Hello from Goa; Poem by Daljit Nagra

I’m always nervous about being too personal in this space, and anyway when you’re traveling with a two-year old your travel experiences tend to revolve around him, so I’ll boil it down to this: Goa sure is nice this time of year. (I’m visiting in-laws, who live here now.)

We were also in London for a couple of days, where I was happy to get to meet Sunny Hundal. Again, let’s keep details to a minimum, and say the highlight of our London experience was a restaurant called Imli, serving Indian Tapas (nice idea, huh).

In a London bookstore I found a book of poems by Daljit Nagra, Look We Have Coming to Dover! (the title poem is a postcolonial answer to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”). My favorite poem so far is “Rapinder Slips into Tongues,” and I hope the poet won’t mind if I share the poem here, in hopes of provoking discussion. It certainly resonated with me:

Rapinder Slips into Tongues…
by Daljit Nagra

Dad and me were watching the video–
Amar, Akbar, Anthony. It’s about three
brothers separated after the family is parted
by gangsters. You can get it with subtitles, Miss.
When Anthony, who grows up in a Catholic home,
begged Christ for the address of his real parents
then crossed himself, I jumped off our royal red
sofa, joined Anthony with his prayer:
Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary,
four-quartering myself then curtseying a little.

Dad just stared at me, knocking his turban side
to side that I almost thought it would come off
which it normally does when he’s doing his press-ups
and his face goes mauve. Instead he took off
his flip-flop (the one with a broken thong),
held it in the air, shouting in ‘our’ language,
Vat idiot! If you vant to call on Gud,
call anytime on anyvun of our ten gurus,
Do you tink is white Gud’s wife your mudder?

Dad’s got a seriously funny way Miss,
sometimes he cries, and says he’s going to give me
to a Sikh school, a proper school. That’s why
I did what my cousin Ashok does at our local
temple — while you were all doing hail mary
to end registration, I first locked my hands,
knelt down, prayed with this ditty we do on Sundays,

imagined the Golden Temple and our bearded gods
to your up-on-the-cross one, then roared:
Wahay Guru!
Wahay Guru!
Wahay Guru!
Like that.

A critic named Ben Wilkinson has a brief take on the poem, and Daljit Nagra’s poetic style as a whole, here.

36 thoughts on “Hello from Goa; Poem by Daljit Nagra

  1. The poem beautifully addresses the cultural and religious dynamic (and confusion) so many early 2nd genners faced (in the UK and USA). Later 2nd genners (and now early 3rd genners) grew up with/are growing up with a much bigger desi community as well as a changed host community. The dynamic is not quite the same anymore, although I’m sure some confusion still exists. Especially for children.

  2. I’m visiting in-laws, who live here now.

    another incentive to choose them in-laws carefully. i enjoyed that poem, professor a. and good luck traveling with the little one. goa is awesome, although the whole embalmed-body-on-diplay-in-church thing really creeped me out.

  3. Amardeep, Would love to hear your take on Goa, if you have had time to look under the tourist surface. There’s a lot going on (or not). Is the garbage still piling up in Panaji?

  4. It’s a beautifully evocative poem, but I can’t get used to his style; his meter is really off. I suppose that’s the point, but I don’t get it. Ah well, I’ll just click on that useful link you added at the bottom and see if that explains anything…

  5. Goa is nice this time of the year but the people travelling there for new year can be annoying. Even though it is touristy, I really like souza lobo in calangute, try it if you get a chance.

  6. Would love to hear your take on Goa, if you have had time to look under the tourist surface. There’s a lot going on (or not). Is the garbage still piling up in Panaji?

    I’ll be on the lookout for things beneath the surface, though I should say up-front that I am essentially a tourist here, an average American. We are not in Panaji but on the campus of a new college campus, BITS-Goa. Maybe I will have more to say on that front in January, at the end of the trip.

    Goa is nice this time of the year but the people travelling there for new year can be annoying.

    Actually, this year there are apparently lots of cancellations, partly owing to terrorism — though the teetering economy is keeping away many Indian and European tourists, and the collapse of oil prices has seemingly reduced the number of Russians. We were talking to someone staying at a small beach-front hotel, and they said the rates for rooms right now are deeply discounted. Anyway, we are not here to party, but to rest.

    I know all about glossolalia, but nothing about Goa. What does Goa smell like?

    I’m not sure what to make of this question.

