Showcasing a stellar line up of writers and speakers the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) allowed for interactions and never ending candid sessions which reveal the person behind the baggage of identity a writer carries. From amongst many such delightful revelations we bring you one that stood out in its candour and brutal honesty. Sathnam Sanghera, British journalist and best-selling author was at JLF to talk about his latest book – ‘Empireland – How imperialism has shaped modern Britain.’ However his first book, a family memoir – ‘The boy with the top knot’, remains close to the heart of many Indians, especially north Indians. The book talks about a second generation Sikh boy growing up in Britain and a British Sikh family’s struggle with mental illness. A report by Gurvinder Kaur
Ever since the venue of the world famous, dazzling yet overwhelming Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) shifted from the quaint Diggi Palace to a banal but large hotel complex in Jaipur, many of us have been cribbing about it. The shift was necessary as the earlier venue could no longer accommodate the ever burgeoning crowds at the fest. The scale also brings along with it commercialization, highbrow events and repetitive celebrity writer-speakers that many bibliophiles disapprove of. However, such is the addictive pleasure of the fest that JLF 2023, like all the 15 editions before it, once again proclaimed to the world why it is called the ‘greatest literary show on earth’ as it connected writers to readers, provided community engagement, highlighted neglected areas of literature and also offered insights into the lives of the writers the world loves.
Showcasing a stellar line up of writers and speakers the fest allowed for interactions and never ending candid sessions which reveal the person behind the baggage of identity a writer carries. From amongst many such delightful revelations we bring you one that stood out in its candour and brutal honesty. Sathnam Sanghera, British journalist and best-selling author was at JLF to talk about his latest book – ‘Empireland – How imperialism has shaped modern Britain.’ However his first book, a family memoir – ‘The boy with the top knot’, remains close to the heart of many Indians, especially north Indians. Sanghera’s first book which was subtitled – ‘A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton’ talks about a second generation Sikh boy growing up in Britain and a British Sikh family’s struggle with mental illness. The book was later adapted into a television film.
Talking with Sathnam, the first question is bound to be around an early statement of his that he started writing this book partly as a message to his mother who wanted him to marry a nice Sikh girl of her choosing while he had no intention of doing that.
Q – So why did you not want to marry a nice Sikh girl?
A – Well, it may have started like that but looking back at it all I realise what I really wanted was freedom. Freedom to marry someone of my own choosing. It could have been a Sikh girl. I was an introvert, into books and I had a large loud family. I just wanted to be left alone, I thought by escaping the arranged marriage, I could escape it all, escape everyone. I was very much into my culture but I didn’t want my parents choosing for me, them saying endlessly – why don’t you marry this person! It worked and I had freedom.
Q – You have addressed mental illness in your family at length. You have talked about the schizophrenia your father suffers from and mental health challenges your sister faces, though the focus is on your father. Why did you need to talk about it? And also, does it scare you, the fact that you might have it too?
A – See, the fear is there. All my siblings are married and have children. And they are always worried because these things are inherited. They watch their children constantly and worry because such illnesses run in families. But I think you cannot live your life worrying about this stuff. One in a hundred people suffer from these issues yet no one really knows why this occurs. Anything can happen to anyone. You cannot fret about this all your life. You cannot let it dictate your life.
I decided to write about it because it’s a taboo subject in Britain and more so in India. If you compare the number of psychiatrists in India with those in America, there is a massive difference. Superstition gets involved here and people don’t get the care that they need. So there is a need to talk about this. You know people cross the street to avoid talking to someone with schizophrenia. It’s understandable because the symptoms are very troubling. So the more we talk about it, the better it is.
Q – How did the family and people you know react to this book, to the revelations in the book?
A – About general people, I don’t really care. I did not elicit their opinion but my close family, they were very involved in the writing of this book and it was done after their approval. The weird thing was that I got unsolicited responses from my extended family, showing their annoyance or shock but they hadn’t read the book. They were arguing about the TV version of the book as well, but still hadn’t read the book. That’s frustrating. Maybe you should read it before you start an argument!
