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Pool of Life

The Autobiography of a Punjabi Agony Aunt

In the series
The Sussex Library of Asian & Asian American Studies

Kailash Puri, ‘Asian agony aunt’, media personality, award-winning author of many Punjabi novels, and co-author of The Myth of UK Integration.

Eleanor Nesbitt is Professor Emeritus in Religions and Education at the University of Warwick and a founding member of Punjab Research Group. Her many publications include Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction and Intercultural Education: Ethnographic and Religious Approaches.

Arranged marriage, racism, cookery and yoga… meet Kailash as she recounts her childhood in a vanished India, her early marriage and her adjustments to the challenges of life in three continents. An unwanted daughter, Kailash goes on to be a poet, novelist and magazine editor. The first Punjabi to write a column on sexual problems, the first Asian food consultant to Marks and Spencer – Kailash speaks with wisdom and humour. Meet the Punjabi agony aunt and her postbag.

Eleanor Nesbitt’s introduction contextualises the life of Kailash Puri, Punjabi author and agony aunt, providing the story of the book itself and connecting the narrative to the history of the Punjabi diaspora and themes in Sikh Studies. She suggests that representation of the stereotypical South Asian woman as victim needs to give way to a nuanced recognition of agency, multiple voices and a differentiated experience.

The narrative presents sixty years of Kailash’s life. Her memories of childhood in West Punjab evoke rural customs and religious practices consistent with recent scholarship on ‘Punjabi religion’ rather than with the currently dominant Sikh discourse of a religion sharply distinguished from Hindu society. Her marriage, as a shy 15-year-old, with no knowledge of English, to a scientist, Gopal Puri, brought ever-widening horizons as husband and wife moved from India to London, and later to West Africa, before returning to the UK in 1966. This life experience, and Gopal’s constant encouragement, brought confidence to write and publish numerous stories and articles.

Kailash writes of the contrasting experiences of life as an Indian in the UK of the 1940s and the 1960s. She points up differences between her own outlook and the life-world of the post-war community of Sikhs from East Punjab now living in the West. In their distress and dilemmas many people consulted Kailash for assistance, and the descriptive narrative of her responses and advice and increasingly public profile provides insight into Sikhs’ experience in their adopted country. In later years, as grandparents and established citizens of Liverpool, Kailash and Gopal revisited their ancestral home, now in Pakistan – a reflective and moving experience. The book includes a glossary of Punjabi words and suggestions for further reading.

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-602-8
Paperback Price: £19.95 / $29.95
Release Date: October 2013
Page Extent / Format: 192 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Preface by Series Editor Mina Roces


Chapter 1 Childhood

Chapter 2 Tradition

Chapter 3 Rawalpindi and Lahore

Chapter 4 Marriage

Chapter 5 London

Chapter 6 India again

Chapter 7 West Africa

Chapter 8 Slough and Southall

Chapter 9 Liverpool

Chapter 10 Writing and public speaking

Chapter 11 “A shoulder to cry on”

Chapter 12 Pakistan


Suggested further reading

This groundbreaking volume by Kailash Puri and Eleanor Nesbitt is one of the first to offer a Sikh woman’s reflections on historically significant events, religious life and cultural experiences faced by her community, both within Indian and British contexts. This narrative offers a fascinating and thought-provoking glimpse into the long, diverse and well-lived life of a Sikh woman, a perspective sorely lacking given that much of Sikh history and experience has accumulated through male lenses. In her later role of an ‘agony aunt’, Kailash Puri was attuned to the deepest hurts and peak moments of members of the South Asian community, but primarily those of South Asian women, through the narratives shared with her and the advice which she in turn offered. Professor Nesbitt’s and Kailash Puri’s careful examination of the ‘meanings’ associated with those narratives offers invaluable insight into the varied practices, attitudes and challenges that continue to face the Sikh community in the twenty-first century.
Dr. Doris Jakobsh, Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Pool of Life gives us a wonderful opportunity to meet the pioneer Punjabi feminist Kailash Puri. Starting from her childhood in the Punjabi village of Kallar to her standing by the sea in Liverpool, Kailash Puri’s memoir offers a spectacular view of South Asian history. Her individual biography intersects evocatively and movingly with the shifting realities of Partition, transnationalism, diaspora, race, gender, sexuality, and religion. What remains constant is Kailash’s courage and determination. As early as the 1940’s the Sikh feminist began to address issues of marriage, sex, and relationships in magazines (both in the UK and India) that no Punjabi had dared to discuss. In collaboration with the eminent scholar Eleanor Nesbitt, Kailash authentically voices her past, and so she inspires us to make sense of our future. Indeed Pool of Life is a vital contribution to autobiography and multicultural literature.
Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Chair and Crawford Family Professor, Dept. of Religious Studies, Colby College, Waterville, ME, USA

