Sathnam Sanghera’s first work of fiction has been so well received, he’s expecting something bad to happen (very Indian)…
IF WE HAD a book of the month – Sathnam Sanghera’s ‘Marriage Material’ would be it.
But sadly we don’t (as of yet) and well, some of you informed, booky types may counter with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Booker-shortlisted, ‘The Lowlands’, which was also released last month (September) and to great acclaim.
Yes, but she’s American and she’s come and gone and no, we couldn’t get hold of her, despite trying…and anyway, Sanghera’s ‘Marriage Material’ – his second book after the award-winning memoir, ‘The Boy with Top Knot’ (2009) – could be our book of the year, trumping even Lahiri’s.
We are not British for nothing. We must support our own (somewhat tongue-in-cheek).
So, it is somewhat ironic that when we catch up with Sanghera, a journalist with ‘The Times’, to talk about ‘Marriage Material’, he sings Lahiri’s praises like a god-tripping minister who has just stepped down from a pulpit.
“She’s my favourite writer,” Sanghera qualified to www.asianculturevulture.com, after being gently pressed about this judgement: “I would say she is the greatest writer alive. She is an Indian American writing about the same things as me I guess, writing about immigration, guilt, families.”
Well, yes, but we doubt she’s quite as funny, charming or as easy-going as Sanghera. No bias – because of whom we get to interview.
More seriously, Sanghera is closer to home and writing about so many things that affect us, (as a community) directly and obviously, with wit and perception, we would probably add ‘Marriage Material’ to his own selection of the ‘five great British-Asian novels’ which he wrote about recently for ‘The Telegraph’.
The books in Sanghera’s list – and in his own order – are ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ (1990, Hanif Kureishi), ‘The Impressionist’ (2002, Hari Kunzru), Anita and Me (1996, Meera Syal) Gifted (2007, Nikita Lalwani) and the much-misunderstood and unfairly maligned (our words but his sentiment too), ‘Londonstani’ (2006, Gautam Malkani).
Like him, we’re not enamoured with the label ‘British- Asian’ writer/novel; British-Asian themes, yes. We don’t like putting writers or novels into boxes and leaving them there.
‘Marriage Material’ covers familiar territory and to anyone – and really any old bod – the term, British Asian crudely (still) seems to signify, arranged marriages, extended and dysfunctional families, funny food and odd religious practices (to others).
Some of us flinch when those stereotypes surface and linger – and Sanghera recognises that reflex only too well.
“I get that quite a lot generally about ‘Asian fiction’, there are broad themes, but you can say that about all books.
“Books ultimately are about the same sort of things, you look at Jane Austen, she wrote the same book again and again,” Sanghera argued. “Guilt is a universal theme – even the great American novels, they’re all pretty much the same thematically.
“People always ask that question (about stereotypes) at literary festivals and I get slightly irritated. It’s about the quality of the writing.”
Indeed. Who cares if it’s the same old, same old subject, but told with fresh eyes, superlative humour – and has been widely recognised elsewhere, touching pathos.
The reviews to date have been stupendous with not a single discordant note and so much so, our author is plagued by a certain very Indian type of insecurity.
“It’s mental, it just makes me anxious to be honest, it’s that Indian thing, when you get good news, you always think something bad is going to happen. I haven’t had a single bad review yet – I am waiting for it. I hope I get one – then I’ll know who I am,” he laughed.
‘Marriage Material’ is ambitious, covering three generations of the Bains family, from Arjan Banga, who returns to his father’s shop in Wolverhampton in the mid-1990s to the first Sikhs who arrived there much earlier.
Inspired and loosely based on the classic, ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ (1908) by Arnold Bennett, ‘Marriage Material’ delves deep into the experiences of someone being brown (and Sikh) in a largely white society.
“He (Bennett) is quite unpopular. The book was given to me by a friend a very long time ago and I didn’t get around to reading it, but when I finally did, it struck me and it was quite a Punjabi story about duty versus love, and Marriage Material is based around a shop and Bennett wrote about business, a very Asian thing and the surname of the family in that book is Baines, which is very Sikh – it was begging to be translated.”
Not many authors might wish to centre their novel around a shop or in the less than salubrious environs of Wolverhampton, but Sanghera does and for good reason.
‘Marriage Material’ has even been described as his love letter to the town.
Sanghera laughingly demurred: “It’s not much of an emotional hook and I don’t think anyone wants to read a great Wolverhampton novel, but there are quite a few books about Wolverhampton – Nigel Slater (‘Toast’, 2004), Meera Syal (‘Anita & Me’), Caitlin Moran (‘Morathology’ 2013)
“There is something about Wolverhampton that inspires people, positively and negatively and it’s a very interesting place.
“I go back there a lot as I still have family there. The story of Wolverhampton is the story of Britain and the story of the Sikh community is the story of immigration. You kind of use these things and you want to tell them because there is more of a universal story.”
For him too, shops were a delicious hub of intrigue, subtle communication and challenging commerce and he has worked in one.
“My maternal family do run a (newsagent) shop and when I was a kid it was slightly glamorous. It’s a sweet shop (after all) and I’ve always been slightly obsessed about it.”
One of the major occurrences in ‘Marriage Material’ is the late senior Conservative politician and Wolverhampton MP Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
Powell basically criticised immigration and warned that it would lead to bloody conflict and a loss of British/English identity.
“There’s always some kind of political scandal every year when someone says Enoch Powell was right.
“People don’t actually read it, a lot of people don’t realise in part, it is about Sikhs. I wanted to reignite interest in that time and Sikhs have forgotten and didn’t have any sense of how important their battles were at the time.”
Primarily there was one issue in which the Sikhs at the time were focused around – the right to wear turbans when they worked on the buses.
“It was a big battle. It became a big national and international issue, with ‘The New York Times’ and ‘The Times of India’ writing about Wolverhampton and Enoch Powell.
“He was a complex guy, (Powell had been stationed in India during the Second World War and could speak Hindustani and didn’t seem an obvious racist), he was fighting the right to wear a turban and felt they (the Sikhs) should integrate and become English and not wear the turban.”
Going back in time as a late 30-something now for Sanghera was not as daunting as it might look on paper, he revealed.
As a journalist he had conducted research into his first book, a memoir, which dealt very candidly with mental illness in his family and with this novel, he immersed himself in source material to get an authentic picture of life back then.
“I did a lot of research for my first book about what Wolverhampton was like in 1968 when my parents came to the UK, I knew a lot and was asked to curate an exhibition in Wolverhampton about the 1960s at an art gallery and all that stuff was in my head and I wanted it to use it.”
As an Asian man of a certain age, smart and successful, (and funny – not always a requisite for traditional Indian families), the inevitable and annoying question (to some): Is he Marriage Material?
“I made a decision after doing my last interview never ever to talk about my love life again, otherwise I will end up being a male Liz Jones…”
Jones wrote extensively about the travails of her actual life love in various newspaper columns over the years.
- ‘Marriage Material’, Sathnam Sanghera, William Heinemann.
- Buy http://www.hive.co.uk/book/marriage-material/17239483/