Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Book review: Sathnam Sanghera's If You Don't Know Me by Now

Much before Santham Sanghera's misery memoir, If You Don't Know Me by Now, got published, I knew him very well. Or I thought I did. For those who don't know, Sanghera is a British journalist of Indian origin who used to write for the Financial Times and is now with the Times
Reading Sanghera's very British and very interesting pieces in the FT and the Times such as this and this, I used to think, here's yet another British Indian who's done well. Sanghera's family, I thought, must be one of those traditional Indian families where education is prized above everything and the educated non-working mother sits the kids down after dinner and helps them with their homework. However, Sanghera's autobiography which unflinchingly lays bare the life stories of himself, his parents and various other members of his family, tells us a different story all together. And a shocking one at that.

Sanghera's father and elder sister suffer from Schizophrenia. Sanghera's mother, the sole breadwinner of the family is illiterate and had to rely on her sewing to put chappatis on the table. Sanghera's father migrated to the UK in his youth, to join a number of family members already there. Even before he was married, his family knew that he was ill, but they thought that marriage would cure him. Sanghera's mother came to the UK when she was sixteen or so, to be married to a violent mentally ill man. Things only got worse for Sanghera's mother before they could become better. Until Sanghera's father was arrested (for violent assault), imprisoned, diagnosed as mentally ill and treated (with medicines and electroconvulsive therapy), Sanghera's mother bore the brunt of the violence. She was slapped in the face on her wedding day and later punched in her stomach on her wedding night. Later, his paternal grandmother began to suspect Sanghera’s mother of being a witch, someone who brought bad luck to Sanghera’s father and the rest of his family.

Sanghera, the youngest child, was his mother’s pet and his mother lavished her love on him. He was handfed traditional Punjabi food (which Sanghera now considers unhealthy and yucky), dressed in colourful clothes which are very un-British (memories of which seem to still upset Sanghera) and made to grow his hair long (unlike his brother and father who have short hair). Even though no one in Sanghera’s family had been to college and his parents don’t speak English at all, Sanghera manages to get into a good grammar school and read literature at Cambridge.

Sanghera has an elder brother and two sisters. They all go to ordinary state schools and get run-of-the mill jobs, including his eldest sister who suffers from Schizophrenia. His eldest sister’s first arranged marriage breaks down, but she is married off again to a man imported from India who needs British citizenship. Sanghera’s first breakthrough is when at the age of 14, he goes to a barber on his own and cut off his long hair. He expects his mother to be deeply upset, but she takes it very calmly. After his hair is cut off, Sanghera becomes ‘normal’. He makes friends at school, girls are interested in him and he is no longer bullied.

Sanghera is in his mid-twenties when he accidentally finds out that his father has always suffered from Schizophrenia. It is a shock to him, but it explains a great many things. At that time, Sanghera has had a series of broken relationships and he is under pressure from his mother to enter into an arranged marriage. All of this makes Sanghera want to understand his family’s history and he delves into his parents’ past, the medication his father took, the doctors who treated him, the courts which sentenced him, the violence suffered by his mother at the hands of his father etc.

Sanghera hates everything about his Indian-Punjabi community. He hates the food, the attitudes and values (towards women, family honour), lavishness (especially for weddings) and everything else. For example, as Sanghera explains how much he hated community get-togethers such as weddings, he says “……….And then, just when I dared to hope I was running out of cousins to get married, cousins I didn't realize I even had started appearing from India as well, bearing gifts of sugar cane, asking to be shown the whereabouts of the nearest porn shop and announcing that they wanted to be married too…………. As soon as they made it through Customs and Immigration, or as soon as they were liberated by their human trafficker of choice into an alleyway in Dudley, and before they had got used to Western customs such as not spitting on the living room floor, arranged marriage aunties were scouring the land for potential spouses, their criteria being that the person be a British Sikh of the appropriate sex and caste and be willing to get married very quickly.”

