The Boy with the Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton is a hilarious and heart-rending reinvention of the modern British memoir.

“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.”

For Sathnam Sanghera, growing up in Wolverhampton in the eighties was a confusing business. On the one hand, these were the heady days of George Michael mix-tapes, Dallas on TV and, if he was lucky, the occasional Bounty Bar. On the other, there was his wardrobe of tartan smocks, his 30p-an-hour job at the local sewing factory and the ongoing challenge of how to tie the perfect top-knot.

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.


Reviews for The Boy With The Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton, released April 2009. Originally published in hardback as If You Don’t Know Me By Now.


“I’ve read The Boy With The Topknot and I loved it. It’s brilliant.”
J.K. Rowling


“Wonderful…. amazing, disturbing… beautiful, poignant… universal… unique… incredibly rich, a wonderful window into a completely different culture… a book with a strong moral core…. as witty as David Lodge… as moving as Angela’s Ashes… one of the most important books written in the last ten years. It’s going to be part of the canon of how Britain sees itself. ”

Francis Gilbert, A Good Read, BBC Radio 4


“Don’t imagine that this is a gloomy book. Although it explores the experience of a young man who wants at first to break the link with his culture – as a student in Cambridge he didn’t want his mother to know that he had a white girlfriend – it is fundamentally an optimistic story. It is straightforward – almost naïve, he thinks – and uncovers carefully the layers of a life in which confusion and fear and some anger are eventually superceded by a worldly contentment. His account is often funny, it has the freshness of a book written without any attempt at artifice, and it has a natural directness that many of our readers had evidently found appealing. Some of them were from Indian backgrounds, many of them not. They shared a fascination with Sathnam’s decision to write honestly– in his first book – about feelings in his family that many might prefer to tuck away.”
James Naughtie, BBC Radio 4 Bookclub


“This is just a beautifully written and painfully truthful account of a life. Because Sathnam has to admit that he lived in this close-knit family and he didn’t notice that his father was really very odd. He was a grown man before he heard the world schizophrenic applied to his father. Like all children he took his mother totally for granted and it wasn’t until he started to find out about the family history that he understood – she is really a heroine, a wonderful, wonderful woman, who endured an extraordinary degree of suffering. It’s extremely moving… At the end he has a wonderful passage about why we shouldn’t lie in our families… It’s actually a much more moving conclusion even than at the end of Obama’s memoir, Dreams of My Father, where he writes, again movingly, about the lies in his own family. Many of the psychologists I have worked with over the years, we often talk about the reading list we would draw up for people training to be clinical psychologists. And this is definitely one that would be on my list, as describing the lies that are told in families and the destruction they cause. The lies live on through generations until somebody starts to tell the truth.”
Dorothy Rowe, Five Books


“A superbly observed account of his eccentric Asian upbringing in Wolverhampton. Now a successful columnist on The Times, Sanghera returns home to unravel his family’s problems and reconcile his traditional Asian roots with his flashy London lifestyle. In the process he discovers the truth about his father’s schizophrenia and why his mother won’t accept any English girlfriend of his. It is a funny and touching look at the experience of second-generation immigrants from both inside and outside the bubble.”
Camilla Long, The Sunday Times Books of the Year, 2008


“I heartily recommend this wonderful book.”
Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time


“Quietly witty, engrossing and tragicomic – this insight into parallel culture in Britain today is the poignant story of an exceptional family that everyone should read.”
Judges for the 2008 Costa Book Awards


