The Cambridge Curry Club by Saumya Balsari

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The Cambridge Curry Club by Saumya Balsari

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Everything that can go wrong does for the ladies of IndiaNeed – and then a few more things besides. But given what they've had to cope with in the rest of their lives, a refugee from an honour-killing, a dead customer, an arrogant boss, and a few unrequited loves are all in a day's work
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 244 Date: December 2007
Publisher: Blackamber Books
ISBN: 978-1905147694

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Mill Road, Cambridge is a far cry from the elegance of the colleges and Magdalene Bridge. This is the colourful end of the City…the part which gives the lie to the idea that the far reaches of East Anglia have avoided – or missed out on! – the diversification that the rest of the country enjoys. There probably aren't many dons living in Mill Road (if Balsari's depiction is accurate) for this is the area of small houses, ethnic food stores, hair salons, curry houses, Internet cafés, health shop, bookmaker and dry cleaners…the City's pumping heart.

One of those charity shops is IndiaNeed, selling the usual mixed bag of whatever comes along, that isn't worth snaffling (sorry being bargain-hunted) by the staff…all in aid of a village in Rajasthan. It is owned by the elusive and unutterably snobbish Diana Wellington-Smythe: Lady Bountiful personified, though her personal life may be a tad less-than-perfect.

Her Thursday contingent of volunteers are mostly of sub-continental origin and it is they she calls The Curry Club.

They are

The shop manager: Heera, married to Bob – the Englishman who whisked her away from a pre-ordained Indian future.

Swarnakumari – a devout Bengali, with her Guru Ma's book of guidance ever at reach, and a hand washing fetish to guard against the taint of the prior existence of the stock-in-trade; her husband Syamal Chaterjee equally Brahmin Indian by birth, but parochially English by instinct, is a member of the neighbourhood watch, an inveterate letter-writer and of the same condescension as Lady Di W-S: a combination of Patricia Routledge's characters the Lady of Letters and Mrs Bucket (race & gender apart, obviously).

Eileen, an ex-Maths teacher, now grey of hair and of life…suffering the catholic degree of guilt for things not her fault, shot through with fierce Irish optimism and faith in a better future yet.

And Durga: the baby of the group. A Cambridge graduate filling in time before taking up a new job, while lamenting her secret past and longing for true love. Or, failing that, chocolate.

These are the central characters of what is something of a mixture between a 'day-in-in-life' and an ensemble collection in the vein of television's Clocking Off. For me this was the weak point of the book. Either approach could have worked really well, but the combination is disorientating and undermines both aspects.

To take the two separately then:

We are treated to one of those days when everything that can go wrong does…and so do a few things you couldn't possibly have imagined. There is the farce of the runaway victim (refugee from a proposed honour-killing), the stock gag of the body-in-the corner, love trysts of the triste variety, folding beds, robbery and the possibility of finally getting one over on the owner…except there's also the threat of the shop being closed and the charity being abandoned. Of course, it's all told with the light touch that makes it feasible…and is punctuated by the ordinary gossip of our four heroines, their search for bargains, for love and for a life less ordinary.

Interspersing chapters take us, without warning and not-enough time-setting, into the pasts of the various characters and their families. None of them have lived lives anything like 'ordinary' – but then, is there any such thing? We're taken into the world of arranged marriages (accepted and escaped), the world of teenage romances – and that of grown-up marriage – and the devastating secrets a husband chooses to release on his wedding anniversary.

The day builds towards a cataclysmic conclusion…but somehow you cannot help feeling that the lives will go on much the same. People are what they are…seems to be the theme of the book…and actually their similarities are far more than their differences.

The blurb speaks of the book having a great deal to do with residual colonialism. Yes and no. There is certainly a measure of that in Diana Wellington-Smythe - but how different is that hankering for a 'tradition' to those of Swarna and Heera's families. Most of our traditions across the world are rooted in maintaining class systems of one kind or another. The race element has only ever been a meaningless peg upon which to hang a perceived or desired superiority.

Mostly it is a book about a bunch of people…and the mess and success they have made of their lives. A mixture not unlike that which most of us live with.

Balsari has an eye and an ear for detail which lifts the telling above the mediocre and makes The Cambridge Curry Club a surprisingly enticing read. She rations her characterisation in a way that keeps you reading not so much to find out what will happen, but to find out who this person is, and whether you will like them.

Not a single laugh-out-loud moment – but many a wry smile, and plenty of chuckles. If you've ever worked for a charity, I suspect you'll have some sympathy.

I'd like to thank the author for arranging for a copy to be sent to The Bookbag.

If this type of book appeals to you the you might also like The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.

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