Sanghera’s anger extends to everything Indian. You’ll find phrases such as “Indians always need to blame someone” very often in the book. The India-born GP who treated his father during the initial stages of his illness did not make legible notes of his father’s case or the treatment given. The GP practice, which is still run by India-born GPs, does not promptly produce records pertaining to the treatment when Sanghera makes a request while doing his research. Sanghera places the blame squarely on the GP’s Indianness, though I doubt if many GP in the UK in the 1960s maintained legible and elaborate records of their patients and the treatment given. Sanghera also has similar problems with the Wolverhampton Crown Court in getting hold of details pertaining to his father’s imprisonment. But here, there are no Indians involved and so India makes a narrow escape.

I have many British Asian friends and a few of whom are not particularly fond of their connection to India or Pakistan. The majority are however, very proud of their lineage and all trappings that go with it (mainly religion and language). The other day I was having a drink with a few friends, one of whom is ethnic Punjabi, whose parents (like Sanghera’s) came to the UK in the 1950s as illiterate labourers. There was only pride in my friend’s voice as she explained how her parents managed to put her through school and college and made her a solicitor. It is also very common to see British Asians change their attitude to India after the economic boom in India. For example, Randeep Ramesh, a British Indian journalist, explains in this article how the earlier contempt for India changed into pride and admiration.

Sanghera does not state that his total hatred for Punjabi and Indian culture is connected to the childhood he had. However it is reasonable to make this connection since Sanghera also hates Wolverhampton, the British Midlands town (close to Birmingham) where he grew up. There are very funny passages in the book about the first Starbucks Café in Wolverhampton and how the not-so-sophisticated citizens of Wolverhampton get used to café culture. I am not really sure if Sanghera’s anger towards Indian/Punjabi culture was ingrained from childhood or it was something he developed after he found out about his father’s illness and the violence his mother suffered at his father’s hands. Even though Sanghera makes his childhood sound extra-horrible, it is possible that it is the result of hindsight (clothes in horrible colours and rich, fatty Punjabi food etc.). Sanghera says that he never saw his father hit his mother and he himself was never the victim of violence (though once when he was in primary school, a couple of semi-crushed cockroaches were found in his shoes as he changed for PT).

Sanghera is (very rightly in my opinion) very grateful to the UK which allowed the son of immigrants such as his parents to go to Cambridge and become a very respectable journalist. He (again very rightly) rails against ‘multiculturalists’ who argue against forcing immigrants to learn English, which would allow immigrants (such as his mother) to be aware of their rights (against domestic abuse) and fight for them. However, I wonder if Sanghera is aware that had his parents stayed on in India, they would have been relatively rich (as most Jat Punjabis who own land are, thanks to the green revolution), Sanghera would have had a decent education and a very good chance to make something of himself.

Even though Sanghera’s pain and anguish show at every turn, the book is not a very heavy read. From the beginning of the book, Sanghera tells us that he is working towards writing a letter to his mother where (at the risk of breaking her heart) he will tell her that he does not want an arranged marriage and that he plans to get married to a girl of his choice. The letter is to be written in English and translated into Punjabi before it is sent to his mother. Does Sanghera manage to write this letter? What are the consequences? Does his mother become very upset or does she take it as calmly as she had when he cut off his hair? Do read this good and very interesting book to find out.

I remember the story of a Keralite who went to the USA in the early 1960s and came back for his first visit after 30 years. 'Let’s go to visit XYZ,' one of his brothers told him a few days after he got there. 'Sure,' this gentleman said and walked out of the house shirtless and bare-chested, clad only in his mundu. His brother ran after him and expostulated, ‘surely you are not going out like this?’ Pat came the reply. ‘But I’ve always walked around like this,’ It took the brother sometime to convince his American brother that people in Kerala no longer walk around town clad only in a mundu. Similarly, I wonder if Sanghera realises that marriages in India are no longer always arranged by parents and that most Indians have stopped spitting on the floors of their living rooms.

I feel that this book should be prescribed like medicine to all parents in India who wish to have their daughters married off to unknown men of Indian origin living in the UK and the USA. How many such parents are aware of the time-warped lives Britons of south-Asian origin live in? Granted not every British-South-Asian family would be similar to Sanghera’s, but the general descriptions of how traditional and orthodox Indian communities in the UK can be are a must read for Indians in India.

Towards the end of his book, Sanghera has a few good words for Wolverhampton, which he says has changed for the better. There are no similar sentiments towards India. I wish Sanghera would spend a few months in Delhi or Mumbai and see for himself how much India (especially urban India) has changed.

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