Thursday, November 7, 2013

Book Review: Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera

On the jacket:

If you’ve approached Bains Stores recently, you’d be forgiven for hesitating on doing so. A prominent window advert for a discontinued chocolate bar suggests the shop may have closed in 1994. The security shutters are stuck a quarter-open, adding to the general air of dilapidation. A push or kick of the door triggers something which is more grating car alarm than charming shop bell.

To Arjan Banga, returning to the Black Country after the unexpected death of his father, his family’s corner shop represents everything he has tried to leave behind – a lethargic pace of life, insular rituals and ways of thinking. But when his mother insists on keeping the shop open, he finds himself being dragged back, forced into big decisions about his imminent marriage back in London and uncovering the history of his broken family – the elopement and mixed-race marriage of his aunt Surinder, the betrayals and loyalties, loves and regrets that have played out in the shop over more than fifty years.

Taking inspiration from Arnold Bennett’s classic novel The Old Wives’ Tale, Marriage Material tells the story of three generations of a family through the prism of a Wolverhampton corner shop – itself a microcosm of the South Asian experience in the country: a symbol of independence and integration, but also of darker realities.

This is an epic tale of family, love, and politics, spanning the second half of the twentieth century, and the start of the twenty-first. Told with humour, tenderness and insight, it manages to be both a unique and urgent survey of modern Britain by one of Britain’s most promising young writers, and an ingenious reimagining of a classic work of fiction.


A lot of Sikhs had moved to England after the India-Pakistan partition, where most Muslims moved to Pakistan and the rest stayed back in India. Sikhs, who originally resided both in India and Pakistan, felt uprooted and many of them, moved to settle in England. The story is of Tanvir Banja, a lower cast guy, who moves to England, to get away from the unfairness associated with caste system. Ironically, he ends up working as a servant there too, as a store manager to Mr Bains. Later, he manages to marry Mr Bains' older daughter, thus freeing himself from the shackles of the lower class tag.

The way the book begins, is pretty confusing. It takes a while to adjust to the whos and whats, stay patient, I had almost put the book aside. The story travels back and forth through 40 years, between Mr Bains, Tanvir and now, Tanjvir's son Arjan. Also important in the story, is Mr Dhanda who was Mr Bhains' friend and both had set shop in the same street, agreeing that they will never become competition for each other. This is what triggers a clash between Arjan and Mr Dhanda & his son, when Arjan returns to his childhood home in Wolverhampton, after his father's sudden death. He has to let go of his London job and his engagement to a white girl, while he gets on to take care of his father's shop. 

What is special about this book, is how smoothly, Sanghera has spun the tale. It shows that the book is written by a journalist, though it's a work of fiction, it's authentic and precise. 

With an engaging plot, Marriage Material is a about a Sikh family settled in England, fighting the usuals like racism, arranged marriages, bossy families etc.

Rating: ****/5

[This review is for Random House India. The opinions are strictly my own and not been written under any obligation.]

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