Own-made styles

<strong>Look We Have Coming to Dover!</strong>

Daljit Nagra <em>Faber & Faber, 64pp, £8.99</em>

The narrator of "In a White Town", a poem in Daljit Nagra's debut collection, used to feel embarrassed when his mother went to market wearing a "pink kameez and baloon'd bottoms". He admits that "I would have felt more at home had she hidden/that illiterate body". The phrase "illiterate body" tells us she cannot read and write, but also implies that she is unreadable to English people (perhaps including her son). Nagra's poems try to embody the sentiments of such Punjabi Sikhs living in England, often through his gloriously unembarrassed use of their idioms and linguistic turns.

The opening poem of Look We Have Coming to Dover!, "Darling & Me!", captures the jiving rhythm of Indian English: "Di barman's bell done dinging/so I phone di dimply-mississ,/Putting some gas on cookah,/bonus pay I bringin!". As well as being musical, this poem - like many others in the collection - is inspired by different kinds of music: tango, rumba, Ravel's Bolero, bhangra, disco and Lata Mangeshkar singing in Pakeezah. In the final poem, "Singh Song!", another loved-up husband boasts that "vee share in chapati/vee share in di chutney/after vee hav made luv/like vee rowing through Putney".

The tone is not exclusively joyful. A poem about a lustful Indian bride just moved to England begins with the splendid line "Why now not be naked, you naughty western woman?", but ends with her husband's confused prayer: "Oh my Rub, what is England happening for us?" In "Arranged Marriage", a groom feels like a "costumed prat" while relatives stuff him with ladoos; and a poem called "Digging" (which echoes Seamus Heaney) is about a self-harmer.

One of the book's strengths is that disappointed parents and rebellious children are given equal sympathy. When a woman moves from her village to "this flighty mix-up country", her father-in-law disapproves of her "dirty winking" and the "legs/of KFC microphoning her mouth"; but while the man's perspective is given weight (he is the speaker of this monologue), her mischievous energy is also appealing.

Nagra has built a reputation for performing his poetry. The monologues in particular are brought to life when he puts on an Indian accent. At the reading I attended, an Indian woman giggled delightedly when he said aloud "fut-a-fut" ("instantly"). Evidently, she was pleased that this homely Punjabi phrase was being used in an English poem. Some might question, though, whether the mainly white audience was laughing for the same reason.

The collection anticipates this difficulty. In "Booking Khan Singh Kumar", an Asian poet asks, "Should I read for you straight or Gunga Din this gig". There is an excellent poem in which Kabba, a Punjabi man, objects to the patronising "Udder Cultures" section in his son's GCSE poetry anthology. He even turns on the author: "Yoo teachers are like/dis Daljit-Bulram mickeying of me as Kabba." (Nagra is an English teacher and Bulram an anglicised Indian who narrates an earlier poem.) However, despite these doubts, Nagra has concluded - correctly, I think - that it would be a waste to suppress his comic and imitative talent, and that he must trust his readers to question their reactions.

There are plenty of lovely poems in Standard English as well. "On the Birth of a Daughter" responds movingly to the result of a forced marriage: "You looked for all the world/that you'd almost pass/for anybody's baby./I loved you for your genetic slip/from our messy family business." "Karela!", which is dedicated to Nagra's partner, describes how his preparation of the bitter but tasty vegetable is infused with love for his mother's cooking and his "English lover". In a poem about Indian festivals in England, Nagra observes families gathering round the "jalebis networking crustily", and notices grannies pulling out yards of coloured cloth, ready to be fashioned - rather like his poetry - into "own-made styles".

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war