“A quirky delight.”
David Robson, The Sunday Telegraph Books of the Year 2008


“Very funny”
Anila Baig, The Sun


“A real one-off – a brave, candid, dark yet also hilarious memoir… So engaging: it’s unguarded, garrulous and frequently self-accusing in its quest to find the truth… Like the best coming of age stories, The Boy with the Topknot is frank about the embarrassments and self-absorption of adolescence. But it’s also a book about moving between two worlds: white and Asian, metropolitan and provincial, pluralistic and tight-knit. The judges admired Sanghera’s courage – when writers from ethnic minorities write honestly about the world they grew up in, they’re sometimes accused of betrayal and disloyalty, as Philip Roth to Monica Ali have found. But Sanghera’s is a loyal and loving book, which couldn’t have been written without the support of his family. Here’s a journalist applying his investigative skills close to home. Uncovering the secrets in his family requires him, at the end, to disclose some awkward truths about himself.”
Blake Morrison, judge, 2009 Mind Book of the Year


“Sensitive… tenacious… funny and revealing… warm, witty, neurotic, self-deprecating, wordplay-loving… In bearing witness to his family’s experience, Sanghera has brought to us rare news of working-class life, of living with mental illness and of overwhelming filial love. A family photo near the end of the book shows the author in his graduation gown and cap surrounded by his parents and siblings. How far he’s come, you think, against such odds, and you want to punch the air and cry at the same time.”
Lynsey Hanley, The Sunday Times


“Funny… vivid… tragic… unorthodox… un-PC… three stories cunningly woven together… about real secrets, in a real quest for understanding. It’s tragic, funny and disturbing. It will challenge you, and may even change you. In other words, it’s literature.”
Carole Angier, The Independent


“Sanghera must be a time lord — or, at the very least, a time tailor — so seamlessly does he weave together disparate strands of his life from different decades… The key struggle of his life — to be allowed to take responsibility for his own happiness in the sphere of relationships and marriage — forms the gripping climax to this book: an elegant diatribe against the destructive and self-perpetuating emotional blackmail which underpins the ‘arranged marriage’… There are several important themes in this book: a painful and enlightening insight into the harsh reality of schizophrenia and the impact it has on all concerned; a glimpse into the Sikh Punjabi community (which has perhaps been eclipsed by we Muslims always making such a hullabaloo); an intimate journey of emotional growth towards freedom and responsibility for one’s own happiness; and finally, a harsh appraisal of unquestioning, runaway ‘multiculturalism’ which places the full burden of accommodation (in every sense) with the indigenous society and frees the immigrant from any obligation to change…. there is no shred of misery or self-pity in this story, rather an endearing and intelligent humour which provokes honest laughter and absolute respect.”
Imran Ahmad, The Daily Mail


“The most moving debut we’ve read in ages.”
Elle


“When a writer decides to use up what WH Auden described as ‘capital’ – the stuff of life – in a memoir, it is a calculated sacrifice: a loss of privacy in favour of publication. Sathnam Sanghera goes further still. His memoir does not depend on passive reminiscence. It is an absorbing, ongoing drama, played out on the page… as a writer, he is ambidextrous. He knows how to exist in two places at once. He brings London back to Wolverhampton and is able to use the distance between his two worlds to entertaining effect… his writing is full of gentle, hyperbolic wit… The book contains the beautifully reconstituted story of his mother’s arranged marriage and its painful aftermath… and he works hard at trying to understand his father and his sister and their suffering… The book could not be more enjoyable, engaging or moving.”
Kate Kellaway, The Observer


“Marvellous.”
Jackie Wullschlager, The Financial Times


“… Although the book begins as a conventional memoir, charting his unhealthy adolescent obsession with George Michael, his first haircut at the hands of an Indian barber and the curious double-life that comes with being the child of non-English-speaking immigrants, it evolves into something far more insightful. Instead of simply telling his parents’ story, Sanghera charts the various emotional processes involved in its telling. It digs into some dark areas, but this is a hugely enjoyable book.”
Natasha Tripney, New Statesman


“This is a touching, revealing account of two worlds – Sikh and English, and the Midlands of the Eighties – as well as an intimate portrait of life lived with mental illness.”

