I first heard about this book via the online networking site ‘Mumsnet’, where keen readers frequently cited it as one of their ‘must-reads’. ‘The Boy with the Topknot’ was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award in 2008 – its subtitle is ‘A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton’. I’m so glad that the author listed ‘Love’ as the first of the elements of his memoir, as Sathnam Sanghera’s love for his family is the common thread which runs through his autobiography.
S.Sanghera is a highly-educated and successful journalist. He explains this in the book, along with a light sketch of his fashionable lifestyle: flat in London, brushes with celebrity, foreign travel, champagne and girlfriends. This glamorous existence contrasts sharply with his upbringing in Wolverhampton, as a not-very-accomplished Punjabi speaking schoolboy. He was raised as a Sikh, expected by his mother to marry a suitable Jat Sikh girl. However, Sathnam does not intend to have his life partner chosen by his family and he decides he must break this unwelcome news to his mother. However, in 2000, when he is just 24, Sathnam discovers letters which reveal that his father has been diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Putting two and two together very quickly, he realises that his sister Puli is also a sufferer.
Confronting the realities of his father and sister’s illness unearths a painful vault of family memories, including domestic violence. His parents have been hampered by their lack of money, status and command of English. As Sathnam himself concludes, his father is ‘an illiterate, uneducated, unemployed mentally ill Asian man [who] doesn’t matter in the eyes of society’.
Sathnam Sanghera is a self-deprecating, perceptive writer whose wit and charm belie a searing honesty when charting his personal history. This book is a poignant and revealing read, but also reminded me that I have had little or no exposure to multicultural Britain. Sure, I lived in Lewisham for a while, but was in no way integrated into its diverse ways – I just floated along the top of the stream, not really paying much attention. I can’t blame myself for being born white and (dare I say) middle-class, but I should certainly be more aware of the difficulties which minority groups face in the UK. Sathnam Sanghera has the insight to open a lot of our eyes.