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Bitter Sweets

Author: Roopa Farooki

Genre: Literary Fiction

Publisher: Pan

Blurb: In 1950s Bengal, Henna Rub, a precocious, wayward teenager, brings off a brilliant marriage to a wealthy romantic, Ricky Karim, trapping him with a web of lies that she has spun withher wheeler-dealer father.And so on his wedding night, believing himself married to an educated, sonnet reading, tennis playing soul mate, Ricky Karim is horrified to discover that his new bride is in fact a lazy, illiterate, shopkeeper’s daughter.

As Ricky and Henna uneasily tolerate their loveless marriage of convenience, the way is paved for a future of double lives and complicit deception – an unspoken family tradition that is inheritedby their daughter Shona, who elopes with her secret love to live above a subcontinental sweet shop in 1980s south London.But two decades later, with her own children grown, it is Shona who is forced to discover unpalatable truths about her loved ones, and come to terms with the lies which superficially hold the threegenerations of her family together…and which are really keeping them apart.



Henna was thirteen when she was gleefully married off to the eldest son of one of the best families in Calcutta, and her marriage was achieved by an audacious network of lies as elaborate and brazen as the golden embroidery on her scarlet wedding sari. Henna’s paternal family were liars by trade, shopkeepers from the Bengal who had made their money by secretly selling powders and pastes of suspect origin, to alleviate the boredom and fatigue of the British expats serving out their purgatory in local government in pre-Independence India. aThose glory days had fled with the British some ten years previously, but Henna’s father was still never one to miss a business opportunity - when he heard that the wealthy, landed, and unusually fair-skinned Karim family from Calcutta would be visiting their farms around Dhaka, he wasted no time in undertaking an effective reconnaissance.

His initial modest plot had been to nurture a business alliance, but he became more ambitious when he discovered that a rather more lucrative and permanent alliance might be up for grabs. He learnt that their son Rashid, who preferred to be called Ricky, was of marriageable age, but was so bizarre in his preferences that his frustrated family had not yet managed to find him a wife. He had been educated abroad, and insisted that his wife be someone he could “love”, an educated, literate girl with the same interests as him.

Nadim Rub looked at his wilful, precocious daughter, who constantly missed school and cheeked her tutors, who stole her aunts’ film magazines to pore over the photographs of the movie stars in thrilled girlish detail. She was athletic enough to avoid him whenever he tried to beat her for these misdeeds, sometimes nimbly running away over the neighbours’ rooftops where he couldn’t follow. His daughter had inherited his cunning, and her dead mother’s looks. She still had an adolescent slimness but had suddenly developed enough of a bosom to pass for a woman, rather than a girl. He formulated his plan. A shopkeeper is also a salesman, and Nadim knew exactly how to persuade his daughter to go along with him. He caught her hiding at the bottom of their overgrown garden one school day, lying flat on her stomach behind the coconut palms, while she nonchalantly studied magazines instead of her books. When Henna saw her father approach, she leaped up and prepared to run, but he appeased her with an unusually jovial smile, and offered her a paper bag of dusty sweets that she took warily.

“Henna moni, I know you hate school. And you’re too good for this provincial backwater. You should be somewhere better, like Calcutta, the honoured daughter of a wealthy family, who could buy you all the sweets and magazines you could ever desire. It’s what your mother would have wanted for you.”

Henna listened with interest – Calcutta was glamorous, the sort of place where the movie stars came from. And for once, her fat ignorant Baba was right - she did hate school. Enlisting the help of his sisters, Nadim made sure that Henna learned to carry herself in a sari with rather more elegance than she had hitherto shown, and with careful application of kohl, rouge and powder, managed to make her look older than her years, and almost as pale as the Karims. He had her tutors teach her to play tennis, Ricky-Rashid’s favourite sport, which with her natural athleticism she picked up quickly. He found out through bribing the Karim’s servants which books were to be found in Ricky-Rashid’s room, and bought cheap copies for his daughter to read. He discovered she was still illiterate, and almost beat her again – all his dedicated preparation ruined because his lazy harami of a daughter had wilfully chosen to waste her expensive schooling.

He stormed impotently at her while she pranced elegantly on her aunt’s makeshift tennis court during one of her lessons, her precise strokes cruelly making her plump teacher race breathlessly from one side to another. “Baba, you’re being silly. Just get one of these monkeys to read out some bits to me, and I’ll memorize them. It’s easy,” Henna said calmly, swinging her backhand return dangerously close to his ear; “monkeys” was the disrespectful term which she used for her long-suffering gaggle of tutors. She was enjoying the charade, the pretty new clothes, the make-up, the dissembling; she even looked forward to the prospect of learning lines from the Shakespearean sonnets her Baba had brought. It was like she was an actress already.

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