving and adapting.

      Delete
  3. Interesting but I think I'll pass this one up thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fair enough - you have a lot on your plate - or in your tubs....

      Delete
  4. It does sound interesting, but I will reserve judgement for now. Too many books to read right now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think this one would be particularly of interest to British readers Tracy, describing a part of our lives in great detail.

      Delete