Here is a richly lived world of a Punjabi Sikh woman – a daughter, wife, mother, story-teller, journalist and straight-shooting marital guide for a deeply appreciative audience of South Asian women in Great Britain. It is told in a wonderfully inviting way with honesty, without pretension, and yet with colour, feeling and pace. And it reflects the wisdom of a woman who naturally engaged with the people around her whatever the context: in village life and the academic world, in pre-and post-partition India, in Great Britain, Nigeria and Ghana, always with an observant eye and a sympathetic ear. It is a book from which one can learn intellectually and emotionally about culture, life and change.
Hugh Johnston, Professor Emeritus in History, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada

This account reaches to the heart of Punjabi life in a way that is honest and interesting. I wish Kailash and Eleanor every success with its publication and am grateful for the lifestyle that Kailash has been willing to share with her readers. Her autobiography has been enhanced by Eleanor’s brief sketch of Sikh experience in the UK during the past thirty years.
W. Owen Cole

It has been a sheer pleasure to read the autobiography of Kailash Puri, written largely in Punjabi and rendered into very readable English by Professor Emeritus Eleanor Nesbitt. We learn that Kailash was born in Arya Mohalla, Rawalpindi, just next to Gordon College. Being the fifth daughter in a family of Khatri Sikhs who longed for a son, her parents ironically named her Veerawali (sister of brothers)! She adopted her penname, Kailash, later in life when she began writing. The Puris, like millions of other refugees, had to run for their lives at the time of partition in 1947 and to begin life again from scratch in India. It so happens that one of my current students at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) Nimra Zulfiqar’s family shifted to Arya Mohalla from Ludhiana and Jullundur in 1947. So, the partition saga continues to bring forth strange coincidences, connections and associations.
... Although born in Rawalpindi, Kailash always felt that her roots were in the ancestral village of Kallar (now called Kallar Syedan) some 25 miles from the city. I visited Kallar in December 2004 for fieldwork on my Punjab book. In 1947, it escaped largely unscathed raids by Muslim mobs because the Sikhs and Hindus could find refuge in the large fortress-like building of the direct descendants of Guru Nanak, the Babas or Bedis. However, the Sikh and Hindu inhabitants of the nearby village of Thamali were almost wiped out.
... Chapters one to five tell the story of the first phase of her life. Her father, Sohan Singh Puri, was a businessman. He built a home in Lahore as well and so the family stayed in both Rawalpindi and in Dharampura, Lahore. Like Parkash Tandon’s Punjabi Century, the portrayal of the social and cultural life of the old Punjab is done with great skill and absolute honesty. Although a believing Sikh, she deftly lays bare the dead weight of traditional life permeated by superstitions. A Puri boy, Gopal, a talented scientist, saw her, found her pretty and wanted to marry her. It was a proposal that contravened the rules of consanguinity applicable to Hindu and Sikh marriage because Kailash and Gopal belonged to the same ‘Puri Gotra’ (clan) within the Khatri caste. Intrigues and jealousies came into play and typically a villain reminiscent of Kado Langa of Heer fame, a close relative, Sunder Singh, tried his best to subvert the match but Gopal’s resolve prevailed and her parents agreed to the marriage.
... Gopal Singh Puri secured a scholarship to do a second PhD in London in 1945 (presumably after the war). Kailash joined him later. They lived on a tight budget in a small room in very austere conditions but the English landlord and landlady proved to be extremely kind and considerate. Also, the shopkeepers and other English people they met were courteous and sympathetic. Their first child, Shaminder, was born in London in October 1947. Later, two girls Kiren (1950) and Risham (1956) were also born.
