More of Daljit Nagra
June 27, 2012 4 Comments
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.
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