Close reading of ‘For the Wealth of India’
For the Wealth of India
(from Look We Have Coming to Dover!, Faber, 2007, pp. 8-9)
‘I mean to cut a channel . . . that men might quickly sail to India.’
– Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine
To Aeroflot the savage miles
in a moment, tucking under
continents to clip the distance,
zoomed to our ancestral homeland
so we ransack the bazaar tracks
of back-alley bounteous Jullunder,
ranting down the marker-prices
to a smudge paid by my permed
aunty in Walsall, bombing
through the brightly lit boutiques,
mum beating a brow, stomping
a finger so a gold-toothed owner
clicks to a knobbly-knees, bent-neck
man who trays us with milky sweets
and cans of Fanta, who says,
God you bless Memsahibs! –
twisting away with a snarl, I see it,
punting my heel up his arse
I scurry him off like a rat!
From the stools of the shop, postered
with Madhuri Dixit and Wham!
we shoot through the glossy pages
of the tea-stained catalogues
for the blood-sari to wow the guests
into awe when I walk the aisle
to the Holy Book of my biggest day.
That’s the style mummy!
I need it now mummy!
The ultimate design to highlight
my super-long legs, but the tailors
scratch their necks, snort,
reversing some phlegm until mum
clears them with her finest English:
Vut is dis corruption? Vee
need it fut-a-fut, or must vee
go to the clean-nosed Hindu
with cut-cut scissors, next door?
Daddy would applaud if he wasn’t
slogging at the concrete factory.
The pongy tailors run like flies
now that time is against them
as we debate with the queue of Englanders
the top-carat beauty of exotic
things, and which riff-raff road
in Southall we all left for Harrow,
the locals steal looks from us for ages
until mum blinks them with the sun
off her gemmed Rolex, I wonder
if mum’s old family were trapped
over here, too sweaty for style
with all the pig-sniffing sewers
so heavy and holding, ah well
what a shame, as we lap up
our suits, shoes and bags
of bangles and cheapo knickers
tossing them at the slouched driver
of the flimsy rickshaw to shout,
Jaldi! Jaldi! Back to Britain!
Get us out of here! – spinning
a penny to some limbless in a bucket.
Daljit Nagra’s ‘For the Wealth of India’ maps the experience of a British Indian woman who returns to her ‘ancestral homeland’ (l. 4) to buy her wedding dress. As we will see, this poem from his debut collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! (2007) highlights power imbalances that become apparent in the context of neocolonialism and global consumerism.
In a bazaar in Jullunder, the speaker witnesses the intermingling of her two identities through shops ‘postered / with Madhuri Dixit and Wham!’ (l. 21). This is the closest the two cultures come to a coherent convergence in the poem, as the speaker’s physical encounter with her Indian heritage via the bazaar is depicted as a tumultuous affair. This is demonstrated through Nagra’s use of violent language, as the speaker and her mother ‘ransack the bazaar tracks’, ‘ranting down’ prices, and ‘bombing / through the brightly lit boutiques’ (l. 5-10). The poem’s epigraph, drawn from Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, sets the tone for this: the play follows the imagined life of the power-hungry fourteenth-century ruler Timur. Nagra uses this context to frame his poem, likening the insatiable greed the speaker and her mother have for consumerist goods to Timur’s need to conquer through brutal means. This idea is foregrounded through ‘mum beating a brow’ (l. 11); the poet establishes the mother’s status as a British citizen through the use of English colloquialism; however, his inversion of this colloquialism causes it to become a more brutal act, as emphasis is placed on her ‘beating’.
The expat’s disproportional power in comparison to the locals is also established as the speaker’s mother is able to command merchants by ‘stomping / a finger’ (ll. 11-12). As the poem progresses, the speaker goes so far as to dehumanize Indian merchants and tailors through likening them to ‘rat[s]’ (l. 19) and ‘flies’ (l. 40).
Nagra goes so far as to suggest that the expat occupies a similar position to the white colonizer. The merchant’s exclamation, ‘God you bless, Memsahibs!’ (l. 16), which uses an honorific exclusively used for white female colonizers, sets the speaker and her mother apart from the local Indians in status. But the term is also a way of simultaneously disregarding her Indian heritage. That she sees the man ‘twisting away with a snarl’ (l. 17) suggests the speaker understands that the locals view her with disdain, and the honorific is more likely a snub than an acknowledgement of status.
Nagra continues with his use of ‘Punglish’ (a hybrid language of English and Punjabi), through the mother’s speech: ‘Vut is this corruption? Vee / need it fut-a-fut’ (ll. 34–35). The poet satirizes what the mother perceives to be ‘her finest English’ (l. 33), thereby collapsing the speaker’s carefully constructed narrative of superiority. The poet further undermines the speaker’s fabricated façade through the almost cursory comment that her father would approve ‘if he wasn’t / slogging at the concrete factory’ (l. 39). The poet suggests the speaker and her family occupy a liminal space, as they aren’t considered Indian due to their comparatively affluent status, yet neither do they occupy a high status in British society as working-class immigrants. This exposes the reality of being an immigrant in the former colonizer’s land, as Nagra comments on global disparities of wealth and status.
As this reading of the poem suggests, Nagra deftly explores the complexities of an expat’s experience in her ‘ancestral homeland’. Although the speaker attempts to blend her Indian and British identities through her desire to ‘walk the aisle / to the Holy Book’ while wearing a ‘blood-sari’ (ll. 24-25), the poem shows that the convergence of these identities is fraught with conflict that often cannot be reconciled. Even so, these identities do not diverge completely. Instead, a liminal space must be forged, often through the violence of two clashing cultures, to produce an identity that does not attempt to translate itself to be fully understandable to others. This is much like the poet’s use of both English and Punjabi colloquialisms that cannot fully be encompassed by the other language.
Cite this: Khalid, Khadeeja. “Close reading of ‘For the Wealth of India’.” Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds, 2017, https://writersmakeworlds.com/essay-nagra-wealth-india/. Accessed 21 May 2018.