Andrew O’Neill, The Daily Express


“In recent years, the thump of a memoir landing on my desk has generally signalled a read that will either plumb the depths of human misery or scale the dizzy heights of celebrity. Hurrah, then, for this book, which has single-handedly restored my faith in the entire genre. Sathnam Sanghera writes with originality and humour about his upbringing as “a Punjabi village child” born in 1970s Wolverhampton. As he delves further into his family’s past, we learn about his parents’ marriage and move to England, and his father’s schizophrenia. Like some of the very best books, it defies easy categorisation in terms of readership, but I’d recommend it to absolutely anybody – it’s charming and illuminating.”
Alice O’Keeffe, Books account manager, Amazon, The Bookseller


“Fascinating… timely… honest… brave… beautifully poignant.. troubling.. gripping and entertaining, horrifying and tender… The bravery with which the author relates events that most other families would seek to hide means that his book throbs with honesty, frustration and pathos. And insight: deep, poignant insight that exposes all those things we take for granted as we grow up that were so different for the author… The reminiscence is… delightful, insightful and charming… it is clear that the literary world should welcome a truthful and honest voice that comes from a new generation of very British writers who happen to have had Indian parents. I just wish I had got there first.”
Hardeep Singh Kohli, The Times


“Second- and third-generation Asians often complain about living a ‘schizophrenic’ existence. But they don’t generally mean it literally. Sanghera’s account of his Wolverhampton childhood blighted by mental illness is a rigorous and thoroughly intelligent rebooting of the misery memoir that recalls Dave Eggers’ ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ and deserves to do as well.”
Time Out


‘This is not just another misery-memoir, or provincial coming-of-age story. It is a meditation on mental illness and cultural difference, told with enormous compassion and the most unexpected dry wit. The climax had me on the edge of my seat. What a painful and joyous voyage of discovery Sathnam Sanghera has been on in the last few years, and how perfectly he recreates it for us!’
Jonathan Coe


“Something peculiar happens when a journalist turns his investigative powers on himself. In this odd mix of the professional and the personal, Sathnam Sanghera stalks the truth, uncovering at last a shock-horror scoop involving social exclusion, mental illness, marital violence and despair. Triumphant, he files the story. Its subject is himself…. Engaging, tragicomic story… speedy wit… it is testament to the emotional connection he forges with the reader that we end up caring deeply about the future of his relationships. So much so that, for a brief moment, I found myself wondering whether he couldn’t somehow manage, by sheer force of will, to spare his poor mother more disappointment, find a nice Sikh girl and settle down.”
Meg Rosoff, The Guardian

“I’m intrigued by what my life might have been like had I grown up in England— my father was in Edinburgh when I was born, and seriously considered a life in England. This wonderful memoir gives me a sense of what growing up as the child of Asian immigrants to Britain might have been like. Sathnam, who is a columnist for the Times, was an intern with me at the FT, so I’m prejudiced here—but this really is a fine book.”
Aravind Adiga, author of The White TigerUntitled Books


“Fabulously packed with life, thought, feeling, Sanghera’s tale goes beyond the odyssey of one remarkable family to offer an X-ray of an era. As charming as it is wrenching, as funny as it is haunting, this book is wonderfully unlike any other.”
Andrea Ashworth


“I absolutely loved it. Heartbreaking and wonderful. He writes beautifully.”
Maggie O’Farrell


“An incredibly moving memoir and a compelling read… Sanghera managed to reach the age of 24 without realising that his father and sister were schizophrenic, and was older still when he plucked up the courage to tell his mum that he didn’t want an arranged marriage. This funny, heartfelt memoir reveals the distressing history of Sanghera’s family while celebrating the love that kept them together.”
Marie Claire


“At 30, journalist Sathnam Sanghera had the lot: his dream job, good friends and a close loving family. But he had also had six secret relationships in as many years. Having been raised a Sikh, he was expected by his parents to have an arranged marriage – but he wanted to wait for true love. This moving debut explores the decision he took to tell his parents the truth. And in a twist that would seem incredible in fiction, he embarks on a study of his parents’ beliefs and ends up finding darker secrets than he could ever have imagined.”
The Londonpaper


