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A Modest Living

September 9, 2018
by Suresh Singh

After many months of preparation, I am proud to announce that Spitalfields Life Books will be publishing A MODEST LIVING, Memoirs of Cockney Sikh by Suresh Singh in October. You will be able to read excerpts here in the pages of Spitalfields Life over coming weeks.

In this first London Sikh biography, Suresh tells the candid and sometimes surprising story of his family who have lived in their house in Princelet St for nearly seventy years, longer I believe than any other family in Spitalfields. In the book, chapters of biography are alternated with a series of Sikh recipes by Jagir Kaur, Suresh’s wife.

You can support publication by pre-ordering a copy now, which will be signed by Suresh Singh and sent to you on publication.

Click here to order a signed copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20

Suresh Singh and his wife Jagir in Princelet St this summer (Photograph by Patricia Niven)

Excerpt from A MODEST LIVING, Memoirs of a Cockney Sikh by Suresh Singh

I was four years old when I went to the Punjab for the first time. In 1966, Mum took me and my younger sister to the remote village of Nangal Kalan which my father Joginder Singh left in 1949 to come to England. It was a hamlet of no more than a thousand people, including children, where everybody knew each other.

I was born in Mile End Hospital and brought up in Princelet Street, Spitalfields. Sometimes when I first arrived in the Punjab, I felt homesick for playing in the street, eating Heinz beans and drinking Tizer. At home, we closed our front door but in the village nobody even had a door, it was one big playground. I spoke only Punjabi all the time I was there and, when I came back to London, I could no longer speak English.

As my hair grew longer, I became excited to go to the Punjab because I wanted to become a Sikh like Dad. Being there made this feeling even stronger. I met my cousin with a hunched back who was a celibate Sikh priest and wore a ceremonial sword and turban. I loved spending time with him and told Mum I wanted to marry him, which she liked because she wanted me to grow my hair too.

We lived in my grandmother’s house in the heart of the village. It was a small house with a roof of wooden beams, comprising one big room and no running water or sanitation. Mum and the other women took me out into the fields to go to the toilet. I played in the open air all the time. Life was very different from the confinement of Spitalfields which was all I had known. I loved the freedom of being in our village at the foothills of the Himalayas. I became a nice little Sikh boy, although I got boils from the bites of mosquitos. There was a saying that the mosquitos could taste the Robertson’s jam in your blood if you came from England.

By the time I returned, I was more like an Indian kid than one born in London. It was horrible when I started at Christ Church Primary School in Brick Lane. I did not know how to sit on a toilet seat. I squatted on it, my head peeking out over the top of the cubicle. The teacher looked under the door to see if my feet were on the ground. I questioned whether I had been born in England because I had forgotten everything while I was away.

I remember the love of my aunties and cousins in the village. They were always kissing me, holding me and carrying me in their arms or on their shoulders. I also remember Dad’s brothers’ families arguing over their cut of the land he bought off the landowners. They never grasped that he could not have purchased land unless he had come to England and worked to send money back. He did not buy it to become a landowner, but to create a co-operative where everybody could live and work together. It was to be his Utopia. He never said, ‘This is Joginder Singh’s house.’ He told them that the land and the properties were for everybody, for the good of the family and the village.

The house Dad was building was of brick by grandmother’s home was of mud and straw. It was a very dusty environment, not a healthy place for a child. My mosquito bites turned into infected boils that covered my body. Six years later, a doctor at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel told me, ‘Your tuberculosis has been incubating since you were in India at the age of four.’

As a child, the dirt did not matter to me. I remember the love and the joy of the people around me, especially the visiting holy men, beggars and dancing eunuchs. There was a tiny gurdwara (Sikh temple) which was very basic because the village was so poor before Dad and other villagers began sending money from England. Although most people were farmers, Dad came from a family of shoemakers, with a room at the front of the house devoted to cutting soles and repairing shoes. It was quite a small room with rough wooden doors, just enough room for one person to sit with a cutting stone.

Everyone in our quarter of the village was born an Untouchable because they were so poor. In the caste system, the Untouchables are the lowest of the low. If you are an Untouchable, you cannot become a Brahmin in your lifetime. You had to die and, only if you were submissive to the Brahmins, might you hope to be reincarnated into a higher caste. Sikhism rejects all that. This was the reason Dad became so ardent, because it gave him hope and freedom. In Sikhism, there is no caste system.

The shoemakers were Untouchables because they had to skin dead animals for their hides. Dad was a master at it. If there was a dead animal, he would skin it, butcher the carcass, bring the hide back to hang up and dry, and distribute the flesh. Nobody else wanted to do it, especially in the heat. He loved it, saying, ‘I am a chamar,’ a shoemaker like Guru Ravidas Ji.

Dad told me stories of Guru Ravidas Ji. He showed me pictures of scenes from his life, illustrated on colourful posters hung upon the wall in frames bought from Brick Lane market. Guru Ravidas Ji worked miracles. He was humble and did not judge. People found they were healed in his presence because he listened to them and brought them peace. Guru Nanak, the first guru of the Sikhs, collected the tales of Guru Ravidas Ji the shoemaker, gathering them in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book.

As the first one over, Dad carried the yoke on his shoulders of supporting his family. He was always helping them, giving them money whenever they needed it. He started bringing his family over and making passport applications for them, buying our house in Princelet Street so they could live in it.

They lived in servitude in the village. It was impossible to make a living by renting land and growing food, you could only feed yourself day-to-day. Dad helped them escape that life, and loved it. In England they could write home and say, ‘I have come over here now,’ a powerful statement to the landowners that we chamars were no longer at their mercy.

Yet there is a twist to this story because Dad worked for a man called Baba Phalla, a landowner in our village who was a revolutionary. A member of the Ghadar Party, fighting to free India from British rule, he was sent to Canada by the British to work as a labourer. There he was influenced by Communism, especially the Naxalites and the Maoists.

Dad worked day shifts on Baba Phalla’s land. He noticed Dad’s loyalty and honesty. He would say, ‘This chamar boy is like an ox, he deserves to go to England because he will work and become an asset to the village, sending money home.’ He saw that Dad would lift the village out of poverty by working in England. He knew that Dad’s conscientious nature would ensure he embraced his duty, and Dad committed heart and soul. Right up to his death, Dad lived to serve others. He saw it as an honour. Dad brought the gurus with him and rejected material possessions like a holy man. He never went out and bought a car, sending his earnings over to the village instead, to buy land or help another family come over to England. He was devoted to a modest living and the idea of seva, the Sikh principle of selflessness.

People would ask Dad, ‘What is the matter with you?’ and he would reply, ‘I give everything away.’

Suresh with his mother and little sister in the Punjab

Suresh’s grandmother sitting outside her house with her four sons and the cousin who was the Sikh priest standing. Suresh’s father Joginder Singh sits second from right.

A celebration of Guru Ravidas at the gurdwara in Nangal Kalan


Click here to order a signed copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20


4 Responses leave one →
  1. September 9, 2018

    This is an uplifting post. Very fine.

  2. donald yorke-goldney permalink
    September 9, 2018

    Great little story I have allways had the upmost respect for the sheiks .my grandfather spoke of them. Grandad was in India after 1ww and also in

  3. barbara permalink
    September 10, 2018

    Fascinating story reflecting the wonderful diversity of the East End and the character of the immigrants who enrich its history . What a hard working and principled man Suresh’s father was and amazing that the family are still in Princelet Street !! You have uncovered another hidden gem , Gentle Author , I look forward to reading more .

  4. Leanne Teves permalink
    October 6, 2018

    So interesting.

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