A top-notch tragicomedy of our times
Son of a poor Sikh family in Britain’s industrial midlands, Sathnam Sanghera has risen through talent and scholastic endeavour – from assisted place grammar school pupil to Cambridge graduate – to achieve feature writer status on the The Times newspaper.
It is a prestigious position which has probably brought his remarkable book – If You Don’t Know Me By Now (renamed for the paperback edition as The Boy With The Topknot) – to a wider readership than would otherwise have been the case.
The book, which was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award, deserves the widest possible audience. People from a different background lucky enough to read this remarkable family memoir will find themselves possessed of real insights into the hardships and the tensions that beset thousands of families in Britain where young people are faced with reconciling Indian traditions with more liberal Western ways.
If you found Monica Ali’s much-praised novel Brick Lane difficult to put down you are likely to be gripped again by Sanghera’s absorbing depiction of poverty and struggle in the family home in Wolverhampton. Understandably, considering the obstacles he had to fight to overcome, self-denigration is part of the story but tragedy and pathos are wonderfully relieved by the pin-sharp recall in the writing and the author’s sustaining sense of humour.
Perhaps it is not a truly typical story of the immigrant family from the sub-continent because Sanghera’s family life was misshapen by schizophrenia which afflicted two of its members, even if he himself was not aware of the diagnosis for their behaviour until he was in his twenties.
The explanations for the almost unbelievable lateness of this discovery throw a huge light on how great is the advantage enjoyed by those who speak English or who master it as a second tongue – and how handicapped are those who never learn the language and so fail to know the practical benefits that it brings to everyday affairs and to the understanding of those from other cultures.
Since publication, Sanghera has declared that with hindsight he regrets the candour with which he wrote about his life, even though much was edited from his original manuscript and the facts that did appear were sanctioned by his parents, siblings and presumably the uncles. aunts and cousins who have a place in his memoir.
He should console himself with the opinion surely held by most readers that it would have been a lesser work had he been less brave.
The Boy with the Top Knot is published by Penguin at £9.99.
Read it for its humour. You will not forget the passage describing how the young Sathnam finally parted company with the topknot. Nor the many insights that it brings, not least into Sanghera’s agonising – throughout his adult life – over whether to please his parents by entering into a (probably) arranged marriage to a Sikh girl, or to pursue his own desire (enjoying the freedoms of London and the media world and dating non-Sikh girls) to cast off those ties and settle down with a woman chosen for love, whatever her background.
The honesty with which he admits his trepidation about informing his mother of these feelings is much to his credit. How he did it, and his mother’s response, you will have to discover for yourselves when you read the book.
Young Sikh adults tormented by the ambivalent forces that tore at Sanghera’s emotions for years might consider broaching the subject by leaving the book around for Mum and Dad to read. Having eventually taken the plunge himself, Sathnam Sanghera would undoubtedly say – you have to start somewhere.
The critics said:
‘The book could not be more enjoyable, engaging or moving’: Kate Kellaway, The Observer
‘About real secrets, in a real quest for understanding. It’s tragic, funny and disturbing. It will challenge you, and may even change you’:Carole Angier, The Independent
‘Gripping and entertaining, horrifying and tender… Exposes all those things we take for granted as we grow up’: Hardeep Singh Kohli, The Times
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