Wherever you go in Britain you’ll find corner shops, run by Asian people, staying open all hours of day and night and selling all those things that people run out of such as milk and cigarettes, and countless impulse buys like chocolate, lottery tickets, magazines and bottles of soft drinks. Before the wave of immigration in the 1960s, it was impossible to buy anything after 6 o’clock in the evening, or on a Wednesday afternoon (early closing day) but now, Asian families toil day and night to help the people of Britain who are suddenly overcome with a chocolate craving or the need for a can of strong lager.
For quite a few years now I’ve known Sathnam Sanghera as an always-interesting newspaper columnist and although I knew he’d written a couple of books,they didn’t really grab my attention until Marriage Material came along this month. I got hold of a copy and I thought it was so good I finished it over the weekend. It’s witty book, describing the lives of a Sikh family in the insalubrious city of Wolverhampton, and is full of rare insights into life in an immigrant community.
Apparently Sanghera’s inspiration for Marriage Material was Arnold Bennett’s book, The Old Wives’ Tale which was written in 1908 which was itself inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s 1883 book A Life. Whereas Arnold Bennett’s book is set in a drapers shop in Staffordshire, Sathnam’s is set in a “corner shop” in Wolverhamton, the sort of shop which stays open 18 hours a day and meets the needs of those who missed the chance to top-up with necessities during the day.
The story is told by Arjan Banga, a young Sikh whose grand-father came to England in 1955 with just a shilling in his pocket (or so the story goes). With high hopes for a decent career, Arjan’s father, “Mr Bains” ends up in retail by buying a shop in the struggling city of Wolverhampton. By 1968 when the book opens, Mr Bains’ shop is fairly successful, but at great personal cost to himself for he is now confined to bed with a variety of ailments, while his wife and two daughters run the shop.
Few British people seem to be aware that Sikhs have a very different culture to Muslims and Hindus. Indian store owners have to get used to their business being called “the Paki shop”, an irritation to bear along with the endless questions,
“Are you open?”,
“Do you have any bags?”,
“Why are you always on the phone?”
As an Asian shop owner you have to deal with people proffering a £20 note for a Mars bars along with dishing out directions to passing motorists, selling copies of Asian Babes to “shameless septuagenarians” and serving disheveled customers who turn up in their slippers and pyjamas.
The older generation of Sikh’s like Mr Bains have to struggle with their children’s’ desires to get out of retail and do something more profitable. His growing girls seem to have ambitions for education while all around him Sikh boys go off to London to work in graphic design and I.T and horror of horrors, enter into mixed marriages with white English girls. Those who remain in the retail trade are a different breed, abandoning the old ways in favour of rap music, dope and souped-up cars. In Marriage Material, Sanghera deals with all these issues with a mixture of wit and pathos, illustrating the dilemmas of an immigrant community as he takes us through this family saga.
Mr Bains eventually dies and his younger wife takes up the management of the store on her own. Grandson Arjan, who has a successful career in London feels the pull of family loyalty and threatens his relationship with white English Freya as he goes back at weekends to help get the shop onto an even keel. He finds himself almost overwhelmed by the staggeringly long hours and the mind-numbing boredom of sitting around waiting for customer, while long-suffering Freya shows starts to lose interest in coping with a Sikh boyfriend whose extended family seem to come higher up the priority list than she does.
Mr Bains daughter Surinder is an interesting character. Going against her parent’s wishes, she insists on a course of further education rather than opting for an arranged marriage with a local boy. Years later we see her in a successful career as a business woman and when she eventually returns to get involved with the family business it is to transform it, Mary Portas style (the retail consultant who’s BBC television programme Mary, Queen of Shops led to her being conscripted by the government to help regenerate Britain’s High Streets).
I also loved the character of Arjan’s friend Ranjit, with his spectacular abuse of all non-Sikhs whether white British or Asian in a rich and inventive Asian/English dialect. After Arjan discovers the TALEBAN PEED graffiti on the shop front, Ranjit tries to comfort Arjan with the words,
Swear down, I bet it was one of those Wilson boys. These bredda don’t know the difference between Muslims and Sikhs. That these Musslemen have been trying to nail Sikh girls for centuries? One brown-faced person is another brown-faced person innit to them, like all Chinese people look the same to us. Racist sala kuttas. Don’t bother with the Feds man. They just par you. We know where they live.
As I read the book I learned much about the low-level racial abuse which passes across the counters of these shops on a daily basis. The Sikh shop-workers let it all pass over them but it must be wearing, particularly for Sikh’s to be branded as potential terrorists and to have “Taleban Paedo” painted graffiti-style on their shop windows. Sathnam Sanghera has a wry sense of humour and a great sense of irony which enables him to contrast the quiet dignity of the shop workers with the ignorance of the shop’s customers as they buy their daily supply of obesity-provoking sweets and drinks.
Marriage Material is a very good read. It’s essentially the story of a family but the setting and the culture makes it an eye-opener to anyone who ever wonders what goes on in the rooms above the local “all day shop”. Sathnam Sanghera is an accomplished writer who has turned his skills as a reporter to good effect in this fine novel.
Note: this book was a review copy.