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Bitter Sweets

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About The Author

Roopa FarookiRoopa Farooki

ROOPA FAROOKI was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and brought up in London.  She graduated from New College, Oxford in 1995 and worked in advertising before writing fiction full time. Roopa now lives in North London and Southwest France with her husband and son.

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Reading Group Gold

With this spellbinding first novel about the destructive lies three immigrant generations of a Pakistani/Bangladeshi family tell each other, Roopa Farooki adds a fresh new voice to the company of Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri and Arudhati Roy.
Henna Rub is a precocious teenager whose wheeler-dealer father never misses a business opportunity and whose sumptuous Calcutta marriage to wealthy romantic Ricky-Rashid Karim is achieved by an audacious network of lies. Ricky will learn the truth about his seductive bride, but the way is already paved for a future of double lives and deception--family traits that will filter naturally through the generations, forming an instinctive and unspoken tradition. Even as a child, their daughter Shona, herself conceived on a lie and born in a liar's house, finds telling fibs as easy as ABC. But years later, living above a sweatshop in South London's Tooting Bec, it is Shona who is forced to discover unspeakable truths about her loved ones and come to terms with what superficially holds her family together--and also keeps them apart--across geographical, emotional and cultural distance. 
Roopa Farooki has crafted an intelligent, engrossing and emotionally powerful Indian family saga that will stay with you long after you've read the last page.

Shona’s Cookbook: Helpful Hints from the Worst Cook in Tooting
Fried Eggs
People think that fried eggs are easy, but they’re not. It’s scrambled eggs that are easy; easy to make, that is, not quite so easy to scrape the tattered remains out of the pan afterwards, and the dishwasher just seems to weld the bits on even more. The trick with fried eggs is not to put too much oil in first, or they’ll stick. And to keep the heat moderate—too high, and the bottoms burn before the tops are cooked.
A lid helps to cook them through, and my little trick is to use a teaspoon to drip a bit of the oil over the yolks, to seal them. I was always quite proud of my fried eggs; they were one of the few things I made that were on the beter side of acceptable.
Chocolate Cheesecake
Crush 200g chocolate biscuits and mix with 100g melted butter.
Pat down in the bottom of your cheesecake dish.
Pop in fridge to chill.
Mix 500g crème fraiche with three tablespoons of brown sugar.
Melt 200g of chocolate (you can do this the old-fashioned way, in a glass bowl above a pan of simmering water, but I do it in the microwave, much quicker…) and stir in the crème fraiche mixture, a dollop at a time, with a dash of brandy. (Don’t pour all the hot melted chocolate diretly into the crème fraiche in one go—I did it once, and it curdled the cream…still tasted good, though!)
Sprinkle some raspberries over the chilled biscuit base, and then add your chocolate cream mixture over the top, covering the base with a thick layer. Try swirling it with a fork to make it look pretty, and then cover with chocolate shavings. (You do these with a potato peeler on a block of chocolate.) Pop the dish back in the fridge and wait for the cheesecake to set; it takes about three hours. And then, enjoy…
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Sometimes I cheat and make these from a packet recipe, although there’s something funny about the packet recipes that I buy: No matter how vigilant I am at the oven, they always manage to burn. (I used to be so vigilant that I opened the oven door every two minutes to check on them, but then they didn’t cook at all, and just melted into a soggy mess.)
I suppose it might not be a fault with the packet recipe, as to be honest, they still burn when I make them from scratch. Maybe there’s something wrong with the oven; I remember reading somewhere that French ovens cook from the bottom-up. That’s why all those French fruit tarts come out with such perfectly crisp, golden bases.
Which is what happens to my cookies—only just a bit too crisp, and more charcoal than golden. I’ve given up trying to get them right; what I do now is just add double the amount of chocolate chips you’re meant to. If you do that, I find that most people will eat them anyway, no matter how bitter and burnt the biscuit is.
Eating in Tooting: Roopa Farooki on Her Favorite Local Restaurants and Sweet Shops
I lived in Tooting for four years, surrounded by the richness of the subcontinental restaurants, sweet shops and grocers, and so it was a natural decision to set the main part of Bitter Sweets there. My husband and I got to love some of the local restaurants so much that they used to send us Christmas cards—very thoughtful of them, but also perhaps a subtle indicator that we should have been getting take-always a bit less often. Here are a few of my favorite places.  
—Roopa Farooki
Rick’s Café
122 Mitcham Road
Vijaya Krishna
114 Mitcham Road
188 Upper Tooting Road
168 Upper Tooting Road
Ambala Sweet Centre
48Upper Tooting Road

