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Hacktreks 2

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Hacktreks in the Punjab

Exploring Roots
Rita Sidhu in the Punjab

'I thought I knew what family meant. I was wrong. This trip to Bhatinda really opened my eyes.'

I figure, since I would be living in India for a little while, it was time I started acting like the local I would become. So, on a balmy Thursday night, I went for aloo tikki at the local market, (a traditional Indian fried potato snack drizzled with different chutneys) with a couple of people. It was delicious. Afterwards, walking past some stalls, there was an insistence that I try mithi paan, which is an Indian version of mouth freshener. I was a bit nervous about hygiene watching the guy in the stall prepare it with no gloves or hand washing facilities. Plus, he was handling money but I wanted to be a sport and have an "Indian" experience. (I later had an upset stomach as a result).

It seemed like a complex process and took a while. (I would probably not get it on my own; there are stories about people being drugged and robbed although how much of this is fact and how much is fiction I don't know.) Basically, it is this paste with herbs and spices wrapped in these leaves. It fits in the palm of your hand, but was a bit of a challenge to fit into my mouth. You pop it in all at once, chew, chew, chew, and then swallow. It had a kind of minty aftertaste. But I was told it was not good to have too often. (Not really a problem, I think I'll stick with gum, so much easier).

Anyway, the next evening, Friday night, my aunt and uncle came from Punjab to pick me up to spend an extended weekend with them. Now, I've been to my maternal village, but this was my dad's younger brother and his family that I would be visiting. Since my father is the oldest brother, their house is actually, for all intents and purposes, my house. My father was born there. For years, I've been hearing about Bhatinda district in Punjab, and Nangal Kalan, my ancestral village. I've even been dragged to a "Bhatinda Night" back in Vancouver for all the Canadians who originated from this particular district. So I was very excited to actually see this place.
We took the train, the Punjab Mail. It left New Delhi at 9 pm and arrived in Mansa at 2 am. From Mansa it was a 20-minute drive to Nangal, my village. Now Indian trains are something else. I've been told that if you're a Westerner, you will want travel at least second-class, air-conditioned. Sleeper class, the way most Indians travel, is apparently only for the extremely adventurous or extremely broke. If I was on my own, I would have definitely gone 2AC but my uncle had to bribe some agent to get tickets as it was and I was not going to make a fuss. Definitely another "Indian" experience.

The train was crowded and grimy. Three bunks stacked like bunk beds opposite three other bunks in each compartment plus two across the aisle. So in effect, there are eight people in each compartment, but there are no doors or anything. I was on the top bunk, my aunt below me and my uncle across from her. No sheets or anything since the bunks converted into seats for daytime use. Thank goodness my mother insisted I take that shawl. While useless and never used in Canada, it is the most versatile and most utilized item I have here. I figured I would enjoy the journey much more if I were unconscious so I tried to sleep. I was glad that my relatives had insisted that I not attempt the journey by myself. It would have been a foolish decision. While I'm used to stares by now, I wouldn't be able to relax a second if I were alone in that open carriage filled with strange men. Also, there were no other single women, and I figured there probably was a good reason for that. I'm sure I would have felt differently if it were a daytime journey, though.

We reached our house and I was greeted with hugs and kisses from my three cousins (a 16 year old girl, 12 year old girl and 10 year old boy that I came to absolutely adore.) I was just blown away by how completely everyone accepted and loved me even though they had never met me before. They thought nothing of spontaneously grasping my hand while walking, tackling me and covering me in kisses, or just giving me a hug. It made me think of the times when I would meet a relative from India in Canada and how I would just go through the motions of saying hello and doing the bare minimum required of me as a dutiful Punjabi. I was struck by the difference and have decided I will be different from now on. How cold we Canadian-born Punjabis must seem to our Indian counterparts!

Anyway, I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was, to see photos of my family displayed. I was amused to see a picture of my dad from like 1970 when he was the Director of the Indian Canadian Fraser Valley Association looking young, trim, and with lots of hair. I was completely shocked to see a picture of my mom carrying my older sister as a baby. It was also from the 70's, and she is sporting ultra-straight, shoulder length hair, a tank top and fitted red pants (looking stunning). Hard to believe my parents might have actually had lives before I came along! And of course, pictures of my cousins, and myself, at age 8. It was kind of surreal looking through these albums in a village in North India, with people I barely knew existed before coming here. It was also weird to notice that my uncle had the exact same mannerisms and temperament as my father even though my dad had lived half a world away for over 30 years. Also, to my ears, they were very loud and often spoke with booming voices. They asked me why I spoke so quietly.

I won't get into housing design details since it is too much to describe. But generally, the houses have rooms that open into courtyards. We never kept the doors closed, but at night the huge gate into the compound was locked. It was quite pleasant with the breeze and the moonlight. Beds are different here and they were pulled out nightly along with bedding. In the morning they were put away. I got to sleep on the "real" bed since they were afraid my back would hurt on the Indian, woven bed, the charpoy. Everyone sleeps communally in the two bedrooms and would not want it any other way.

