If You Don’t Know Me By Now| Sathnam Sanghera
Some of the best recent analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of the Indian family have come from foreign shores, and are focused on the lives of immigrant Indians determined to hold fast to their traditions and culture.
Last year, Nikita Lalwani’s Booker-shortlisted novel Gifted addressed, through the story of a math child prodigy, the narrow-minded focus on academic achievement—the you-must-succeed-or-we-lose-face attitude—in the Indian diaspora. Lalwani’s insights into Indian parent-child relations are extended and deepened by Sathnam Sanghera’s If You Don’t Know Me By Now, the memoir of a Sikh boy trying to reconcile his university education and his British values with the dyed-in-the-wool Punjabiness of his parents.
If You Don’t Know Me By Now; Penguin/Viking,324 pages, Rs795
Sanghera concedes that the theme of East meets West is “as much of a cliché in multicultural Britain as class used to be in monocultural Britain”. But this does not dissuade him from pursuing his inquiry, which is structured (a little too cunningly) like a detective story. Sanghera was born in Wolverhampton, the youngest of the four children of recent immigrants who spoke no English. Wolverhampton itself, as the first town in Britain to be affected by mass immigration, was a kind of crucible for the immigrant experiment.
Sanghera records that it had an 8% Sikh population, and indeed the world in which he grew up was a mini-Punjab. The Sanghera children were encouraged not to mix with the goras, and the presence of a large extended family was supposed to compensate for this stratified social life. One reason for this self-imposed ghettoization, Sanghera suggests, is that his parents knew no English and never attempted to learn the language, an attitude of which he is critical.
Sanghera’s memoir begins with a glimpse of his schizophrenic adult life. For the most part, he lives in London, where he works as a highly paid journalist, and has a British girlfriend. But he has to hide all this from his family whenever he goes home, as his mother seems to have no conception of him other than as a good Sikh son, and assumes that he will one day marry a Sikh girl. The stress of this is too much for Sanghera, and he plans to “come out” by writing a letter to his mother and having someone translate it into Punjabi.
But the charm of If You Don’t Know Me By Now is that its title works both ways. Sanghera’s father, the taciturn, simple-minded Jagjit Singh, never went to work as the boy was growing up, and this was something that Sanghera accepted as a fact of life. It is only now, in his 20s, that Sanghera realizes that his father was actually laid off from work because he suffers from schizophrenia. As Sanghera investigates further—looking up old doctor’s notes, searching newspaper archives—he realizes that his gentle giant of a father was actually at one time imprisoned for violent conduct, and behind his mother’s impenetrable facade is a history of abuse at the hands of a mentally ill husband.
So, even as he wants to express his vexation with the hidebound ways of his mother, Sanghera feels a renewed respect for the woman who, as a young wife shipped out into a frighteningly alien environment, absorbed so much pain and held her family together. Yet he knows he must force one last change on her, and persuade her that “just because everyone else does something, it doesn’t mean that I have to”. This tussle between two people who are intensely frustrated with each other and yet mean the world to one another makes Sanghera’s memoir a real page-turner.
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