Discussion on the background to Singh Song! and some tips on things you could think about when analysing the poem
by Daljit Nagra
I’m going to discuss the background to Singh Song! and then give you some tips on things you could think about when analysing the poem.
Writing poems about shops and shopkeepers is very important to me because of my cultural background. To explain this I need to get back in time a little. My parents are Indians who came from the Punjab (NW India) to Britain in the late 1950s. They came over because Britain had a shortage of workers.
Many of that generation had not learnt English at school. When they came to Britain the best jobs they could get were as labourers. They would work in factories that made things such as ammunitions, concrete, bread and breakfast cereals. The factories were often dusty, hot, and the health and safety conditions were non-existent. The work would usually be physically exhausting. There were very little prospects of promotion and many of my relatives would often suffer horrible injuries and terrible racism whilst at work.
Saving money to run your own business was the ideal for all my relatives. They worked hard in the 1960s and 70s and most of them had saved enough money to buy a shop in the 1980s. A shop was a perfect way to become independent. You needed just enough English to be able to buy in bulk from a warehouse and to read a pricing catalogue that told you how much you should charge for each product. In any case, all of my relatives had picked up enough English to be able to speak to customers and to be able to deal with any issues that required a basic level of English.
So writing about shops for me was partly about recording a little known history which is now, as we all know, an important part of the British story – the Indian corner shop. Instead of describing all of the above in a description in a poem, I wanted to dramatise the ordinary lives of these shopkeepers.
As I am a male Sikh my middle name is Singh. All my uncles and male cousins have Singh as their middle name to prove their identity. So naturally my poem would be about Mr Singh. Whereas the father may have worked years before he could earn enough money to buy a shop, the son has simply inherited his right to a shop. Is he a good shop keeper? Does he put love first? There are possibly serious issues to be explored about the son here.
Father and son probably get on well enough for the son to have accepted the family traditions because he appears to have had an arranged marriage. Notice I say arranged marriage and not ‘forced marriage’. Consider the difference and how this could affect the poem.
Also there is a suggestion that the wife runs a dating agency for Sikhs, so whilst she is of the second generation, like her husband, she seems happy to set up a modern version of the arranged marriage. The traditional version involves families suggesting possible marital partnerships. You could also consider whether the bride is traditional or rebellious. Perhaps she is simply exploiting a gap in the market to help Sikhs meet each other. You could consider her political views from the way she treats her husband’s parents and from the clothes she wears.
In terms of the style of the poem, some of the poems in my first collection, from which Singh Song! comes, have ‘false’ voices. By this I mean that I was aware that some of the subjects of my poems could not speak English at all or not very well. Remember the first generation Indians did not all learn English when growing up. But for many of my poems I wanted first person speakers. I was aware that I couldn’t simply capture the voices of my grandparents, parents, uncles and aunties. Also I feel that I can’t simply translate the beauty of one language accurately into another language. It can’t be done! So instead of trying to translate what they might have said in Punjabi, I thought I’d try and capture the spirit of what they were saying. So in many poems I have played around with the English language. In Singh Song! this may not be the case so much but you will be aware the speaker is not very good at speaking English. Does he mix up his metaphors or use grammar in a slightly wrong way? Why might this be? I have no correct answer but hopefully the poem is open enough for you to think about his background.
You could consider certain bits of language I used, especially some bits that have not been considered by critics about my work, as far as I’m aware.
Did you know that ‘putney’ in Punjabi means ‘wife’ – does this help the poem in any way?
Why ‘brightey moon’ instead of ‘bright moon’ – what is another name for Britain as used by Indians? A clue: it rhymes with ‘brightey’.
Why do the shopkeepers appear to all be speaking with an Indian accent? Is Mr Singh repeating with his own Indian accent what the customers say to him? Or are they all Indians?
Also in terms of the style, I grew up watching tv programmes such as The Good Old Days where a strange old world was on display every Friday night. Performers would be dressed in old fashioned clothes and, on the whole, they would perform songs. The songs were from the Music Hall tradition. I used to quite enjoy the lyrics because they were easy to follow, a bit funny, perhaps even a bit saucy! I wanted to write Singh Song! as an Indian Music Hall song. Do you think I’ve been successful? Consider the rhythms, the loose rhymes, the humour and the sincerity in the poem.
One Music Hall song I like, which is on Youtube, is When Father Papered the Parlour – it’s a song that’s guaranteed to get you break dancing!
You could also read some reviews of my book and see what critics make of Singh Song! Some reviews are on the net but many are in poetry magazines and newspapers.
I hope my comments are of some help. Good luck with your exams!