“Fans of Nick Hornby and Jonathan Coe will love this book.”
Psychologies


“Holding up his own human failings, Sanghera strives to overcome the chasm between his urban, modern life and the cloistered, uneducated life of his parents. His warm, largely happy memories of sibling fun, George Michael posters and first kisses shine through, while his witty take on Wolverhampton from 1970 to today is priceless.”
Zena Alkayat, Metro


“Witty, poignant and affectionately rude about inner-city Wolverhampton, this book confronts some of the key issues about multi-cultural Britain while acting as a painful and touching family memoir.”
Martin Warrilow, The Birmingham Post


“Sanghera could easily have slipped into the popular literature of lugubriousness… Fortunately, this is not that kind of book… The story of Sanghera’s long-delayed nuptials is a good foil for the troubling matter of his father’s disease, and he writes well about the absurdity of the Sikh marriage circuit… Best of all, he reprints embarrassing childhood pictures and is disarmingly frank not only about common British and Sikh prejudices, but about his own… Despite his own extreme experiences, there is little misery and a great deal of understanding in his admirable memoir.”
J. J. Purdon, Times Literary Supplement


“Witty, well written… provides a powerful insight into the way ethnic minority families cope with a diagnosis of mental disorder… Sanghera has produced a book of remarkable compassion and honesty. Rather than sensationalising events, he chooses to convey experiences of dealing with mental illness with great sensitivity. What struck me most about this book is that it crosses genres so successfully. I felt it was neither a précis of mental illness nor a memoir of early life experiences. Rather it was more an observation of a family coping with, and ultimately surviving, the trauma of mental illness. I was left with the notion that memoirs can actually be relevant, educational, and enjoyable.”
The British Medical Journal


“The mother of all memoirs… powerful… phenomenal… brave, honest and frequently hilarious… Read it.”
Asiana


“Unusual, candid and very touching memoir… honest, often funny, often devastatingly sad…. Sanghera’s book struck me powerfully. I was moved by his exploration of a mental illness so rarely discussed, so ill understood and so commonplace… It’s a powerful book, and what my initial discomfort tells me is simply that it is a necessary one. By sharing his story, Sanghera may have made it possible for hundreds of Indians to emerge from the false shame and genuine despair that mental illness causes — perhaps they will now share their stories, with the same generosity if not the same skill as he offers.”
Nilanjana S Roy, The Business Standard


“Heartrending account… his writing communicates easily, fluently, even compulsively, almost chattily… He posits a clinical objectivity to hold self-pity in abeyance… The raw melodrama of religion-illusion-superstition-ridden, immigrant Punjabi family life is refracted through a sceptical, amused eye, but also a heart that cannot shrug off its values… Sanghera’s lively prose strives to turn lifetimes of secrets and lies — twisting through extended bloodlines, stretching from the farmlands of Punjab to the Midlands of Britain — transparent.”
Gowri Ramnarayan, The Hindu


“Structured… like a detective story…. even as he wants to express his vexation with the hidebound ways of his mother, Sanghera feels a renewed respect for the woman who, as a young wife shipped out into a frighteningly alien environment, absorbed so much pain and held her family together. Yet he knows he must force one last change on her, and persuade her that “just because everyone else does something, it doesn’t mean that I have to”. This tussle between two people who are intensely frustrated with each other and yet mean the world to one another makes Sanghera’s memoir a real page-turner.”
Chandrahas Choudhury, Mint


“This is an unusual memoir for many reasons: the most difficult part being in allowing us access to the family history which includes domestic violence and schizophrenia… In all of this, Sanghera is always a thoughtful, sensitive author – a complete anti-thesis of the macho Punjabi… This is a painfully honest book, simply written. As a Punjabi, I was very pleasantly surprised at Sanghera’s empathy and love for the women in his life and his refusal to take any of these relationships for granted. And as someone who lives in the UK, I was also immensely moved by his family’s decision to share this memoir with us.”
Kishwar Desai, Indian Express


