Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Punjabi Kurai

Kurai is the Punjabi word for 'girl' and this is the story of how I officially became a member of a local Punjabi family: a Punjabi Kurai. Jonathan too, of course, only I don't know the Punjabi word for boy, so... Punjabi Kurai, it is. There are moments in the last ten months of travelling that something so incredible has happened that it washes away every ounce of bitterness, frustration that has been building, and restores our faith in the goodness of people, in humility, in humanity (this is a bit melodramatic, but still somewhat true).

We were on the 640AM train from Delhi to Amritsar. Amritsar is famous for it's immaculate Golden Temple, a religious site where Sikh pilgrims come from all over to worship, and, also contrastingly, the 1919 massacre of thousands of Indians in Jallianalla Bagh, under General Dyer and the British Raj. The massacre is a major event in Indian history. It was one of the main motivations for Mohandas Gandhi to encourage a country-wide, non-violent, non-cooperation movement. A step in the direction of the country's independence.

In front of us, on the train, there was a family with two small kids. The little boy had huge brown, shiny eyes and long, thick eyelashes. He was adorable, looked about three years old and spent much of the eight hour train ride hanging over the back of his seat, watching and smiling at us. The friendly parents, Vikramjit and Raj, (we later learned) sparked up a conversation and before we knew it, we had plans to meet up the next day to visit the Golden Temple together. Who better to appreciate the spiritual centre of Sikh faith with, than Sikh people themselves?

The next day Vikramjit and Raj came to pick us up at our hotel and we headed into the temple. Vikramjit is extremely knowledgable and Jonathan and him were deep in conversation the whole afternoon. Raj and I talked more about everyday life in India, marriage and kids. 'Where do you get your milk from?' She asked me. At first I didn't really understand the question. Like, did my family have a cow? 'Um, from the store,' I answered. 'Why, where do you get your milk from?' I was now very curious. 'Oh the milk man delivers it fresh every morning! Two litres. We drink a lot of tea.' A milkman! How awesome is that?! Everything we chatted about was mutually fascinating, I think. She was interested in how Jonathan and I met and were married, and how did it all work without a dowry from my parents. What did we wear in Canada? What did we eat? Did we go to church? I was enthralled by her stories of their arranged marriage, and how herself and Vikramjit fell in love after they were married. Her previous work as a science teacher, their kids, family relations, their home office where Vikramjit is a dental surgeon... it was all so interesting!

First, we shared a meal in the free community kitchen, our private tour guides explaining everything. After circling the temple complex, Vikramjit made a donation to the temple and received a plate with huge dried leaves and a bowl made from a dry leaf with some brown, thick sticky stuff in it. Because we were making a donation we were allowed to go in a special line to enter the Golden Temple itself, on the boardwalk across the water. We were privileged, again, to be with Vikramjit and Raj because we were able to go up into the temple, as opposed to just skirting the edges as most tourists do. Upstairs, important gurus were chanting and people were gathered around reading prayers. On another floor a small band and singer were performing the beautiful music that was being piped through the speakers to the whole complex. Every detail of the interior of the temple was immaculate. No inch was left undecorated, no window wasn't perfectly trimmed. It was spectacular! We sat in the shade of the marble terrace and relaxed a while. Despite being monsoon, the sky was a clear blue and the sun was blazing. Thank the Sikhs for the free water stands in every corner. They really know how to take care of their pilgrims!

While we were sitting and enjoying the shade, view and company, Raj explained why this particular visit to the Golden Temple was so important to their family. Over three years ago, herself, Vikramjit and their baby daughter had come to the temple to pray for a son. God had blessed them with a son, their now three year old rascal, Rohan, and this has been their first opportunity to come to give thanks since Rohan's birth. Vikramjit and Raj live in the state of Madhya Pradesh, about a 24hour train ride away, so coming all the way to Punjab really is quite the trip. They were really happy to be here, and to have the opportunity to bathe in the lake surrounding the temple, known as the 'Pool of Immortality-Giving Nectar.'

For Vikramjit, visiting Punjab is like a homecoming, as he grew up very near Amritsar. In fact, they were staying with his family out in their village about 30km from the city. His parents no longer lived there, but his aunt, uncle and cousins do, with whom he is still very close. We didn't know it at the time, but his family was about to become ours as well.

Vikramjit, Raj and the kids were heading out to the Indo-Pakistan border at Wagha for the evening 'show' and they invited us to join. Of course! Omandeep, Vikramjit's cousin and high ranking officer with the Punjab police had taken time off work to come into town, pick us up and take us the 30km to the border. Omandeep was very friendly. 'Friends shouldn't be staying at a hotel, they should be staying with our family' he declared within minutes of us squashing into his backseat. One shouldn't argue with a police officer, so we accepted his invitation graciously. How exciting! How generous! We weaved in and out of traffic, honking and attempting to avoid wandering cows, dogs, motorbikes and children. 'Do you feel comfortable?' Raj whispered to me as we narrowly avoided sideswiping a family of goats. 'Sure, it's just like being in the car with my dad or uncle,' I joked. Plus, we were with a swerving, honking police officer, how much safer could we get? He probably did this all the time. Only faster. And with sirens.

