'I did something difficult and courageous in writing the book'

We speak to Sathnam Sanghera, author of The Boy With The Topknot, a touching, humorous and emotional rites-of-passage memoir about a second generation Indian growing up in Britain, and the mental health secrets he discovers in his family.

Sathnam Sanghera was born to Punjabi parents in the West Midlands in 1976, attended Wolverhampton Grammar School and graduated from Christ’s College, Cambridge with a first class degree in English Language and Literature in 1998. Before becoming a writer he (among other things) worked at a burger chain, a hospital laundry, a market research firm, a sewing factory and a literacy project in New York.

Between 1998 and 2006 he was at The Financial Times, where he worked (variously) as a news reporter in the UK and the US, specialised in writing about the media industries, worked across the paper as Chief Feature Writer, and wrote an award-winning weekly business column. Sathnam joined The Times as a columnist and feature writer in 2007 and has presented a number of radio documentaries for the BBC.

Sathnam’s first book, The Boy With The Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton, was shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Biography Award, the 2009 PEN/Ackerley Prize and named 2009 Mind Book of the Year. It's an account of growing up in the 80s, 'And then there was his family, whose strange and often difficult behaviour he took for granted until, at the age of twenty-four, Sathnam made a discovery that changed everything he ever thought he knew about them. Equipped with breathtaking courage and a glorious sense of humour, he embarks on a journey into their extraordinary past – from his father’s harsh life in rural Punjab to the steps of the Wolverhampton Tourist Office – trying to make sense of a life lived among secrets.'

The Boy With The Topknot was adapted for BBC2 by Kudos/Parti Productions and aired to high ratings and critical acclaim in November 2017, being described by The Radio Times as a “smash hit”.

Sathnam was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters for services to journalism by The University of Wolverhampton in September 2009 and a President’s Medal by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2010. He was formerly a trustee for mental health charity Rethink and chair of Creative Access, which helps find internships in the creative industries for talented young people from under-represented backgrounds. He lives in London.

We spoke to him about The Boy With The Topknot and its TV adaptation.

What were you looking to achieve by telling your story?
The whole thing was an extravagant quarter-life crisis. I can't actually remember what order things happened but I think I began the whole thing as a way of explaining to my family why I wasn’t going to marry a Sikh girl, as they desperately wanted me to – having spent my twenties lying to them, and to myself. But then, when I began to find out troubling things about my family's history, it became something else entirely. I'm amazed I thought it was a good idea, and even more amazed it mostly worked out. 

Has the TV version given you a different perspective on your own life?
Yes. Seeing Sacha's sensitive performance gave me something unexpected: a feeling of compassion towards my younger self. It’s very easy, with a book you don’t reread, to assume the worst. But seeing him agonise made me realise that, for all the embarrassing things I have been, I did something difficult and courageous in writing the book. I took more than a year out of my career and life to have painful conversations with my family and to tell their story. Besides, if you are not embarrassed by the person you were ten years ago, then you are probably not trying to live life deeply enough.

When you look back on your childhood, do you see it as you did then, or through a prism of things you know now? For example, ‘It's 1979, I'm three years old, and like all breakfast times during my youth it begins with Mum combing my hair, a ritual for which I have to sit down on the second-hand, floral-patterned settee, and lean forward, like I'm presenting myself for execution…’ Is that how you saw it back then?
It's strange how writing about your childhood changes the way you remember it. I don't actually have a great memory and had to reconstruct it journalistically – asking lots of people who were there to fill in the gaps, and examining photographs in detail. Now I remember it how I wrote it, and doubtless the film version has reshaped my memories again. It's actually quite a thrill to discover something I didn't write about now.... and to have it for myself. 

Do you think stigma around mental health in the Punjabi Sikh community led to worse outcomes for your father and sister? Is the experience of mental illness different in tightly bound communities?
The level of ignorance about severe mental health in Indian communities is profound. But the story is also complicated. Several studies have demonstrated that people who have schizophrenia in developing countries such as India, and people from such cultural backgrounds, have a better chance of improvement than those who live in, or are from, the industrialised world. Various hypotheses have been put forward. One is that there are more opportunities for employment in the third world, and a meaningful social role helps. Another possible explanation is that rates of damaging emotional involvement with an unwell relative, are rarer in Indian than European communities. 

Does the lack of scientific and academic consensus around schizophrenia frustrate you? What would you like to see more / less of from psychology and psychologists?
It is important not to over-stress the problems that Indian comunities have with schizophrenia, given that even in the West, at various points through history, mental illness has been blamed on the devil, masturbation, character weakness, and for much of the 20th century many blamed bad mothering: so-called ‘schizophregenic’ mothers were thought to have so corrupted their child’s development that when their offspring entered the real world, they went mad. The lack of clarity is frustrating, but it also means there is hope of finding a clear cause one day, and perhaps a cure. I'd like simply to see lots more research.  

Do you feel you’ve successfully bridged the gap between the world you were born into and the world you’re in now? 
Yes. The real thrill about the film was that my family were present at the screenings… an entire new generation, my nephews and nieces, have read the book and appreciate what we went through and how amazing my parents are.

- Find out more about Sathnam at http://www.sathnam.com and follow him on Twitter. Also, watch The Boy With The Topknot

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