Jump to content

Daljit Nagra - The bard of Dollis Hill


Recommended Posts

Daljit Nagra - The bard of Dollis Hill

Being the 'Methuselah' of SA and having parents who used to have a corner shop I can quite relate to some of Daljit Nagra's work! -- give the article a read and see what you think.

here is a clip of him reciting 'Singh Song'


and here's the article

The bard of Dollis Hill

Having the country's biggest poetry publisher take on your debut collection is a dream come true for an unknown poet. But Daljit Nagra's greatest feat is capturing the experience of British-born Indians, says Patrick Barkham

Patrick Barkham

Thursday January 18, 2007



'Puts Keats to shame" and "A wonder to behold" are not bad verdicts for the first ever review of your debut volume of poetry. And this five-star critique gets better. "If you enjoy poetry, genius, or PURE UNRIVALLED QUALITY of any kind," runs the customer review on Amazon, "buy this 21st-century bible of poetry and bask in the teachings of The Nagrameister." Sadly for Daljit Nagra, the reviewer is one of the sixth-form students at JFS school, where he works in north-west London.

Nagra is that rare thing: an unknown poet whose debut collection is being published by Faber, Britain's leading poetry house. The English teacher's pupils are baffled by his continued presence in class. "They think, 'What are you doing in school if you are a poet and you've got a book coming out?' They assume you're going to earn millions because it's a book," he says. Nagra is still as penniless as any poet, though he could soon become better known than many.

The bright cover of his debut collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, matches the ebullience of his word play, which stirs English, Punjabi and Punjabi-accented English into a series of funny and poignant poems that defy easy categorisation. Racism, belonging, alienation and assimilation are ever present themes but Nagra is too witty to file under worthy. And while he cites the influence of Milton, Browning and Blake, there is also a slice of Ray Davies or Jam-era Paul Weller in some of his clever character sketches.

"You either do it quietly and describe the Indian community in half a dozen poems or you think sod it, and go all out. The most Indian way I could think of was to do monologues and voices," says Nagra in his flat overlooking the park at Dollis Hill. So there is the new husband of Darling & Me! whose "Darling is so pirouettey with us"; the mum of In a White Town, who "No one ever looked without looking again/ at the pink kameez and balloon'd bottoms"; and the effervescence of the careless shopkeeper in Singh Song! above whom "high heel tap di ground/ as my vife on di web is playing wid di mouse".

Much of it begs to be read aloud and, while slight and sotto voce in person, Nagra is already making a name for himself with accented performances of his work. Like many second-generation British Asians, Nagra, who has just celebrated his 40th birthday, avoided the open fist of racism when he was growing up by acting as white as he could. Most of his best friends now are white British, who tend to bring out that side in him. So he has found it liberating to explore his "Indianness" through his poetry. "I'm working in a school, I'm teaching English, I'm living English and breathing English all the time. Some part of me wants to be Indian as well. I really enjoy writing about Indian people, Indianness. I find that far more liberating. All that stuff you grew up with - the intensity of India - has to find its outlet somewhere. Poetry feels like a natural form."

One of "about four" Asians when he was growing up in Yiewsley, west London, he would meet his white friends at his front door so he didn't have to invite them into his "Indian" house. Several of the characters in his poems, such as the boy who would "lavender-spray the hallway when someone knocked", reflect his teenage desire to fit in. "Because you didn't want to get bullied and didn't want to get your house attacked, you'd make it as unrecognisable as possible. There was that kind of shame factor," he says. The Indianness of his home was kept hidden, even though it was full of wonder. Distant relatives would pitch up at their door and stay for a few weeks, bringing fantastic tales from Nagra's parents' home village of Nogaja, named after a 9ft giant who lived and is buried there.

Nagra looks back with something like bemusement at how he survived the racism of the 70s. "There were quite a few National Front kids in the class whose parents openly supported the NF. I was always the OK one. 'We hate Pakis but you're OK, Dal.' I got away without ever being physically attacked. I survived. That was quite lucky. How did I get away with it? There were some Asians in council estates nearby and the kids would tell me on Monday morning what they had been doing to 'Pakis' on the estates. For some reason they didn't attack me and my brother. Because we both played sports for the school teams we were in with the right people and that helped a bit."

There was no poetry at school. Nagra took CSEs, where the closest he got to literature was Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected. After his family moved to Sheffield, he dropped his science A-levels for English literature, which he studied at night while working in the shop bought by his parents. They did not really understand his desire to study English - "My mum said, 'You speak it, why do you want to do it at university?'" - but by then Nagra, on a whim, had bought a slim volume by William Blake and become fascinated by poetry.

The first verses he wrote were song lyrics inspired by Paul Weller's character sketches in the Jam's Setting Sons album. "That took me back to Ray Davies and the Kinks and other 60s bands," he says. At university, he began mixing English and Punjabi words in his poems (Nagra speaks Punjabi fluently but was never taught it and cannot write it). Despite praise from one professor, the well-known critic Martin Dodsworth, Nagra did not seriously sit down to work on his poetry until the late 1990s.

Diffidence was gradually replaced with confidence as he was published in the Rialto, Poetry London and then Poetry Review within 18 months. Then he won the Forward prize for Best Individual Poem in 2004 for the poem Look We Have Coming to Dover!, which nods to Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach. Where Arnold gazed from the cliffs towards France, "In my poem I'm bringing people into the country," says Nagra.

Frequently alighting on terribly English suburban settings, Nagra's verse also tells of the growing affluence of British Asians. By the 1980s, his parents' shop was doing well and an attack on his dad's "champagne-gold Granada" inspired the poem Parade's End. Their store was robbed so often they found it cheaper not to insure it. "People just didn't have jobs. It was Thatcher's era, the early 80s. The shop did OK because people lived hand to mouth. I guess in the poem I didn't want to say, 'Oh, the whites are terrible, they are attacking us' because we were doing quite well. We lived in the nearest area that felt safe."

His subject matter is very English but the humour, Nagra thinks, is probably Punjabi. He found his family's community "vibrantly comical". "They expressed themselves through comedy rather than seriousness. There isn't an attempt to be overly formal. You go to a party and everyone is trying to tell funny jokes or relate silly stories."

Nagra says he does not seek verisimilitude in his characters. He abandoned trying to turn Punjabi voices into English and tried to "re-create the experience more, and create an artificial English voice". When he performs poems such as Singh Song!, he says he tends to read them with "an Indian voice, black it up, minstrelise it".

Where once he was anxious around white schoolmates, he is now more self-conscious when reading to British Asians. He is concerned that people do not think his performance mocks that first generation of Indian immigrants. "The few times I've read the poems in an accent in front of other Indians I'm a bit more nervous." It is, he says, like "showing what's in your house to other Indians". If he causes offence, he believes at least it generates a debate about how British Asians represent themselves. "Should we be selling ourselves or should we be honest? There's an attempt in the poems to be really honest and present the community as it really is."

While several poems self-consciously play with the idea of being boxed into the "other" - post-colonial - section of earnest anthologies for yawning schoolchildren, Nagra says he hopes he will be regarded as a British poet rather than an "Asian" one. "Whatever else, the tool I am using is the British language. I was born here, I grew up here, I know the English lifestyle much more than I do the Indian lifestyle. To some degree, I feel more outside Indian life than I do English."

What would happen if he ended up on the syllabus? Would he teach his own poems? He grimaces. "That would be horrible".

· Look We Have Coming to Dover! will be published by Faber in February, price £8.99. To order a copy for £8.99 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007


Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...