Family life | Great Britain

A quiet goodbye

Since he can remember, there has been a deep rift between Daljit Nagra and his parents. He is ashamed of their narrow-mindedness; they despise his transformation into a “white man”. Memories of a difficult childhood

From an early age I found my father scary. He's a big drinker and a wrestler – physically powerful, a big muscular guy. When my dad was sober, he didn't talk to me or my brother, or he'd say horrible, negative things.

He’d call me disabled because I had asthma, and he’d consider my brother a physical weakling. I suspect that he was disappointed by us both for not being macho. The only time he was remotely nice was when he was drunk. My mum, on the other hand, was very traditional. She was an uneducated village girl without the skills to adapt to English life. At some point, I started finding my mum scary as well. I couldn't really confide in her about anything: She'd share it with everyone. I kept anything that happened to myself. 

Both my mum and dad were very macho. If someone said something mean to me on the playground, they'd be like: go and hit them. Already, as a young child, I knew I had to come up with my own ways of dealing with things. When I was about 13, I met some educated Punjabis, and their vocabulary was wide and I couldn’t understand the meaning of many of the word they used. Then it struck me that even the Punjabi my parents spoke was really basic and monosyllabic - because they're from villages and hadn't had much schooling. That was a shock for me. I realised they're not very sophisticated and were unable to explore interesting ideas. 

My dad came to Britain in 1958 to work in a factory and my mum joined him a couple of years later. They were part of a mass migration from India to Britain from the mid-1950s, brought in to rebuild the nation, often working in 24-hour production-line factories. My parents have always felt like foreigners in the UK.

“I started to feel ashamed of my parents when I was at primary school”

They first moved to West London, where lots of Indians lived, effectively a little India in Britain. Over the years, they've mostly had bad experiences with white people. In the factories, they felt badly treated and then they moved to a poor area in the north of Sheffield and opened a shop in a very racist area. They dealt with lots of anger and negative comments. Although they’ve lived in the UK for about 50 years, their knowledge of Britain is like they’d only been here a year. When they met my second wife, they were surprised to hear that she hadn't been kicked out by her parents: They thought that all white people kick their children out when they're 16.

They passed on some values to my brother and I – things like the importance of hard work and being honest. But they worked all the time, and I didn't see them much. I think that limited how much we learnt from them.

I started to feel ashamed of my parents when I was at primary school. My mum wore traditional Indian clothes and smelt of Indian spices. I’d even avoid her in public sometimes as the kids said racist things about us, probably parroting their parents. I was one of about three non-white children at my primary school, so racism was common. At secondary school, aged 11 - 16, I was again one of a few non-white kids in a school of 1,000 students. My parents never went to a parents’ evening: They didn't know that sort of thing happened! At home, I was the one who filled in the forms in because my parents couldn't write in English.

That meant I was in charge of my childhood very early on. In some ways that’s great - it puts you in control. If you're not doing well at school, they’ll only find out when you leave at 16! But it also puts a lot onto young shoulders. I remember taking my grandfather to get a bank account when I was about eight and the woman told him to sign the form that I’d filled in for him. Neither of us knew what a signature was and he picked up a pen and, in a wobbly hand, he wrote a big X. I handed the form over to the woman and she said: "No, I need a signature." There was a long queue behind us, and I felt so humiliated, like I’d failed.

At school, there was a gap between me and others in my class. I was aware of not knowing everyday words like "hard shoulder” and “fortnight”. My friends used to go away on holiday, and I didn't know what holiday was, except from on TV. I first saw a beach and the sea when I was about 14. My family didn't do these things because my parents were always working. But as I grew up in a poor area, I knew others my age who'd experienced the negative aspects of class. One of my best friends was a white working-class kid and he didn't go to university even though he was bright. His parents said they thought he might be gay because he was so into studying. Back then there was a lot of homophobia and he stopped school to fit in.

“Of course, I felt rejected and, in turn, I rejected them”

The institution of school educated me in a Western way, but my parents always wanted me to be a traditional Indian Sikh. From their point of view, it must have been awful watching their son transforming into something so foreign, listening to western music and talking like a “Gora” - an Indian word for a white person. I think they were ashamed of me: I couldn't read Indian script and my decision to study English at university was the nail in the coffin. They wanted me to do a degree that would lead to good wages, like medicine or engineering.

So of course, I felt rejected and, in turn, I rejected them. That feeling has remained ever since. I've never really felt a strong connection or affection towards my parents. Sometimes that makes life easy as it frees you from being part of a family. Interestingly, my brother also didn't feel any strong family ties and moved to Canada. At the end of the day, my parents have been disappointed on many fronts. They dreamt that we would all move to India someday, but we never did. When they finally went back to India once they’d retired, they found it too hot.

When I was a young man, my parents arranged a marriage for me. They themselves had an arranged marriage. Even though they were clearly unhappy, they saw arranged marriages as a good thing. For their generation, arranged marriages were a way of transplanting the cultural values of the villages to the West. I gave in and conformed as I didn't have much confidence in myself back then. We married and spent a couple of years together, but it wasn't right for me. Breaking with my parents’ expectations was a big rupture.

It meant I had to move far away - there was too much discomfort on both sides. In the eyes of our community, divorce is bad and family honour is a priority. For my parents “Izzat”, the family honour system, was more important than happiness. You had to stay together or else you humiliate the family name. Strict honour codes like theirs have positive aspects but when you move them to the West, it is often hard to make them work.

“For them, everything is about money”

Later, as a father myself, I've had to ensure that I don't replicate my distanced relationship with my parents with my own children. My second wife's an educational psychologist, so that helps. We have two daughters together and I’ve had to learn not to resent their privileged upbringing. I shared a room until I was around 15, but my daughters got their own bedrooms early on and many other advantages compared with my childhood. These days, I know lots of people who are close to their parents. To be honest, it’s very hard for me to understand this connection.

These days I speak to my parents a few times a year and I try hard to keep it civil. When I visit, I don't stay for more than half an hour because I know things can go wrong. They’ll say something like, did you hear about so-and-so - they are earning so much money. How much are you earning? For them, everything's about money.

However, I do observe that they are keen for me to be around more as they get older. Every now and again, I'll go visit and fill out forms, but it remains very pragmatic. They're still not interested in my life, and I still don't feel emotionally connected to them. I think I broke off from them when I was as young as nine or ten. My parents never ask about my writing. They’ve heard religious scriptures so poetry for them is a religious experience. They know I am not religious, so I assume they are not keen to ask about my poetry. I don’t think they appreciate of my MBE or my role at arts organisations. All that means little or nothing to them.

Overall, my biography is almost like being fostered or adopted: you learn to forge your own identity and it doesn't involve your parents. But at the end of the day, I think I probably do resent some things: like that my mum and dad weren't loving and kind and were overly focused on making money. I think they are frustrated that I didn’t follow in their footsteps or become a doctor or businessman. As a poet they can't relate to me at all! 

As told to Jess Smee and Gundula Haage during the British Council Berlin literature seminar "Class and Contemporary UK Writing" (March 2023)