A Conversation with Roopa Farooki
Bitter Sweets is all about the impact that lies can have on family relationships. Do you believe lying is ever a good thing?
Sometimes you just have to lie to be polite—that’s why there’s only one acceptable answer to “Does my bum look big in this?”
Does deception play a prevalent role in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrant cultures?
I think that many Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrant families still struggle with the disparity between their traditional Eastern and Islamic values and those of the Western society in which they have chosen to live, to the extent that traditionally “unacceptable” behavior such as homosexuality, dating, drinking, or gambling are not openly acknowledged by the first generation, forcing the younger and more Westernized family members into secrecy. That said, in Bitter Sweets the moral conflicts of the characters which lead them to deceive are not a result of religious dilemmas or culture clashes, but rather due to their very personal and ambiguous emotions.
Are your characters representative of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrant communities?
I lived in three areas of London with high proportions of immigrants—in Tooting, Bethnal Green, and Southwark, and drew inspiration from the locals that I met there, as well as from my own experience. Bhai Hassan’s sweet shop and Parvez’s successful restaurant business have many real-life equivalents in Tooting. However, my characters are middle-class, which doesn’t yet represent the majority of immigrants; it was recently reported in the UK (April 2007) that as many as two-thirds of Bengali immigrants still live in poverty.
The novel opens with an arranged marriage in the 1950s—do arranged marriages still take place? How successful are they in your opinion?
Henna’s arranged marriage to Ricky-Rashid was rather enlightened for the 1950s as they had the opportunity to meet each other on a few occasions before the day itself; back then, it wouldn’t have been unusual for all arrangements to have been made between the heads of the families, and for the bride and groom to have met for the first time on their wedding day.
Arranged marriages were the norm for my grandparents’ generation, and still very common for my parents’ generation—my own parents were considered unconventional at the time, as they met at work, married for love, and organized their own wedding without parental involvement or approval.  Arranged marriages still take place today, in the UK as well as in the Indian subcontinent; those that I know of have been approached in a more modern way, allowing for much greater consultation with the potential bride and groom from the outset, and involving several meetings before they agree to the marriage. In some cases, it’s more about “introduction” rather than “arrangement,” as it is left up to the couple whether or not they want to proceed and get to know each other better with a view to marrying. It’s hard for me to give an opinion on whether marriages like this are successful per se—as with any marriage, it depends on the willingness of both parties to work at it.
Did you draw on your own family for inspiration for Bitter Sweets? 
Yes, not for any of the specific characters, but for the bigger theme of long-running familial deception; my father was particularly prone to concealing difficult truths, and confidently asserting alternatives which he thought more interesting, enjoyable, or engaging.
How has the Asian community reacted to Bitter Sweets?
I’ve had very positive reactions to the book; some have said that it was refreshing to come across a novel that portrayed modern Bangladeshis in such a positive light, rather than the more traditional depiction of them as poor victims dragged from their villages into urban squalor. Henna is a very different sort of Bengali housewife than we are used to seeing in the West, in that she is extrovert, unrepentantly manipulative, cosmopolitan, and stylish. However, I have also been criticized in some quarters for not being “political” enough, and not representing the clash of East/West cultures as a driving force in the novel. This was a deliberate choice—I’m fortunate enough to be of a generation that doesn’t have to wear one’s ethnicity as a chip on the shoulder or a soapbox to stand on; it’s simply what I am. In the same way, although my characters are Asian, my concern isn’t to explore issues to do with their “Asian-ness” but rather their deeper emotional and psychological motivations that are unrelated to their race—in this sense, my characters are universal, as I’m far more interested in what lies beneath the skin
What is your own Asian background?
