x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

With Eliot nod, Daljit Nagra reclaims Indian accent from mockers

The British-Indian poet speaks of his fierce joy in asserting the beauty of English spoken with an Indian voice.

Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White Man Eating Tiger Toy Machine!!!
Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White Man Eating Tiger Toy Machine!!!

The TS Eliot Prize has standards so exacting that Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature before he finally took home the leading award in English-language poetry. And when this year's shortlist was announced a few weeks ago, it featured a poet laureate, a reworking of Homer's Iliad and a book that has already been feted as among the very best of this year. Serious stuff.

So to find, alongside the likes of Carol Ann Duffy and Alice Oswald (a previous winner), a collection that opens with a hilarious Punjabi English take on Romeo and Juliet - "Vut a summer it was when yoo teach me to kiss/or to walk wid yor hand and not blush in public" - is not just encouraging. It's invigorating for the state of poetry, full stop.

Nevertheless, the inclusion of Daljit Nagra's brilliantly titled Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White Man Eating Tiger Toy Machine!!! was not a gimmicky, populist decision. The London-born, 45-year-old son of Indian immigrants writes with a joy, effervescence and sheer passion that state a case for poetry to be read for fun.

His work has been called "Bollyverse" and "Shakespeare meets the subcontinent". "The collections are meant to be brash and exciting, which is everything poetry wasn't for me when I was growing up," he says.

Nagra is on his way home from his day job as a secondary-school English teacher. Ironic when his poems, which take on subjects as diverse as teenage love, racism, colonialism and the former footballer Kevin Keegan, are almost exclusively written in a breakneck broken English. Can we call it Punglish? Whatever it is, Nagra manages to make erratic individual sentences such as "Such jumbo, Dr Jekly, she mumbo, so quick up I roll her to play wid Black Magic masks in attic" make complete sense within the whole.

"Maybe I see this at school more than others, but people don't speak standard English in neat, ordered sentences, do they? So I wanted to try to capture that, make people feel confident that the English they speak is just as legitimate.

"And then there's the creative element to it - I'm trying to push language to its limits, strain it. What happens when you do that is constantly interesting to me."

In fact, Nagra has been worried in the past that the stream of Punjabi-accented English in his poems might offend first-generation Indian immigrants to the UK - particularly when he exaggerates the voice during live readings. But it's not done for comic effect - rather there's a sense that he is reclaiming the accent from the offensive mimicry that surrounded "Indian" characters in films and on television when he was growing up.

"It essentially made Indians look like idiots," he remembers. "But I wanted to prove that the Indian accent is beautiful. I don't know why people can't see that there are many different types of English out there, and none of them are stupid."

It's not surprising that Nagra should bring up race. His poems continually explore racism, immigration, assimilation and colonialism, but in a delightful rather than a didactic way. In the title poem, for example, he explores the life of a maharaja who fought the English - but whom Nagra came across when he saw an 18th-century figurine in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A musical instrument that depicts a tiger pouncing on an English soldier, it left a mark on him, too.

"I guess I felt I was trying to pounce on English language, too, pounce on empire history in a lively, loud way," he says. "Not aggressively, because the book is a celebration of life through difficulty, and I see the empire as a positive thing because it's my origins. If it hadn't been for the contact between India and Britain, I wouldn't be here.

"But because I've lived in the West, I've tended to live the life of a white English person so I could fit in. In that sense, poetry has been a liberation because it's allowed me to explore this other side, this 'Indianness'."

The result is that his work operates in the spaces between the two cultures. One of the standout poems is Raju t'Wonder Dog, which takes in ladoos and saris, northern English towns and "daft mutt" Alsatians.

Perhaps, even though Nagra has lived in England all his life, he still understands what an Indian living in, say, Abu Dhabi or Dubai might be feeling: assimilated into the culture and society but not necessarily a part of it.

"I'd agree with that," he nods. "That's not a political gripe, it's not like people aren't allowing me to be Indian. It's just that the majority of the people around me are from a different background. I did a degree in English, I teach English. I'm living and breathing English. So in my case, I've become westernised, and I want to challenge and question how white I've become through poetry, which both collections do. I really enjoy writing about that Indianness. It has an intensity of feeling, I think."

His only regret is that he didn't start writing about it earlier - Tippoo Sultan is only his second collection. But perhaps that's why Nagra's work is so passionate, poignant and playful - it speaks from experience of life rather than writing.

"Maybe," he chuckles. "All I really know is that I want people to have a great sense of pleasure with this collection."

And when the time comes for the TS Eliot panel to make its choice in January, you'd like to think it will remember Daljit Nagra, and smile.

Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White Man Eating Tiger Machine!!! (Faber) is out now. The TS Eliot Prize winner is to be announced on January 16; www.poetrybooks.co.uk/projects/4