'So, how is Canada different than India?' Raj asked. I looked at Jonathan for help. He smirked at the cows wandering down the middle of the road. 'Where to begin?' he joked, smiling at little Rohan who was currently dancing on the centre console. Kids don't have to be in car seats, let alone wear seat belts, garbage gets thrown out the window, there appears to be no road rules whatsoever, the food is completely different, the clothes, the culture, the temperature... I could pick out a million different things in a five foot radius. Pretty much everything is different. It would have been a much, much shorter list to name things that were similar. And I don't even know what would make the list. It was a really hard question to answer, especially without coming across as though I was saying things in Canada were better, because that's not what I would mean. Just so, so different. 'Its really hard to explain, its just so different. Canada and India are both fantastic places, but for very different reasons. You'll just have to come and see for yourself,' I concluded. Raj agreed. Woohoo! Potential visitors!

After the border closing 'experience' which was interesting enough for its very own post (coming next) we headed back to Omandeep's house in the village. Our bags were still at the hotel and it would have been very far out of the way to go back into the city to get them, especially with the traffic. Raj promised that she would take care of everything we could need, and she did. The family wanted to cook us a special dinner, so we stopped a road-side butcher to pick up a chicken, and egg stall for eggs and a corner store for drinks. We stopped along the way for a chai. The Indian version of Timmys. 'I think, in India, tea is compulsory,' Vikramjit told us. We agreed.

Once in the village we stopped at the corner 'everything' store owned by Omandeep's wife. She had gotten bored of sitting at home while Omandeep was at work, policing all day, so she opened a corner store to keep herself busy. She loaded a bag with toothbrushes, soap and toiletries for us before we all headed back to the house. We had quite the welcoming party! Everyone had come out to meet us. There was Uncle and Auntie, the patriarch and matriarch of the family, two of their sons with their families and kids and a few other people who had come just for the party. It was a hub-ub of activity. Everyone was doing something. It reminded me a lot of our family gathering back home. The kitchen was a buzz with mouth watering smells wafting out from it, people were running around filling eachothers drinks and plates, there is laughter, chatting, kids are yelling, jumping and dancing, Gramma (Auntie in this case) is trying to make sure everyone has everything they could possibly want and more... Now this was something familiar. A warm, welcoming, loving, loud, kinda chaotic family, who really appreciates good food. Family, friends, food and tea do, it turns out, transcend boundaries of all sorts.

Everyone was so excited that we were there. Uncle spoke decent English so we even had the opportunity to talk to him and hear about his life, his career in the Indian army, his four successful sons and how he, himself started this little village where we were now all sitting. The kids were literally jumping off the walls (couches, and tables) with excitement. Especially after I brought out the camera. I sure know how to rile kids up just before bedtime. (You know you aren't a parent when...) It was almost midnight by the time the feast was ready. And, my was it delicious! A chicken dish, aloo paneer (potato and cheese), fresh chapati and completed with another round of, piping hot, spicy chai. Perfection. The kids were passed out on the bed in the screen room and we were given fresh clothes to change into. Raj handed me a Punjabi suit, with beautiful pink flowers on it. A suit which is a long, fitted shirt and comfy matching pants. I came out of the bathroom and was met with, surprisingly, a round of applause. 'Wow, you look like a real Punjabi Kurai!' Everyone exclaimed, smiling widely. 'Mr. Jon!' Uncle called, 'come over here and see your Punjabi kurai!' haha!

Raj loved the suit so much that she insisted on buying me one and having it tailored the next morning before we headed back to the city. Seriously, she is just so wonderful. And we were both pretty excited. She picked out a stunning white top suit with a colourful embroidered peacock on it and matching navy pants. When you buy the suit, it is just two pieces of material, not resembling wearable clothing at all. Then the magical tailor comes along. She arrived first thing in the morning and took about twenty measurements. Before we left at noon my very own punjabi suit had arrived. Fitting me perfectly in every way! Seriously, she was magic. 'Now I don't want this hanging in your closet,' Raj told me, 'I want you to wear it!' I promised I would. How could I not? I love it! If only it wasn't so perfect... what if I wreck it?

Vikramjit, Raj and Omandeep brought us to the road where we could catch a bus back into the city. They were leaving early the next morning and still had family to visit that afternoon. Still, I can't believe how infinitely lucky we were to have met Vikramjit, Raj and their family. We were welcomed so warmly, and immediately treated like one of the family...only royal! What an unforgettable experience. Before we left, we took some great pictures and were hugging everyone goodbye. It was hard to imagine that twenty-four hours earlier, we didn't know these people, and now we felt like family. When it was Aunties turn to hug me she grabbed my hand and pressed a bill into it. She was trying to give me money! Seriously, she was my Gramma. I got a little teary at the thought. It also made me realize that, being my Gramma, no matter how many times I tried to say no (and I tried), she wanted to give us this gift, and she was going to give it to us. Regardless of my squirming and protests. Even more than you don't argue with a Punjabi police officer, you don't argue with his mother. A Punjabi Gramma.


Anonymous said...

Hi J and K,
Your blogs are great, but they seem to be getting better as you move along. What a wonderful experience you had in the Punjab, meeting up with Vik and Raj. You have a great knack for meeting up with the right people. To be received as one of the family shows how they took you to their hearts. You are both good adverts for Canada.
Best wishes and safe travel.

Parentals said...

so where's a picture of you Kristen in your new Indian suit?

Laura said...