Skip to content

Chinnee Kaur, My Mum

February 18, 2021
by the gentle author

All titles in the Spitalfields Life Bookshop are half price in our Valentine’s sale. Some are already sold out and others are running low, so – with weeks of lockdown yet to come – this is the ideal opportunity to complete your collection.

Enter the code VALENTINE at checkout to claim your discount.


Today Suresh Singh recalls the life of his mother in this extract from A MODEST LIVING, MEMOIRS OF A COCKNEY SIKH which is included in the sale.

Mum with me in the yard at 38 Princelet St shortly after we left hospital

Mum came to join Dad in London in 1955, bringing my elder sister. I think she quickly became absorbed by motherhood and childbearing. She did not stay healthy because the house was so overcrowded. First she got asthma from the dust mites in the mattresses and then she got tuberculosis. Yet she remained a very generous woman and welcomed everybody. She tolerated our mad house and never said she wanted to live like other Sikh families. She never sought domestic comforts. She understood Dad’s beliefs and adapted to life in England in her own way. To look at Mum, you would think that she never left India. She just stayed in her Punjabi clothes, as if she had arrived yesterday.

She was always cooking in big pans for lots of people, brewing masala tea with milk on the gas ring. It seemed nothing ever boiled over. She had mastered it to an art, the size of the gas flame and the circumference of the pan. She made dals, cooked spinach, and roasted chicken at weekends. We kept a big sack of brown flour in a dustbin, twenty-five kilos, and she loved making chapatis in abundance. They were buttered with Anchor butter, wrapped in cloth to keep them soft and stacked one on top ofthe other in an aluminium pot with a lid. We always thought there was an endless bundle because they never ran out. On Friday someone would bring a freshly-killed chicken from the kosher chicken shop in Petticoat Lane or, as a treat, Dad would buy fish and chips from Alfies on Brick Lane. On Sunday and special occasions Mum would make prashad.

At the end of each week, Dad gave his unopened pay-packet to Mum. She kept it so if the family needed money in India she could get it. They never had a bank account, but had a way of hiding valuables in the house. They sent money through Grewal, the grocer in Artillery Passage, who had a means of exchanging it for rupees.

Mum spent quite a bit of time in hospitals before I was born and then with me in the baby clinic, where she met other women – English, Irish, Scottish, Jewish, Maltese, Pakistani and West Indian. They were all very poor and became friends because they came from big families. They were devoted to their own faiths and shared a strong sense of duty to their families. Every Friday while Mum was in Mile End hospital in Bancroft Road they gave each woman a bottle of Guinness for strength because they believed the iron was good for the blood. As a Sikh, Mum did not drink alcohol so she put the bottles in her bedside cupboard. It was like a drinks cabinet. The Irish women came and she gave them one each, and they all became close.

I remember these women visiting our house. They called her Mrs Singh and she corrected them, saying, ‘No, I am Mrs Kaur.’ They would ask, ‘Are you separated from Mr Singh?’ She was shocked that anyone would ask such a question but explained, ‘No, no, it’s our Sikh faith that men are called Singh and women are called Kaur.’ Singh means lion and Kaur means princess. Mum would then take the opportunity to talk about her faith and how this naming was initiated by the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh.

Mum cultivated these warm relationships. She never judged anybody and had a gift for bringing women together regardless of their appearance, way of life or who they were. I think she inherited that quality from her dad who was a wise man. I was the luckiest in the family to spend so much time at home with my parents. They taught me how to hold a family together.

Mum wanted to stay at home and Dad never sent her out to work. She valued the responsibility of keeping the house, caring for her children and others in the family. He valued and trusted her judgement in keeping the household in order. She loved walking us to Christ Church School and enjoyed the social life at the school gate. We came home for dinner every day because the school meals were tasteless, without any spices.

Once my cousins’ wives started coming over from the Punjab and staying with us, Mum took them to the clinic and they would spend time together. She demonstrated how to put a terry nappy on a baby with a safety pin, and how to boil nappies in a pan with Daz on the gas ring to get them nice and white again. She was a mother to them, these newly-wed women who came and stayed for a while. She taught them a few tricks of the trade.

When I was born in 1962, I already had my eldest sister from India, my second sister and my brother. There were always other children in the house, so often I did not know who was family and who was not. Dad had adopted one of our cousins from India and I just thought all these people were family. I called everybody brother or sister. Food was cooked in a large pan and we all ate chapatis together on the floor. It was a simple but hard-working life.

Our family

Mum with a friend in Trafalgar Sq

Dad’s pay packet

Suresh Singh & Jagir Kaur at 38 Princelet St (Photograph by Patricia Niven)


Click here to order a copy of A MODEST LIVING at half price

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.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Sue Redmond permalink
    February 18, 2021

    Loved reading this. What a wonderful lady. ❤️

  2. Jane Jones permalink
    February 18, 2021

    I love reading about this remarkable family and bought the book first time around. As this family knows, all good things must be shared, so I passed the book on to a friend, who loved it too. But, like a greedy person who doesn’t share their chocolates, and hasn’t learnt Chinnee Kaur’s lessons, I am buying it again to treasure and keep re-reading, not least because I want her recipes.

  3. Miss Gherkin permalink
    February 18, 2021

    What a wonderful piece of writing. It just oozes with warmth. Book ordered!

  4. Cherub permalink
    February 18, 2021

    When we lived in London my husband was the production manager at a factory near Southall which had a predominantly Sikh workforce. He really valued their company and they were very kind and generous, they’d return to India on holiday and bring gifts back for us. I have a set of carved wooden elephants in different sizes, they are like a little herd and I treasure them. They’ve been from London to Scotland and now Switzerland. We have a few Sikhs here and when I walk by the Rhein the men dip their heads and say good morning, afternoon or evening in German. My favourite restaurant here is owned by a Sikh family, it’s always visited by many Indians working here which tells you the food is excellent.

    Coincidentally, one of my husband’s colleagues was the uncle of my dad’s local newsagent in Scotland, when we moved up there we then became friends with him.

    Loved the part of the story about expectant mums being given Guinness, my granny used to tell me about this.

  5. Esther Wilkinson Rank permalink
    February 18, 2021

    “It was a simple but hard-working life.”

    Well that’s a huge understatement! I’d say your mother, father and family are the best of the best. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  6. paul loften permalink
    February 18, 2021

    We have a Sikh family living next door and they are very good neighbours to have. I listened to a BBC Radio 4 documentary a few years ago which told of the terrible events that occurred in the Punjab when the British left in India in 1947. It was told by a Sikh woman who was a child in one of the villages at the time. Far too awful to recount here but a moment of listening to such stories make you understand the reasons why people have to move away.

  7. February 18, 2021

    How wonderful the family sound. I shall order the book.

  8. Laurent Beaulieu permalink
    February 18, 2021

    Thank you for this lovely story. I love your stories of the area and all the details you incorporate into them makes them very human.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS