The award-shortlisted writer who almost became a banker

Yesterday, the shortlists for UK’s prestigious Costa Book Awards was announced and one of the four to be nominated for the Costa First Book Award is Marriage Material, by Sathnam Sanghera. Set in a part of England that has a large South Asian community, Marriage Material is about two generations of a family whose roots lie in Punjab but whose present and future are very much in England.

One of the requirements of the books nominated for Costa Awards, launched in 1971 as the Whitbread Book Award, is that they must be enjoyable in addition to being literary. Marriage Material, with its clever balance of humour and seriousness, definitely qualifies for a fun read.

 The award-shortlisted writer who almost became a banker

Novelist Sathnam Sanghera

In this interview, Sanghera talks about being a British Asian writer and writing Marriage Material.

Let's start with the thorny business of labels. Why do you think we're all still so fixated with categorising by ethnicity?   

Sathnam Sangera: It’s not necessarily tricky – there is a great tradition of British Asian writing, from Hanif Kureishi to Salman Rushdie, Hari Kunzru, Nikesh Shukla and Gautam Malkani. I’m a fan of a great number of them and it’s a privilege to be occasionally mentioned in the same breath. The problem is if the label begins to ghettoise writing, and it does annoy me when I am sometimes stuck onto panels with “British Asian” writers whose work has little to do with mine. Frankly, I have more in common with English writers from the Midlands like Jonathan Coe and Catherine O’Flynn and David Lodge than a “British Asian”, writing family stories set in Pakistan.

How important were authors like Hanif Kureishi (who were among the first to bring the community British Asian out of parody and into literature) in your becoming an author?

Hugely. I interviewed Hanif some time ago for The Times Magazine, and began the piece by saying he is the man who, through his Oscar-nominated 1985 screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette, first showed there might be more to British Asians than curries. Who via his Nineties’ novel and BBC screenplay,The Buddha of Suburbia, made me realise that we could, on occasion, be cool. And who, through his appearance on this newspaper’s tally of “the 50 greatest British writers since 1945”, and on my reading list at Cambridge University, revealed that the British-born Asian experience counted for something too. I doubt I would have become a writer without him.

Would you say that the notion of being "British" has changed and become more multicultural now? What role have literature and popular culture have played in bringing about this change?

I think films like Bend It Like Beckham, programmes like Goodness Gracious Me and Citizen Khan, and writing from the likes of Meera Syal and Hanif Kureishi changed the idea of Britishness. But it is perhaps sport and politics that have changed things most... and watching the London Olympics, I did think there is a difference between London and the rest of the country. The Capital is much more relaxed about multiculti, as VS Naipaul put it, than the rest of the country

Your first book was a memoir (The Boy With The Topknot). People generally save writing their memoir for a little later in life. 

Well, it was a personal crisis, combined with an editor telling me on a daily basis that it was worth writing. I didn’t think anyone would be interested.

Did you always want to write fiction?  

To be honest, I did not grow up wanting to write. I grew up wanting to work in a local bank – because that is what the most successful relative of mine did for a living and like all Asian boys, I was good at maths. I didn’t, until I was 15 or 16, know any writers. But then I realised I could be a reporter, and one thing led to another. None of it has been planned... .

In Marriage Material (which is set in Wolverhampton where Sanghera also grew up), the Bainses and Bangas are a wonderful set of characters. Are they based on people you know?

Ha. Fiction means that it is all made up! But of course my book is inspired by Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale, a novel published in 1908 and about the lives of two sisters, Sophia and Constance, growing up in a drapery shop in the Potteries, and my characters are in part inspired by his. I loved the book when I read it. Mainly because of the universality of Bennett's themes… .

But I was struck even more by the parallels between the world he describes and my own background as the child of Punjabi immigrants to the West Midlands. Life in the Potteries in Victorian times was hard and dangerous: just as life was for immigrants arriving to toil in Black Country factories in the 1950s and 1960s. Bennett's characters were obsessed with the acquisition of money and social status, in the same way that Punjabi Sikh culture fetishises wealth over education. Then there is the novel's presiding concern with marriage. Surreally, "Baines", with the vowel dropped, is even a common Sikh surname. It was begging to be translated into a British Asian setting.

And how much of yourself did you put into Arjan Banga, the chief protagonist of Marriage Material

The problem with writing a memoir like my last book, quite an intimate one in my case, is that you end up invading your own privacy. I was very careful about what I said about my family – nothing appeared without their permission. But I didn’t think enough about what I revealed about myself. And I probably revealed too much. In a way, writing this new book, a piece of fiction, was a way of changing the subject, to stop people asking me personal questions, or at least have something else to say. But while writing it, I realised the questions would never stop — people would continue to think it is about me. So I have tried to be postmodern about it... the narrator, Arjan Banga, seems to be me, but is also obviously inspired by a Bennett character too. At the risk of sounding like of Literature student – I wanted to raise questions about truth, and play a metafictional game with it. I hope it works.


Updated Date: Nov 30, 2013 11:22:07 IST