'My brother and I loved it when the Old Man returned home legless'
Daljit Nagra (left) with father Sewa and brother Daljinder. 1968
Daljit Nagra's father, Sewa, worked in factories when he came to England from the Punjab, then ran a shop in Sheffield. Nagra is an English teacher in Brent, north London. He began writing poetry 'seriously' at 30 and his debut poetry collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, was published by Faber in February 2007, and won the Forward Poetry Prize.
Upside down on his hands around the lounge, this returned-from-the-boozer, pissed-up, trunk-necked and super-muscled dodderer that palmed over the petals and stems of our red carpet would win our gasps as he made his way down the grand-as-possible knocked-through room of our three-bed semi. Then he'd straighten up for his steaming grub with a plate of green chillies that he'd munch each night to prove what a hard case he was ...
That's our Old Man. Our Old Dear'd be cackling about his general crapness as she heated his bowl of keema with freshly slapped-up chapatis. My brother and I loved it when the Old Man was legless and returned from the factory-cum-boozer in his drunkenly driven Ford Granada. We'd ask him to do us some one-armed press-ups and he'd knock out 20 on the spot; we'd ask him to lift us a chair with one hand by the base of the leg and he'd cleanly lift it, but the best was when we'd get our semi-friendly freak to do us a handstand that went walkies.
Daljit Nagra today
By the late Fifties in India, the Old Man was a wrestling champion for a few years, and as a reward from the state he'd a cosy pension and a comfy lifestyle lined up. These plans changed, however, when the Brits put out a swagger of ads informing the gawping Punjabis that they could make a packet in the Mothercountry. To prove it, they, the Master Race, were giving freebie vouchers to any lad who wanted to swan over for nothing! As even the low castes were legging it for the power of the rock-hard quid against the puny rupee, the Old Man, too, was out of there as fast as he could.
I reckon he was never on his feet in all the time he lived here. What tripped him up was the shift from landed caste in a village [Naugajā, near Jalandhar] where his family grew sunflowers and sugar cane, where he'd drink homemade moonshine with his mates under the moonlight each evening, to the untouchable's condition in London. He lived just off the Heathrow flight path, where he mucked in with other lads from his village, and suddenly found himself as the lowest in terms of class. He did a series of jobs as a factory skivvy, mucking in to make stuff such as rubber, concrete, sausages and Ready Brek. He proved his blood's worth at each factory he felt headhunted him, by being the best arm-wrestler there, as he'd tell us from the grip of a bicep flex.
When he was sober and at home, he looked dry. He'd sit upright, head in the air. He was an inscrutable, richly mono-browed graveyard of a man: the spit of Brezhnev with his pee'd off, arse-bitten demeanour. No cook or cleaner or DIY man was he cos that wasn't for his gender or caste. Nor was he into music, films, fashion or frilly foods. Nor was he ever into any aspect of the articulation process with his two sons.
He always insisted on the Nine O'Clock News (when he was in) and made us all watch. He'd translate the stories for the Old Dear and the relatives who lived with us, for he was the only one who could understand English. He was the tide that had drawn the various piddly streams of our relatives, once the freebie vouchers had run out. This gave him airs. He pulled on a dignified hush while the rest of the family waxed or waned about the Indians over here or the ones back home.
Before all our relatives bought 9am-to-9pm corner shops, we would see groups of them of a Saturday evening. The men having necked a few bottles of spirits, the Old Man would call for my brother so he could be put on show. He'd be made to fight one of the other, often much older boys in the middle of the living room. If my only sibling, a year older than me, got beaten, then he'd have to stand before the Old Man who would give him a tongue-lashing. Our Old Man would strike out about how he'd been humiliated by this chooha (mouse). He'd elevate his put-down with curt English: 'You rubbish!' was his favourite quip. I'd sometimes inwardly curse my brother for getting even this negative attention when I was the 'invalid' (cos of my asthma) who never got eye-ball'd.
None of us has discussed these events. My brother eventually moved to Canada to get away from our Old Man and the Old Dear, as we called them from childhood. We never referred to them as Mum or Dad, even in the Punjabi we spoke with them. We'd just answer their questions then back off. At some point, we'd both become deliberately over-Westernised so we could find a sense of belonging, although when marriages were arranged for us we failed to put up a fight.
When they retired, they went home to Punjab. Sadly, though, they can't bear the summers so they usually stay with my brother and his family for a few months a year. Our Old Man likes it there cos he hangs out at a gym. He brags how he pumps much harder than the 'tashed Canadian lads. When he's drunk over there, he brags to my brother's docile kids how he could snap his son in half if he wanted to.
I reckon we both feel sorry for the Old Man, who never rested in peace after he stopped wrestling before his prime. For those 40-odd years he spent in England, he kept his head down for the seven-days-a-week work in a series of crud factories and then for the shop he bought up north, where he managed to never lose his head over the racist taunts.
On Father's Day this year, perhaps all three of us fathers in our three different countries are imagining shedding our fears and tears together, as Mum puts out the tea, then absolving into the love of a group hug. ¡
[Courtesy: The Observer. London. June 15, 2008]