... The Puris returned to India in 1948. Kailash’s parents had settled in Dehra Dun, where after some struggle Gopal found a job as forest ecologist and technical secretary to the Indian Council of Ecological Research at Dehra Dun. Intrigues and plots hatched by jealous colleagues and superiors made life difficult. When an opportunity arose, Gopal accepted a posting in Pune, Maharashtra. Here Kailash began her writing career — first as a columnist on cookery. Encouraged by Gurbaksh Singh, the editor of Preetlari (once a favourite of pre-partition Punjab leftists), she launched the first Punjabi language magazine for women.
... The family went to Africa in 1961 where Gopal taught at Nigerian and Ghanian universities. The author once again impresses the reader with vivid and frank depictions of political, social and cultural life in West Africa. The presentations are done with sympathy and genuine curiosity to learn and understand. We learn that African women are quite enterprising and even those from the elite try to make an income by selling petty goods.
... The last part of the book tells the story of the Puris arriving in the UK around 1966. An uphill task of finding work in a very different UK begins. By that time, thousands of people from the Indian subcontinent, mostly Punjabi Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus, were already there. The culture clashes and shocks experienced by the host society and the immigrants had replaced the friendly attitude that Kailash experienced on her first stay in that country. Even with all his outstanding qualifications, Gopal had great difficulty in finding a job. Kailesh also had to struggle hard but got a break in Southall but then the family moved to Liverpool where they have been settled since.
... However, all along, even in the most adverse circumstances, she continued writing and expanding the ambit of her expertise from cookery to family affairs, sexual relations and other related problems. She calls herself an ‘agony aunt’ and that is a very appropriate description. People consulted her on all the typical problems that ensue once the cultural framework of the home country is no longer applicable and traditional life can no longer be reproduced as before. That she achieved such authority and status without any formal university education speaks a lot for her native intelligence and ability to learn and develop.
... The most touching chapter is the one on Kailash and Gopal’s visit to Pakistan. It confirms an urge all Punjabis uprooted from their roots have felt — to revisit, at least once, their roots. Finally, in 1983, an old world, long abandoned but never forgotten came back to life. The home at Dharampura was in ruins but both in Arya Mohalla and especially in Kallar the old buildings were still there and of course they met people who remembered their families. They were offered hospitality by those who lived in their old homes.
... Kailash Puri’s autobiography is a must read for those trying to make sense of physical migrations and concomitant social and intellectual transformations that have wrought the lives of Punjabis from the 1940s onwards.”
Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed, Visiting Professor, LUMS, Pakistan; Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; and Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012), won the Best Non-Fiction Book Prize at the 2013 Karachi Literature Festival and the 2013 UBL-Jang Groups Best Non-Fiction Book Prize at Lahore. His latest book is Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947–2011), Oxford, 2013. From The Daily Times, Pakistan (and also — 14/5/14 — on

Reviewed in the Journal of Contemporary Religion by Elisabeth Arweck, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK; © 2014 Taylor & Francis.

This is an unusual and important book. ... the life story of Kailash Puri (b. 1926) touches on many important themes for the study of South Asian beliefs, both within India and in diasporic communities. ... Through Kailash’s eyes the reader can understand from a new position changing British attitudes to immigrants, changing gender roles, women in the workplace, and other topics relevant to twentieth-century social and cultural history. Her experiences will complicate any simplistic assumptions about gender relations, women’s empowerment and self-expression, and attitudes towards immigrants.
Reviewed in Religions of South Asia:

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