More of Daljit Nagra

By Rob Packer

Daljit Nagra’s latest poetry collection (I wrote here about his debut, Look We Have Coming to Dover! and read the title poem here) was recently released in paperback and has the—quirky, unwieldy, memorable—title of Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! Yes, dear reader, count how many exclamation marks Nagra has used in the space of two published books. I have a feeling that this unorthodoxy is deliberately to send sensitive punctuators away huffing and puffing, making it both a pretty ballsy move and a mark of confidence (bad content plus conspicuous title would be, after all, embarrassing for all concerned).

The title, which I’ll be calling White-Man-Eating Tiger from now on, comes from a musical automaton now in London’s V&A, which shows a tiger mauling a European soldier and belonged to Tipu Sultan, a late 18th-century king of Mysore, close to today’s Bangalore. The symbolism is obvious, but those adjectives and exclamation marks—as well as the circus-style design on the cover of the hardback—actually make things more ambiguous and made me wonder where the comedy, satire or spleen begin and end.

Tipu’s Tiger
(Source: Wikimedia Commons and Victoria and Albert Museum http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O61949/mechanical-organ-automaton-tippoos-tiger/)

Much like Nagra’s first, the collection explores British Asian culture, its blending with and separateness from more “indigenous” culture. Some poems are hilarious, such as a parents’ misunderstanding of a fancy-dress party in ‘Our Daughter, the Bible Flasher!’; others are about the body, including the first poem I’ve ever read on the monobrow. There is ‘Raju t’Wonder Dog’, a piece of West Yorkshire dialect poetry set in a cornershop in Huddersfield, that is as hard-to-read as wonderful.

The collection’s two bookends are particularly effective at looking at the fusion—or not—between India and Britain: ‘The Balcony Song of Raju & Jaswinder’ alludes to Shakespeare’s lovers (the clue’s in their initials) and even English country eclogues, while deepening things more to ask “And here in di West / can we be all one caste?” The closing poem, ‘A Black History of the English-Speaking Peoples’ takes its starting point at the Globe Theatre and then journeys through the centuries between Shakespeare and now, during which Britain gained and lost an empire, and then purposely forgot it, replacing history with “a bleached yarn”.

As a whole, White-Man-Eating Tiger feels more self-confident than the debut and while re-reading it for this blog, I enjoyed the mix of comedy and seriousness. But afterwards it felt like something was missing deep down: when I tried to recall Nagra’s poetry, the most potent lines and imagery were almost entirely from the debut. It’s not that it’s bad (it’s excellent), but I just feel the first collection has the edge. Maybe part of it is that Daljit Nagra’s tiger doesn’t actually eat any white men?

Daljit Nagra, Tippo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy Machine!!!, Faber & Faber, 2011

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4 Responses to More of Daljit Nagra

  1. leifhendrik says:

    I like your photo from the Victoria and Albert much better than the livid cover of the book itself, which I feel I need special glasses to view safely. This phrase is really good: ‘…journeys through the centuries between Shakespeare and now, during which Britain gained and lost an empire, and then purposely forgot it…’

    • Rob Packer says:

      I’m glad you liked that phrase! The photo (not mine, unfortunately) from the V&A is absolutely beautiful. I do like the cover though: sure it may be a little bit garish, but it’s a pretty good indication of what’s inside.

  2. Rob, thanks for another reading tip! I love the “Tipu’s Tiger” automaton and the carnival-like book cover, along with the three gorgeous exclamation marks!!! I’m now off to track down both reads. Enjoy the weekend! T.
    (Say, are you an fan of the automaton? The Cabaret Mechanical Theatre is on my travel wish list. Have you been there? A few of the museum’s works traveled to the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. They were wonderful.)

    • Rob Packer says:

      I hope you enjoy it! I just spent a wonderful weekend at an enormous world poetry festival in London, so I have a lot more recommendations.
      Thanks for the tip on the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre too. I took a look at their website and saw that they have a show in London at the moment. I’m looking forward to it.

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