This is the first book I’ve read by the author Babita Sharma. My wife purchased the book online after reading a review elsewhere herself. The Cornershop is Babita’s first book.
For those who may not be familiar with the cornershop concept, it’s a reference that dates back to the early 1900’s to general stores selling all manner of products. While it may have referred to a shop literally on the corner, it soon became synonymous with the Indian community. Babita Sharma draws on her childhood literally growing up in a shop, or in a house above the shop. It’s a story that many first generation Indians can relate to. Coming over to Britain in the early 60s, having to climatise to the grey weather and bland food, getting a low paid factory job and working all hours. But for the few like Babita’s family, they saw an opportunity in owning their own business, being their own boss. What may have started as a shop selling those spices from back home materialised into successful enterprises fuelling the British economy. In her book, Babita draws on parallels with Margret Thatcher (Maggie), who was the Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. She too was the daughter of shopkeeper growing up. The book runs with three parallels; (1) Babita’s personal experience as a child of immigrant shopkeepers, watching her parents build a mini-empire which drained them of their own personal time; (2) the success, failures and transitions of cornershops in Britain in the face of an emerging invasion of Indian immigrants; (3) how Maggie relinquishes her roots in favour of the supermarket concept making its way from America to the streets of Britain.
My personal thoughts
When I was around 14years of age my cousin purchased a shop near the Docklands in London. His product line included tobacco, newspapers, magazines, videos (VHS back then), sweets, soft and alcoholic drinks, milk, bread and sugar. From time to time he’d throw in the odd greeting cards and Christmas decorations. Every Sunday he would pick me up around 5am and we would make the 30 minute drive to his shop. By 6.30am I had unloaded the newspapers (Sunday supplements were very heavy), stacked them neatly in the racks under the magazines, popped the loose change in the till and welcomed customers with a smile. All this time my cousin slept upstairs following a Saturday night of partying. I could therefore relate to some of the experiences Babita touched on in her book, the long hours her parents worked and constant trips to the cash and carry to purchase more stock. But what I enjoyed most of all was the importance of the relationship between the shopkeeper and the customer. The shopkeeper would strike a strong bond with the customer over a sustained period of time. The shopkeeper would become the customer’s voice of reason, a last minute saviour of that essential item and a holder of secrets. No large supermarket can ever replicate that relationship, that intimacy. It’s an interesting read which lightly touches on the 3 areas I spoke about earlier, which is OK as this is not supposed to be a lesson in retail history. But I think what is missing is the emotional connection between Babita and her family shop (they had 3 in total). She is proud of her parent’s achievements but it doesn’t touch on how this may have shaped Babita and her two sisters for the future. For there is something deep to be said about the children of shopkeeper owners. But nonetheless, a good first book.
A passage that stuck with me
Is setting you apart from the rest of society a sensible way to overcome racial prejudices and social inequality? The question is, should we divide the British people instead of uniting them? To the Labour Party you are a Black Person. To the Conservative Party you are a British Citizen. Vote Conservative and you vote for a more equal, prosperous Britain.
This is the first book I’ve read by the author Colson Whitehead. I borrowed this from my local library before total shutdown, part of a pile of books. It was the book cover that attracted me to it in the first instance, it wasn’t under any particular genre section. After some background reading this is Colson’s latest publication (2019), he has written some nine novels to this point.
The book is presented in three major parts and set in 1960s America. The protagonist of the book is a boy called Elwood Curtis. An African-American who has been brought up by his grandmother after his parents left him as a young child. Elwood spends his early years growing up in Tallahassee, Florida. A bit of research at the time of reading and Tallahassee was at the centre of the civil rights movement. The most prominent incident surrounding the Tallahassee bus boycott. Elwood works in a store for an Italian shop owner while applying himself in his studies. The time period of the story runs parallel with the deep segregation issues between white and black people. He is aggrieved of the growing tensions and injustice of their predicament and the words of Martin Luther King become a voice of righteousness. But despite everything things are going well for Elwood (in his teens) and he is offered an opportunity to attend some university classes. But fate has other things in store for him. On his way to class he is offered a ride by a man called Rodney driving a ‘brilliant-green ’61 Plymouth Fury’. Heading South they are stopped by a policeman – it turns out the car is stolen, Elwood had no idea. Elwood is sent to Nickel Academy, a juvenile centre in Florida responsible for reforming both coloured and white kids. In his time there he is subjected to two incidents of severe beatings at the hands of the white guards. Despite this he remains astute to his principles, of keeping his head down and working his way up for an early release. However the treatment he sees of friends in the centre and how nothing is done drives him to make a bold and dangerous decision. Elwood writes a letter which he plans to give to one of the directors who is conducting the yearly site tour. In the letter he spills the truth about the treatment of the officers towards the boys; the abuse and conditions. Does this have dire consequences for Elwood? You’ll have to read it to find out.
My personal thoughts
The way Colson structured the story, alternating between present and past, leads you on so well for the finish. I was truly left shocked but at the same time with a rise smile across my face (can’t spill the beans any further). Reading the epilogue I was amazed to see that Colson got the idea for this book after hearing about real life incidents at Dozier School. A university investigation uncovered some brutal truths about the treatment of kids that attended that reform school. This is a prime example for anyone wishing to write a story, and how something read can trigger pen to paper. Colson carried out some extensive research for this book and it depicted a sub-plot of what was happening at the time in America. The book is a comfortable read from a language perspective but quite the opposite in terms of subject matter. Colson doesn’t need to describe incidents in any gruesome detail, you as the reader can easily feel the injustice and uneasiness of the situation. We’ve all read publications of some kind, in some form of the racial issues that swamped America way back from the time of the plantations all the way to the 70s. The brave men, women and children who took a stand to make a difference; those that lost their lives. This story is just one example of everything that was wrong about the treatment of non-white people during that long cruel period. At 211 pages it’s a book you can read cover to cover in a couple of days given how much spare time you have (and we have quite a bit of that at present).
A passage that stuck with me
The strap was three feet long with a wooden handle, and they called it Black Beauty…….the leather slapped across the ceiling before it came down on your legs, to tell you it was about to come down, and the bunk springs made noise with each blow.