Q – Have you been totally honest in writing this book? Have you left out things which should have been written about? Is this a complete family memoir or are there pieces missing?
A – Yes, I had to omit a lot of things, I had to take out stuff I had written. I hated it but I had to delete an entire chapter and I was very annoyed and frustrated about it. I did not want to leave it out but my family insisted. I am glad now that I did so because we still have some private experiences which the world does not know about and that’s not a bad thing. Because once you write a memoir and it goes out in the world, people look at you accordingly. It gets stuck into the people’s mind and then it is discussed. I am glad I missed some things, that it’s not the full story and you don’t have to tell the full story because people and situations evolve and change. While the writer gets stuck in the time they wrote the memoir in.
Q – Do you feel stuck too?
A – I did feel so earlier though not now. I felt stuck for a few years when people would come and ask repeated questions about it. The same questions. The way I changed the conversation was that I wrote another novel. And now I have written a book on the British empire and finally changed the conversation. I don’t mind talking about it but I didn’t want the family memoir to be known as the only thing I have done in my life.
Q – Are there any Sikh writers in the UK that you look up to or read?
A – There were none when I was growing up, now of course we have some. If you ask me who do I like, I think Sunjeev Sahota – he’s just amazing. He’s an awarded novelist and he’s very good. And this number is growing. We also have Mona Arshi, who is a brilliant poet. But at the time when I was writing my memoir, I found only one memoir written by a Sikh civil servant and none other. I think the idea of washing your dirty laundry in public is not a very Sikh or Punjabi thing to do, in fact it’s not an Indian thing to do at all.
Q – Do you speak Punjabi fluently, what’s your cultural experience been like growing up in the UK?
A – I speak it though not very fluently. I learnt it from my parents and I speak the old Punjabi that they speak. I have inherited not just a style of speaking from them but their prejudices, their awarenesses are transmitted too. Let me give you an example, a couple of years ago I was in India and someone gave me a ‘Lassi’ (buttermilk) to drink. I had never had it earlier and when I said so, people were shocked. I asked my mom how is it that I haven’t had ‘Lassi’ before? She said well I don’t like ‘Lassi’ so I never gave it to you. It is only after coming to India that you realise that they are stuck in a kind of time machine and individual preferences.
Q – What kind of cultural literature do you think is presently available or accessible to the Punjabis living in the UK or around the world, does it resonate with them?
A – I think there is a schism within the community. Lot of people are interested in their culture. They want to read more, but hardly any translations are available to them, both in English and Gurmukhi, especially in Gurmukhi. I would love that my books be translated in Gurmukhi, but it is not going to be done because it’s not commercially viable. It extends to religion as well. See a lot of Sikhs living around the world do not understand the Guru Granth Sahib because of the language. They would love to read and understand it but the translations are not available and that worries me because we are going to lose that connection with religion. Even though the community has a huge amount of interest in both their culture and religion.
Q – What, according to you, is the most poignant thing about the end of the British rule and the subsequent partition of Punjab? Especially from the perspective of your community?
A – It really troubles me when you talk about the figures of how many people died during this displacement, during the partition of Punjab. Historians vary in their estimates. Some historians say a million people lost their lives while others say two million people died during this bloody partition. At best, the estimate of the dead is between 1-2 million. I have never read about any event in history which allows for such a huge variation in its account of the dead. And that itself tells you a lot about the scale and the tragedy.
So it could be one million who died or it could be another million who also died and that’s what is extremely poignant. No one knows for sure and I find this apathy absolutely shocking. Especially in the 20th century. Wherever British people have died, you know exactly how many died, down to the last number. In every battle, the British exactly know how many British people died but about Indians or Punjabis it could be 1 million or it could very well be 2 million too. No one measured it, no one documented it, no one cared!
Q – What is it that you value most in your life?
A – Freedom and that’s a very difficult thing to get in an Indian family, in any Indian family Because this is not a quality that is prized by Indian culture.
Q – What are you writing currently? Your latest book –Empireland- has been a great hit ?
A – I am working on a sequel to Empireland, it’s called Empireworld and right now I am travelling around the world to gather information. It’s about how the British empire shaped the planet.