We went to Amritsar, to see the Golden Temple, which is a beautiful Sikh gurdwara. It was a five-hour drive both ways. The temple complex has a sense of symmetry and balance that, when combined with the presence of the pool of water and the sounds of prayer, lend a sense of peace to the area. The entire thing is built in white marble and gold so it's quite spectacular. I cannot imagine anyone thinking of storming it like Indian soldiers did in Operation Bluestar, or freedom-fighters/terrorists bringing guns in even though I tried.

There is large, wide rectangular, white marble walkway around the pool. It has a covered arcade where pilgrims walk and four large gates on all four sides. The pool of water is large (maybe the size of a football field?) and in the middle of it sits the Golden Temple. There is a single walkway leading up to it over the water. Many Sikhs believe it is good/holy to bathe in these waters. So you see lots of people, (even non-Sikhs) in underclothes on the steps. There is like a large covering on part of the pool where women can bathe in relative modesty. I personally didn't feel this was necessary for me but dipped my bare feet in to satisfy my cousins. There were large catfish in the water. I noticed that many of the Sikhs, like myself, were actually foreigners but since it was Sunday, many locals were also in attendance.

It was quite hot since it was midday. To actually get into the temple, (which is actually a lot smaller than I thought) you had to join this massive line. It was so crowded and hot. People were pushing and literally pressed up against me on all sides. If this weren’t such a once-in-a-lifetime thing, I would have turned back. I thought to myself that it was kind of hellish to see a little bit of heaven. Up close, the temple was even more remarkable. Such intricate details. It must be seen to be appreciated. Later we walked by a tree where some important figure apparently used to sit under and direct the construction. I thought the tree couldn't possibly be that old though...but what do I know.

Gurdwaras are different in India. Before you enter, there is a shallow trough of water that you step through with your bare feet. I suppose it is a cleansing ritual since shoes are not allowed in temples. I witnessed some pretty extreme acts of devotion. For example, I saw someone actually drink this water; others washed their faces with it. At the Golden Temple, I did not particularly want to eat langar (the communal meal in the free kitchen that draws no distinction amongst people based on race, colour, caste, socio-economic status etc.) That's why I made the effort to do so. It was in a separate hall and there were no tables and chairs like in Canada but long mats on the floor. It was quite good actually.

Later we went to Jallianwallah Bagh, a place where there had been a large, forbidden, gathering of Indians during the struggle for independence. This is a memorial garden where many Indians were massacred under the orders of the British General Dyer. I walked through the narrow lane that was the only escape route but had been blocked by soldiers. I also looked into the large well that people had thrown themselves into in a desperate attempt to save themselves. It was a very beautiful and peaceful garden. I didn't really like the martyr's gallery though, which had a painted depiction of the massacre. I also had to wonder about the numbers given of the dead. The people of Amritsar are still very sensitive about it though, and I heard a song about the massacre that was quite vengeful. Walking through Amritsar streets, I thought this must be kind of what cities looked like in mediaeval times.

Holi, the festival of colour, also occurred while I was in the village. It is a day when everyone goes crazy with vibrantly coloured powders. While it apparently can get pretty rough in the cities, it was really fun to play with people you know. All the neighbouring kids of all ages got involved (as well as some of the old women). It's not a Sikh holiday, but this is a case where religion and culture intersect.

I also spent a lot of time visiting different relatives' houses and consuming copious amounts of tea made with buffalo milk. (Good, but after the ninth cup...but it's rude to refuse). These people also insisted I take sagan, or a small monetary gift. It's because it was the first time I was visiting their homes. I got kind of tired of playing that game where you are supposed to refuse at least two times before finally accepting it. But that's the way things are done, they won't take no for an answer.

I visited this monument in the village that apparently was the graves of my ancestors. I didn't really understand what was going on, since Sikhs cremate, but I had to go and pay homage there. My aunt had to tell my what to do. It had my father's name and title inscribed in Punjabi on it as well. Will have to remember to ask my parents more about that when I get home.

The kids and I also played different card games to pass the time. Didn't watch much TV. (They were on holiday from school). Unlike my mother's family, my uncle actually worked the land daily. My aunt stayed home running the household and kids. They are all extremely close-knit. I asked the kids if they had any desire to come to Canada. They all said no, they thought Nangal was the greatest place and couldn't understand how anyone could leave their family.

I thought I knew what family meant. I was wrong. This trip to Bhatinda really opened my eyes. I can understand where the term 'blood is thicker than water' comes from. I'm going to go home with a new appreciation for my family, (even those bitter, middle-aged, female cousins I dread seeing that my sisters and I secretly refer to as the "water buffaloes"). I will never forget just how lovingly these people embraced me into their hearts and home. They even suggested I quit my job and spend the next four months with them. I actually considered it for half a second. But that's not my life. It was hard to say goodbye to them, I miss them already. Can't believe I was not even planning on visiting them.

© Rita Sidhu July 2003

Abbotsford, BC
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