  7. I stayed at one of those small beach front hotels in Calngute and it was excellent. I love it there especially the old Portugese churches and all the food, favrorites being sorpotel and goa sausages

  8. Loved the poem and the style, I can very well connect to it. I grew up in India learning the sankrit poetry in school. Most of it was praising the almighty!, but the poems were embedded with hundreds of constructs of poetric rules. The poetric rules themselves were written as poems. I still can remember them, because we learnt it ‘by heart’ ( Less with heart, but more with fear of the lahti that our grammar teacher proudly displayed in his desk.) Those poems were mostly ‘bhakti’ poems. I was always confused how someone could feel such devotion, when devotion is a feeling that I have never experienced it in my early life.

  9. I kid, I kid, it’s a fine little memory but I miss the poetry that rhymes….

    Not everyone can write like Dr. Seuss.

    Just to be perfectly clear, again, I was kidding a bit with the last sentence.
    Okay, last comment, I had a sudden fear that the writer or someone who knows the writer might read this post

    MD, what’s with the self-consciousness of late? (It’s kinda sweet.)

    I’m not sure what to make of this question.

    It was sincere. Every place has its distinctions scent-wise: pines in Rome, orangeblossoms in Florida, olives and ocean in Nice; armpit, sausages and diesel in Berlin; Paris is a mixture of dried herbs, coffee and diesel (dogpoo as well). And according to Herm̬s, Kerala smells like a monsoon Рrefer to this SM post about the perfume A Garden After the Monsoon for details.

    Just wondering if Goa has a distinctive scent? I humbly request that you be poetic in your response (if inspired).

  10. Yeah, I keep forgetting Bess, that this is a site where people might read about themselves. I may be a cynical horrible hate-my-life ninny, but I don’t want to hurt anyone else’s feelings. It takes guts to write and put it out there.

    I stand by the rhyming comment! I don’t see why this couldn’t be a bit of prose just as well. A very nice piece of prose, but prose nonetheless? Also, why the hate in poetry circles for the more traditional forms of poetry? Why not both? I laughed out loud at the last copy of Best of American Poetry I flipped through. It read like a coffee house poetry slam. Fine as it goes, but as repressive and myopic as having only poetry that apes Wordsworth or something.

  11. All this talk of Goa and nary a whiff of feni! It is said that even cattle don’t touch the cashew fruit, only good for feni. Try the feni if you’ve never had it, a bit pungent/aromatic.

  12. I may be a cynical horrible hate-my-life ninny, but I don’t want to hurt anyone else’s feelings.

    Well there was that time you called me a mere cubicle dweller but I’m no poet.

    Clearly you’re passionate about rhyme and the rhyme-hating poetry circles. Either you’re writing poetry that rhymes and being defensive about it or you really like the good ol’ days when a poem was a poem because it rhymed. I breathed a song into the air it fell to earth I knew not where for who has sight so keen and strong that it can follow the flight of song. Why not ape Wordsworth?

  13. Oh, sorry about that, then. And, also, if we here at SM can’t complain about desi writers, ala the great anti-Jumpha Lahiri tirades of 2006, then the world is just that much more sad and pathetic. Those of us with sour-grapes in our DNA need a way to vent.

    I asked a serious question. When is it prose and when is it a poem?

  14. Offtopic. Unknown to a lot, Goa has beautiful temples. Check it out if you get time. Mangeshi is one such beautiful temple.

  15. What does Goa smell like?

    My learned opinion would be: It depends. At dawn it smells of a hangover and guilt, Freshly brewed coffee that cures headaches. By midday there’s the whiff of the day’s first Beer. As the day spreads out, so do the smells; From Fish and Sorpotel to Sorpotel and Fish. As the Sun sets, funny things are smoked; Filling the air with even more smells and such. Dances and kisses, sweat and sex; That’s what Goa smells like at night…

    I dedicate this sad excuse of a Poem to Bess, MD, and my lack of sleep due to being high on cheap Indian Whiskey. I really wanted to make it rhyme, but, ;jhsdfadfh;uj zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  16. “I’m always nervous about being too personal in this space”

    don’t be. the personal stuff is the good stuff. plus, everyone needs a break from neutered commentary now and again.:)

  17. On the poetic rhyme discussion, I can see where MD is coming from (did she have her comment deleted by an SM blogger? oh well). I have no problem seeing this poem as effectively a very short work of prose. Certainly, what I liked about it was the story, and the idea of it as a young girl’s explanation of her bad behavior to the principal.

