Singh Song! – Daljit Nagra

The first thing to notice about this is the use of nonstandard English. The lack of capital letters at the beginning of a line in poetry is not unheard of either, but on every line, it makes it almost non-conforming to the normally standardised version of the language.

Singh writes in the first person from the beginning, telling the story of how he runs “just one ov [his] daddy’s shops from 9 o’clock to 9 o’clock.” Typically, immigrant workers work in all sorts of environments but today, in the UK, we see a lot of shops and stores that are family run and family run by a variety of the ethnic population. They are a main part of our society and a good one, but this poem shows what it is like for the son of one such family to have to work in the shop.

So let’s see if he enjoys it.

The words “he vunt me not to hav a break” suggest he does not and also a negative attitude towards not the role as such but more the dictatorial way he is being handled. In this country, each worker is entitled to a break, a rest period, where they can recharge their batteries and then begin again refreshed. For the shop keeper on his or her own in a shop, this cannot happen. But Singh has a way round it. He says that “ven nobody in, i do di lock,” or he closes the door, locks up and goes upstairs because there is his new “bride” who shares a “chapatti” and “chutney” after they “hav made luv like [they are] rowing through Putney.” The comedic end to that verse is designed to make the reader chuckle either outwardly or inwardly and it has a great effect at turning round the negative thoughts about father and his attitude to the son as worker. It makes you snigger at the end.

But being in a shop like this is the kind of job where customers notice things. If there is anything out of place, different, or just odd, a customer will notice. When he returns downstairs and opens the shop, they notice and ask “hey Singh, ver yoo bin?” Again, the use of “ver” instead of “there” shares a cultural use of language. In some ethnic cultures in Britain there is a difficulty in sounding out certain sounds of consonants and the letter W is no exception in certain circumstances. Not everyone in the world has an alphabet with 26 letters in; some are different, shorter alphabets, so the W sound becomes what is nearest, in some cases the V sound and “where” becomes “ver.”

But then the jibes and the insults, in a friendly manner, are thrown at him, again showing a cultural difference in this context. They cry “yor lemons are limes
yor bananas are plantain, dis dirty little floor need a little bit of mop in di worst Indian shop on di whole Indian road.” The rhythm is fantastic here, like a song, and the way this verse is italicised, when some of the rest are not, makes me want to sing it like a chorus in a song and indeed, the comments made are to be considered a chorus of disapproval.

Out of this revelrie appears a sound; the sound of “high heels” as they “tap di ground as [his] vife on di net is playing wid di mouse.” She operates a dating page on the Internet in her spare time, adding people together in the hope they will find love. It is a sad and reflective life she leads upstairs and one that is borne out in how she treats her new father in law and his family. The next verse shows this so well as we are told she is “effing at my mum in all di colours of Punjabi,” and stumbling “like a drunk making fun at [his] daddy.” Clearly, she is upset with her situation, unless we see it from another possible context.

In most cultures such action might be considered wrong. But in some, a stronger woman is seen as a virtue for the man, so she may be trying to live up to expectation here. [In your essays, try to do this, to offer more than one idea] and so, his bride, with “tiny eyes ov a gun and di tummy ov a teddy,” acts like the girls who buy his sweets, with “red crew cut,” a “Tartan sari, a donkey jacket and some pump [and the ] squeak ov di girls.” She is then, trying to be like the examples she sees each day from above her shop where she is perched like a bird on a branch, watching what transpires below. She reminds me of one of the two girls brought to the home in East is East, the ones where the big dog finally runs them out of the street. I am laughing hysterically inside at this description of someone who is so far removed from what we expect to see.

Singh then uses repetition of the verse [or chorus] to share more of what the customers say to him in pleasant jibes. He says that when he returns to the shop, they add “di milk is out ov date and di bread is alvays stale, the tings yoo hav on offer yoo hav never got in stock in di worst Indian shop on di whole Indian road.” The humour here is remarkable to see. It is someone who knows the English language so well that he can then play with it to great effect. This is done on purpose!

And so the day continues into the night and we see Mr Singh as he works “late in di midnight hour ven yoo shoppers are wrap up quiet” and we see that the “precinct is concrete-cool.” When this happens, the wife appears and comes “down whispering stairs and sit on [their] silver stool” and “from behind di chocolate bars vee stare past di half-price window signs at di beaches ov di UK in di brightey moon. At first, one is led to believe his wife’s existence is not a good one, but now, towards the end, we begin to glimpse something else, some other feeling and emotion, that of admiration and love, for each other.

The reader sees that “from di stool each night she say, how much do yoo charge for dat moon baby?” His response is a term of endearment in that he wants her to know how much she means to him. He says “is half di cost ov yoo baby.” Once again, we have to understand that in some cultures, dowries are still paid by the father of the bride to the groom’s family, to take the girl in marriage. If this is one of those situations, then the comment made here is not only a rendering of affection, but also a comment made about cost, her cost, how much it cost his family for them to marry. To place it in a different context, someone now can meet someone on the Internet. It may cost “£10” one year to enrol in such a thing but then costs go up, so the cost is £15” the next year. If two people meet and marry in such a way [and it has happened] and their two costs are different, the same thing can be said of them, that it is half to cost of you” or “you are more costly and more precious to me than anything we might sell here.” Indeed, he adds at the end that to him, she is his “priceless baby,” a term sharing love, affection and endearment towards his new wife.

Daljit Nagra has in this poem, shared so many emotions. It is a poem contained within a book of poems called Look We Have Coming to Dover! It is published by Faber and Faber but if we notice the title, we see the reference to the shop being close to the beach. He is classed as British Indian and tells stories in his poems about what it is like for an Indian to live in Britain; these are humorously reminiscent of the skits in the TV programme, Goodness Gracious Me.

He uses a mixture of English and Asian patois mixed with rhythms that make this poem sound and feel like a song, hence the title and makes this sound like the reader is meant to join in a sing-song of a poem. The use of repetition of “9 o’clock” shares the mundane every day existence, but this is turned on its head later with the terms of endearment. He is trapped in this existence and shares an exceedingly funny moment with the words “like vee rowing through Putney.” One can only imagine the reaction this will get with a class of 15 year old boys!

And finally, one way to look at the interaction between the wife and the husband here is to look at it like a Bollywood hero singing to his girl, who is also singing back. Some of us would be thinking “oh deary deary me” at such a description of her in her tartan but he loves her in spite of all this. It is a sign they are happy enough with their life. Indeed, their day ends on a high note with love and affection, in words that depict a bond between them that is unbreakable. It is therefore, a very funny and very effective poem at sharing negative and positive emotions.