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Joginder Singh’s Boy

September 30, 2018
by Suresh Singh

Spitalfields Life Books will be publishing A MODEST LIVING, Memoirs of Cockney Sikh by Suresh Singh in October. Here is the fourth instalment and further excerpts will follow over coming weeks.

In this first London Sikh biography, Suresh tells the 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 & Jagir Kaur at 38 Princelet St this summer (Photograph by Patricia Niven)

Me & Dad

As a child, I lived in awe of Dad, to me he was god. He was a very strong man and occasionally I would accompany him to the building sites where he worked. The Irish builders loved seeing us, father and son together, calling me ‘Jo’s boy.’ They would give me ten pence at the end of the day for helping and say, ‘He’s your boy, he’s our boy.’ I was so proud of Dad.

When he did repairs around the house, I passed him the hammer and carried the nails and I loved being around him. I believed nothing could hurt me if he was there. I felt safe anywhere he was. He had such a strong presence, making me feel as if I was in the company of someone holy.

Mum was affectionate and warm. She was a large woman who was very cuddly and I would always be hugging her. As the youngest boy, I spent all my time with her. She washed my hair every morning in the kitchen and every evening in front of the fire. It was a ritual – undoing the plait, combing the hair forward and washing it. Sometimes she would wash it with yoghurt, then massage mustard oil all the way down through the hair. Afterwards, she combed it, first in front and then flicking it back to comb it from behind. Finally, she would plait it into one long plait, wrap it all the way round into a big bob, cover it with a hanky and tie with a ribbon at the end to hold it all together. If she found an elastic band, she might encapsulate the bob to hold it in shape. Mum loved to see my hair tied up in a big knot and I think it broke her heart when it was cut off later. She missed it so.

From the age of two, I had asthma. It became more severe as I grew. I used to sleep with Mum when I was little and she would rub my chest with Vick’s eucalyptus cream and heat Wright’s Coal Tar in a vaporiser to clear my lungs. She was always making me jumpers and dressing me up. She liked putting me in dresses that she made. Visitors asked, ‘Is Suresh a girl or a boy?’ Mum loved sewing things, making clothes and other stuff for the home from bits and bobs of fabric that workers in the local rag trade gave her. ‘There’s a bit of lining left over,’ they would say, ‘you can have it.’ Dad bought old printed cotton curtains in the Sunday market and she adjusted them, hemming and sewing rings onto them.

Dad lit fires in the winter and he swept the chimney himself. Even though we covered everything, the soot got everywhere. When we all ate together on the floor in front of the fire, using newspaper as a tablecloth, Dad recited hymns from Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book. He always told us stories of the gurus, especially Guru Ravidas Ji the shoemaker and Guru Nanak, the first guru and founder of Sikhism.

Every day, I watched him leave and return from shoe shining on Liverpool Street station or labouring on building sites, then doing odd jobs for family and friends to make sure we were well fed. He could work all day on a building site and then go to shine shoes on Liverpool Street to make a bit extra.

Although our clothes might have been secondhand from the flea market or altered and patched up, they were always clean. Mum used to heat them in a pan with washing powder. Occasionally they boiled over, and the soap suds spilt all over the cooker and onto the floor.

My earliest memory was of playing in the yard on my bike which Dad got me in the Brick Lane market. Everyone always showed me great affection and, because I was the youngest boy, I was very well treated. It meant a lot to Mum and Dad that I was the one who had the Sikh hair, the kesh. I had to stay at home because I was ill and, even after I got married and everybody else moved out, I lived with them in Princelet Street right up to the end.

Some family and friends suggested that maybe my long hair was the reason my health was not good. It was down to my knees by then. I was taken to the doctor in Brune Street. Dr Gottlieb asked Mum, ‘Mrs Kaur, can you wait outside a minute?’ Then he spoke with me, ‘What’s the matter, Suresh?’ he asked. I started to cry and said, ‘I want to cut my hair off!’ My fear was that I would get bullied at secondary school and it was really hard to manage. Mum’s health was not good and she found it difficult to comb and wash it every morning and evening. Dr Gottlieb brought Mum in again and told her, ‘You’ve got to cut his hair off.’ Mum said, ‘Oh, that’s sad,’ but I was grateful to Dr Gottlieb for supporting me.

Dad took me into the yard and cut all my hair off with a pair of scissors. While he was doing it, he chanted ‘Wah Hey Guru.’ I wonder if it reminded him of when his hair was cut off in Glasgow. Mum collected my hair and treasured it in a hidden place in the house for more than a year, bundled in a cloth. Then one evening she took me for a walk to Tower Bridge and, producing the bundle from her handbag, released it with both hands over the parapet in silence into the Thames. Then she said to me, ‘Hun Chuyla,’ meaning ‘Let’s move on.’

Once my hair was cut off, I felt a proper jack the lad, you know? I played in the street with the Bengali children who had recently arrived from Bangladesh. They loved marbles and we played a lot of football in Princelet Street. We used to climb onto the garden walls of the houses in Fournier Street, walking from Brick Lane to Commercial Street.

Me in the yard with my topknot

Me in Weavers Fields after I lost my topknot

Mum & Dad in Princelet St


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


One Response leave one →
  1. preston permalink
    September 30, 2018

    i received “The Life and Times of Mr. Pussy” this week and am enjoying it very much. he was certainly quite a cat. — Preston

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