Like the twin boys in my novel, my father was Pakistani, and my mother is Bangladeshi. I was born in Pakistan in 1974, but my family moved to London when I was seven months old; by the time I was sixteen I had taken dual British/Pakistani citizenship. My family was always rather international and relaxed with regard to our Muslim faith; when my parents separated, my father married a Chinese-American Catholic, and my mother’s long term partner (who gave me away at my wedding) is English-Iraqi of Jewish origin. My sisters and I were brought up in a liberal environment where we were free to date or drink without censure, but still retained our Muslim identity. No eyebrows were raised in the extended family when I married my Anglo-Irish husband in a civil ceremony (I wore a sari, he wore a suit), although my aunt did express astonishment some years later when I explained that I’d left him at home that day to look after our baby by himself; “But he’s a man! Are you sure he’s capable?”
Are there any writers that you think have influenced your work?
I’m not sure if my actual writing has been obviously influenced by particular authors; in fact, I make it a point not to read any fiction at all when I write, to avoid getting drawn into another writer’s tone of voice. That said, I really admire some of the novels of Anita Desai, Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood—their writing is lyrical and effortless, and reading their books made me want to be a writer myself.
How long did it take you to write Bitter Sweets? 
The actual writing only took about six months, but I’d mulled over the themes for a long time previously, so much of it was already written in my head, and it was just a matter of getting it down on paper.
You used to work in advertising before you started writing. Do you prefer being a writer? 
Absolutely. I had some fun times in advertising, but there’s no competition. Like all writers, I feel deeply privileged to be able to do something that I really love for a living. (And being a writer gives you an excuse to float about cafés, have unfeasibly long bubble baths, and indulge in sinful patisserie during a normal working day.)
What is your favorite time of day to write?
Mid-morning to mid-afternoon (with tea and biscuits and laptop, stretched out on my bed or on the sofa)
What’s the first book you remember falling in love with?
The Iliad by Homer—I read it when I was ten and obsessed with Greek mythology; it’s still one of my favorite books.
Which book do you wish you had written and why?
Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A Milne: I rediscovered it by reading it to my toddler, it’s just the perfect book for children, the charm is timeless and universal.
Where is your favorite place in the world?
Angkor Wat in Cambodia—the scattered buildings of the ancient temple city are magical; I first went there when I was a backpacking student.
If you had three wishes, what would they be?
I guess the usual: World Peace, An End to World Poverty, and three more wishes…
What is your favorite film?
My Fair Lady—I’m embarrassed to admit that I frequently hum the songs to myself, and even quoted one in Bitter Sweets at vast personal expense.
If you could invite three fictional characters to a dinner party at your house, who would they be?
It would be fun to have Mr. Rochester, Mr. Darcy and Heathcliff round for dinner to entertain my single girlfriends. Or I could re-create the Mad Hatter’s tea party for my little boy.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a writer?
Once you’ve written something you’re proud of, be professional and persistent in approaching literary agents and publishers—read the books on making effective submissions, and then put yourself in every slush pile and competition you can. If your work is good, you’ll get noticed eventually, even if it takes months and years. And once you’ve finished writing your first book, don’t put off writing your second; lots of authors don’t get their first effort published, and if you have two books under your belt you’ll have demonstrated to agents and publishers that you’re a serious writer, and not a one-trick pony.

1. Is a lie told in love acceptable or still deceitful?
2. What is the most damaging relationship in the Bitter Sweets, both to itself and the surrounding family?
3. Which character do you empathize with the most in the book and who do you feel is the most selfish?
4. Is an affair acceptable if the two people involved are genuinely in love? Take a moment to discuss the theme of faith and faithfulness in Bitter Sweets.
5. Which relationship do you think has the best hope for the future?
6. Did you expect the Bitter Sweets to end the way it did? In what ways did meet, or even exceed, your expectations?

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