“Sad as well as heart warming… In a broad sweep, Sanghera tackles with admiration subjects as varied as mental illness, anxieties and values that are typical of Indian households, lives of Punjabi immigrants and clash of cultures. The concoction is a heady mix, enjoyable and difficult to put down. Never before has a story so gripping on Punjabi migrants been told…. [an] unforgettable story of secrets and love told with wit, passion and a true journalist’s dispassion.”
Bhupesh Bhandari, Business Standard


“Sathnam Sanghera’s coming of age tale of love and liberation from the ghetto of his family in the mean streets of Wolverhampton in the Midlands gets its energy from the very dismal quality of its beginnings… He does not flinch at uncovering the violence that his mother experiences from the very first night of her marriage to a strange man in a strange land, nor does he allow himself to be obsessed by it. If at all there is anger, it is at the way Indian families deal with mental illness—by getting the person married and letting the partner handle the problem. Or if not that, someone has to take the blame for it, as his mother had to do. It’s a survivor’s tale… Sanghera himself has imbibed enough of the English talent for a mocking self-knowledge so that he can play at being both Peter Sellers and Raj Kapoor. It is this dual identity of Indian ingénue and cool Cambridge educated voyeur that makes the book so enticing.”
Geeta Doctor, India Today


“… a curious mixture of fond and funny incidents… This is a touching, revealing account of two worlds – Sikh and English, and the Midlands of the 1980s – and an intimate portrait of life lived with mental illness.”
Nick Ryan, South China Morning Post


“On the face of it, this book looks like an account of a typical Sikh farmer’s family that emigrated to the UK through family ties in the 1960s. It, however, goes much beyond that… Though the topic of mental illness is potentially an explosive one, the tone of the narrative is gentle. An uplifting read.”
Anjali Pancholi Roy, Businessworld (India)


“It is with journalistic persistence and an eye for detail that Sanghera tracks down [his family] history of [mental] illness and its effects on his family… This book, apart from being a brown study on the deleterious effects of schizophrenia, is essentially a tribute to the author’s mother, her courage and her success at what is now called ‘multitasking’. It is also an intimate portrait of a Sikh family of immigrants living in Wolverhampton… Like most good autobiographical works, this one too takes a candid look at the author who emerges as a dutiful young man who reveres his mother, so much so that he leads a double, secretive life in London away from the prying eyes of family, doing what most young men do: dating, drinking and working… It is unusual to find such filial devotion in these defiant and cynical times and it is one of the charms of the book that this comes across unconsciously and, more importantly, without wallowing in any kind of sentimentality… Western readers will find this book revelatory in understanding different and differing cultures and in appreciating the unflinching work ethic of the Punjabi immigrant and, no doubt, of other Indian communities settled in the UK. It could help in unclogging the jaundiced view of them as parvenus and interlopers. Sanghera elevates his story beyond mere misery into the realm of hope and optimism.”
Manohar Shetty, Deccan Herald (Bangalore)


“Not many can create magic from a fusion of confession and nostalgia by illuminating it with insight, empathy and self-deprecating wit. This book radiates that special quality. Engaging us, heart and soul, without ever descending into sentimentality, this compelling memoir is the work of a gifted writer who knows how to translate truth into literature… as Sanghera keeps diving into his past and resurfacing in the present with the grace and precision of a champion swimmer, the contrasts between the separate worlds he inhabits become glaringly evident… One can’t help marvelling at the effortless ease with which the author can pluck scenes from his disparate worlds and present them with such cinematic realism as to make us feel like participants, rather than witnesses. Contributing to this impression is the writer’s eye for detail and ruthlessly accurate ear for dialogue. And the near-perfect balance he achieves between the book’s heart-wrenching moments and its hilariously absurd ones reveals the importance he accords to both…. overwhelming.”
Mita Ghose, The Statesman (India)