Suresh Singh, A Modest Living: Memoirs of a Cockney Sikh (2018)

Suresh Singh’s 2018 A Modest Living is an experimental family biography, interspersed with a series of colour photographs from across the decades and the occasional Indian cooking recipe. The book tells the story of Joginder Singh, an illiterate, lower-caste shoemaker who came to Spitalfields from the village of Nangal Kalan in the Punjab in 1949. He sleeps rough for some time, begins to shine shoes, finds his footing with the help of immigrant networks in the area, and two years later buys no. 38 Princelet Street, then a derelict house near the corner of Brick Lane. The house quickly becomes a first port of call for many Punjabi immigrants, and Joginder Singh soon brings his wife and youngest daughter over from India, too. In 1962, Suresh Singh, the author of the book, is born in Mile End. Before entering Christ Church primary school on Brick Lane, he spends time in the Punjab, which leads to a difficult encounter with English school regimentation on his return. Throughout the book, Joginder’s Singh’s Sikhism prevails as a defining influence on his son, helping him to retain a sense of ancestral identity against overriding Englishness, while at the same time diverting the rebelliousness of the late-1970s punk subculture away from parents and towards neofascists and Skinheads. Christ Church, Spitalfields, one of the six Hawksmoor churches, features regularly in the book: first as a beacon for illiterate immigrants to find their bearings; then as a neglected, terrifying presence which, however, with the help of Eddy Stride, the rector, gradually acquires a sense of home; and finally as a workplace where Suresh Singh can put into practice, and hone, his skills as a joiner and carpenter. These skills prepare him for his subsequent degree in architecture, and set him apart from cohorts of middle-class students.

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