Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Sathnam Sanghera - The Boy with the Topknot (Penguin 2009)

Sathnam Sanghera’s debut book, The Boy with the Topknot (published in hardback as If You Don’t Know Me By Now) is a worthy piece of work despite it revealing him to have a clawingly bad taste in pop music. It’s bittersweet and funny but over-archingly triumphant in the face of adversity. It seeks to debunk the misery memoir myth by being self-referential and unreliant on tugging our heartstrings unnecessarily, instead using memory and a nice narrative juxtaposition of past and present to reveal its inner depths. Despite all the references to George Michael obsessions and some chapter titles taken from some of my worst enemy pop songs, it’s a beautiful piece of work.

When successful journalist and materialist Sathnam Sanghera, living the high life of Prada and loft flats, dinner parties and celebrity interviews, was 24 he discovered for the first time his father and sister were both suffering from a severe mental illness he hadn’t been aware of. As he researched their conditions and how they had come to be hidden (through a lack of understanding of schizophrenia and through family guilty secrets) he moved to Wolverhampton and started to piece together his family history and the history of his parents. Each member of his family is a character, from his silent father obsessed with BBC Parliament despite his illiteracy and lack of English; his mother, neurotic and obsessed with tradition, with finding him a wife of equal caste and culture holding the family together; his brother with his growing obsessions with fashion icons of the times and his two sisters, funny and nasty in equal measure. Sathnam was the baby and through the flit between past and present reveals how he learnt English on the fly at his school, became obsessed with being a good boy (a symptom of a schizophrenia family member) and went from his mum’s favourite to her biggest disappointment as he sought to escape Wolverhampton and her over-bearing clutches, all for the sake of dalliances with girls. The book closes with a letter he writes to his mother, emotionally explaining the choices he has made in his life and the secret life of dating white girls he leads and the amount of panic and depression it causes him, bordering on inflicting a mental illness of its own on his neuroses. The book isn’t all misery and family repression though. It’s warm about his family at times and funny at others, especially on a chapter dedicated to cutting his hair for the first time, a big Sikh no-no. The book, torn between his present feelings of ineptitude, helplessness and confusion as well as the process of trying to write the book while being scared of scratching too far under the surface and warm/bitter feelings about Wolverhampton, moves along quickly, never boring, always interesting, always painting an interesting picture of a family dealing with mental illness and a family dealing with the cultural differences of old and new, East and West. While this is a worn out subject, Sanghera’s literal, funny and unearnest take on his Asian identity makes for hilarious scenes when he goes out to meet potential brides at meetings set up with his sister, when he describes his family set up in Wolverhampton. However, it does go into horrific detail about domestic violence in the Sikh community and the pain and suffering his mum went through before his dad was finally diagnosed with a mental illness.

As a misery memoir, it fails, because it never plays with your emotions. Sathnam breaks the fourth wall, describing the process of writing the book, always in his head but dealing with enough factoids and studies and quotes to keep his feelings on the side of reality and recognised research. It’s warm and funny but bitter and painful and the final denouement with his mother and the letter is a poignant finale to a life-affirming book.

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