    My friends who study poetry these days are actually very interested in rhyme and meter again (it’s come back), not as strict constraints, but as possible assets to the richness and “craft” of a poem. However, in poems that don’t have much along those lines, people pay close attention to things like line breaks, and sharp, precise language. Here I don’t think Nagra uses line breaks very effectively (adding to the effect that this is a short story that looks like a poem). But I do think one of his main goals is to try and savor the hybrid and often dissonant/confusing language of the Punjabi experience in Britain. Several of the poems in this brief collection do that very well.

  18. thank you amardeep, I did ask to have some of my comments deleted because I didn’t want to seem insulting to the author, because that wasn’t my point. I reread it a couple more times, and it has grown on me.

    (I’m a dilettante, so forgive my silliness, how lucky your students are!)

  19. You can read a couple of good profiles of Daljit Nagra here and here.

    To give you a sense of the impact his first collection has made. He was published by Faber and Faber, which is the most important, influential and prestigious British poetry imprint of the last hundred years. It was set up by TS Eliot, and published his work; it has since been the home of Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, and many more. To put it simply, getting your first collection published by them is an incredibly prestigious achievment, as high as it gets in terms of basic recognition. He is in startling company. Not bad for the working class son of Indian immigrants to England.

  20. I have no idea why Gayatri Spivak comes immediately to mind when I read this poem. Whatever the case, it’s interesting from the perspective of a Protestant dating a Goan Catholic. I find myself often immersed in rituals I know nothing about. Many roads, one path.

  21. The poem was really great. My uninformed opinion is that it’s reminiscent of Zadie Smith. I greatly appreciate humor in writing.

  22. on the campus of a new college campus, BITS-Goa

    Awww,Amardeep, go out, mingle, greet a natve with “whats for fish today?” – in Konkani. You will find the Goans more receptive to those who come to relax.

  23. @24

    Thanks Ashvin; I’m glad you liked my Poem. I’m not so glad that you say it’s reminiscent of Zadie behen though. I had set the bar higher; much higher.

  24. Goa is a beautiful and charming region but has become very unsafe in the last ten years with mafia growth, drug dealers, rapists and murderers. It’s in the news quite alot for these reasons. No longer a hippie peacenik paradise.

  25. Paul – I never know what to say to comments like that. Lots of people don’t care much for contemporary literary fiction or poetry. I’m not a fan of the current Booker prize winner types, for instance. There is no guarantee that a writer that is well reviewed during his or her lifetime will be remembered at all, and may even be ‘down-graded’ in the future. Literary credentialism is overrated. Maybe some of the financial problems with the book publishing business are that editors are publishing stuff that no one really wants to read outside of the MFA graduate types.

    *This is just an argument – again, not talking about this particular poet.

  26. No longer a hippie peacenik paradise

    Where Anjuna parties boasted alleged sightings of Harrison – not Preity Zinta. And those VW vans with the Peace signs were indeed headed for Amsterdam – via PAkistan and Iran and Istanbul And when school boys were taken on Geology field trips the Vagator hills – “exposure” took on a whole new meaning maan.

  27. Great poetry. Thanks for the posting… Amardeep. Interesting when you mention rhyme and meter are making a renaissance. I think they are constricting, but that’s just me… For me it was mostly the cultural allusions that one can relate to on running through the lines.. Sunil

  28. 26 · UberMetroMallu said

    Thanks Ashvin; I’m glad you liked my Poem. I’m not so glad that you say it’s reminiscent of Zadie behen though. I had set the bar higher; much higher.

    :) . Now that you mention it: yeah, it’s nothing like Zadie Smith. Sorry for the insult.

  29. Where Anjuna parties boasted alleged sightings of Harrison – not Preity Zinta.

    Ever been to a 36 hour rave on an Anjuna Beach. Awesome!

  30. 34 · Nimbu Achar said

    Where Anjuna parties boasted alleged sightings of Harrison – not Preity Zinta. Ever been to a 36 hour rave on an Anjuna Beach. Awesome!

    No. That’s why, if i do slide into a nostalgic stupor, and i can afford it, i will head to Kauai.

  31. i dont know why This is considered To be a good poem It is Just a piece of prose and i can send this email Cut into different pieces It doesnt make it a poem either… obvioulsy every one has a passion for poetry but surely This is not a poem.