Colloquial Punglish: Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming to Dover!
March 14, 2012 1 Comment
By Rob Packer
Right from its title, Daljit Nagra’s 2007 very enjoyable poetry collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, goes to the heart of questions of identity. The title references the quintessentially British symbol of the White Cliffs and the broken English of new migrants—it is something you can easily imagine someone saying—that always seems to conjure up an existential (and inexplicable) fear in some quarters. Its ungrammatical syntax is a pointer to linguistic inventiveness to come, but also a wink towards the English poetic traditions by evoking Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden and D. H. Lawrence.
Nagra (1966–) was born in West London to Punjabi parents and his poetry narrates the disparate lives and complex identities and fantasies of British Asians. This is most obvious in his paean to the pan-Indianness of ‘Our Town with the Whole of India!’ There is ‘Jaswinder Wishes it was Easy Being Black’ where a teenage girl envies her schoolteacher’s (imagined?) independence: “Ms Victory, nuh uh, she don’t do shame.” At another point is the comparison between the mundanity of everyday life and his father’s dreams of returning to India showering largesse and stories of wealth in Britain. Or a recently arrived Punjabi, planting potatoes in his garden, who confronts the rose-growing poet across the fence “Vut? Dis fancy pots? / Dat’s a gora [white man’s] potiness!”
Most shocking about the book is the casual racism of life in the UK. There are countless examples of skinheads “desperate to flush out the enemy within” or “council mums” who talk in loud voices about “darkies from down south” with benefit claims and “flash caahs”. But in one of his best poems, ‘Yobbos!’, Nagra also takes language head on: after an epigram of an 1899 advertising slogan on “lightening the white man’s burden”, he begins the poem with an ironic “A right savage I was – sozzled” as it turns out from too much Paul Muldoon. The real savages are the yobs hectoring on a tube train and the Victorian colonial language is exposed as the absurdity it always was.
Language is Nagra’s forte and throughout the collection, he shifts between English regional dialects, the chimera of “standard English”, playground rhymes, phonetic Indianized English and Punglish, a fusion of Punjabi and Ungreji (glossary at the back). At the same time, the poems constantly play on words (one poem is called ‘Singh Song!’) or have malapropisms, like “cardigan arrest”. Add in the changing perspectives, rhythms and idioms and each work seems fresh and re-readable.
But what of the poet? In ‘Booking Khan Singh Kumar’—an excoriating commentary on ethnic tokenism if ever there was one—Nagra asks “Did you make me for the gap in the market / Did I make me for the gap in the market”. It’s an impossible question to answer that ultimately leads to the nature-nurture debate. What I like about Daljit Nagra (and what makes me want to seek out his latest collection) is that he puts all of himself into his poetry and doesn’t try to straitjacket himself into form or dialect.
Daljit Nagra, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, Faber & Faber (2007)