My first week in the Punjab is totally manic and unexpected but brilliant. On my arrival in Amristar I am expecting my mami ji (mum’s brother’s wife) to greet me at the airport but instead I am met by her son Sonu and my cousin Raj. My plan was to go straight to the Golden Temple, a place I have wanted to pay my respects and give thanks for years, a truly special and significant gurdwara (temple) for all Sikhs around the world. I spot the lads from afar and give them each a huge hug. Me and Sonu met when he came to England for his first and only visit in November 2008. Raj is now in his 30s and is my maasi’s (mum’s sister) son, this is the first time we are meeting. He has tried to come to England twice but has been declined a visa, I don’t know why, he’s a very successful property developer. Maasi came in 1990 for my sister’s wedding. They explain that a wedding has been planned for the following day last minute so mami ji has had to go shopping to buy gifts for the bride and her family. Time is short so we will have to plan a visit to the Gurwara some other time. My heart sinks but I’m a little bit too tired at the time to be very disappointed. Sonu asks if I want to go to the wedding or stop off at my maasi’s for a rest. Hell I’m going to the do, what if I don’t get another chance to see a Punjabi wedding in the Punjab?!
As we drive away from the airport I take in the surroundings, the wide open road and fields on each side, women in salwar kameez and trainers, huge sunglasses and their dupattas flapping in the air whizzing past on scooters, men and boys wearing colourful turbans, huge like I have seen in films and on B4U Music, now in front of my eyes. Old men slowly riding bicycles lugging carts behind them transporting various crops. Every so often a little tree or two appear, standing bravely on the roadside looking friendly. The air is warm, the road is smooth and there’s not much traffic. Sonu and Raj don’t talk much, I’m feeling relaxed and can’t keep my eyes off the road, I don’t feel any sort of culture shock at all, I feel like I’ve come home.
Raj explains that the road we are driving along that is 4 lanes at the moment is being doubled in size to cope with the growing numbers of cars on the road. So this is G.T Road, I’ve heard of this famous stretch many times in bhangra songs over the years, “GT Road teh duaiya paave, oh yaara da truck baliyay” (Punjabi folk music that is listened to worldwide and extremely popular). Lanes don’t mean much here, cars overtake each other from all sides, weaving in between buses, cows, carts, scooters and anything else that may come in the way. On the smaller roads in the different towns and villages its crazy and they tell me that we would not be able to drive here, I don’t need convincing he is right. The horns honk constantly and there are many narrow lanes and so much traffic. I tell them that on my first day of driving here I’d either kill myself or someone else for sure-they burst into laughter.
We get closer to Ludhiana where Raj lives and here we say goodbye to him and transfer my backpack to Sonu’s car—its smaller, they were expecting me to have much more luggage so bought Raj’s. Oh well. Sonu now in his mid twenties works in finance, he drives me to the bazaar in Jalandar where I will be meeting mami ji, his mum. It’s around 5pm and dark so the little street lights warm the lanes with their glow. There are so many shops selling fabrics, ready made suits and saris, jewellery and accessories. We walk up the steps of a big shop and inside mami spots me and gives me a huge hug. We last met in 2007, she came to my father’s funeral in January with mama ji then to my wedding in November. Her daughter also named Harpreet now lives in England having married a British citizen a few years ago. I’m introduced to 4 or 5 relatives but don’t really take much in as I’m too tired. Sonu disappears and mami tells me to take a seat. It dawns on me I have nothing to wear to the wedding the following day so we go upstairs to the ready made section and two men pull out around 20 different outfits for me to look at and try on. I pick 3 and end up buying the first one I tried on, a green sleeveless dress with an embroidered neckline front and back with tight ‘pyjama’ bottoms. It’s the perfect fit. At the counter they have priced up and will not budge, its 4020 rupees and I just know I am being ripped off, It’s way too obvious I am not local and I tell mami its too much. I haven’t much choice and buy it, I have to wear something! We pile into the car and drive to Phagwara, mami’s sister lives there and we’re staying the night. The house is huge and close by the busy shops. The street we’re on is very pleasant, I really like it. The odd bicycle goes by, adults and children walk past, carts drawn by cows hobble along. You can hear prayers coming from the local gurdwara through speakers in the street. It feels so calm and spiritual, it’s a really good feeling.
The family I’m staying with tonight, mami ji’s youngest sister are very nice and wait on me hand and foot. We have chapattis with sabji and daal, a vegetable and lentil dish very similar to home. The man of the house doesn’t say much, is tucked under a blanket in one of the bedrooms watching TV. Jyoti the eldest daughter is a lovely girl, 18 years old and we chat for hours. She speaks excellent English and spent 5 months in California recently visiting relatives. She has two younger siblings Jassi and Harsh who are also very sweet and make me feel very welcomed. I also get to know Kuldeep, she grew up in the Punjab then moved to California as a teenager. She has returned with her mother for a holiday and is actually getting married this weekend! She knows this family through mutual relatives so is staying here for the night. It gets colder and I decide to have a wash before bed to warm me up. I fill up a huge bucket with hot water in the bathroom and use a plastic jug to pour water over myself. Getting dressed is quite a challenge. There is a drain in the ground but there is still a huge puddle of water everywhere so I climb into my thermals and pyjamas with wet feet and eventually get into bed. Jyoti gives me a huge heavy duvet and an extra blanket, homes in the Punjab in most towns and cities don’t have central heating or heaters so this is how you stay warm. Kuldeep sleeps to my left, and Jyoti to my right on a manja. We chat for a while and I fall sound asleep while their banter continues into the night.
I am woken up at around 5am by prayers coming through the speakers, this is India. I’m in India. I fall asleep again for a couple of hours. Jyoti makes me a cup of tea around 9am, I drink it and have another snooze. Then I finally get up and get dressed to go to the wedding. Thank god Jyoti has hair straighteners so I can smarten up my hair. She also borrows me a lovely pair of earrings and mami has some gold sandals for me to wear. We get in the car and go to Jaycee Palace, the venue is huge. The sun is in the sky and we walk across the long lawn to the entrance, passing a huge selection of fruit on the way, so much food. Once inside I’m impressed by the venue, it’s huge and a massive chandelier hangs from the ceiling in the middle. We have some fried snacks, pakoras and sweets and I meet mami’s family, she has so many sisters and nephews. Everyone is very smiley and extremely warm and friendly. We talk about the differences between Punjabi weddings in Britain and India. Apparently only the immediate family in India go to the Gurwara for the actual wedding ceremony, in the UK everyone goes as this is considered as the main event. I want to see the whole thing so we go to the temple. Its only a few minutes away so me and about 7 other ladies pack into a small van and drive to the gurdwara, everything here is pretty much the same as in the UK but even shorter. We go back to the palace that is 5 times bigger than necessary for the number of guests. Many young lads are on the dance floor jumping to R&B style bhangra, and a mixed group of professional dancers are on the stage for our entertainment. The new couple enter the palace (I find it amusing the wedding venues here are called palaces) with a traditional live Punjabi band and are seated on the stage in huge chairs so that the guests can congratulate them and give them money. This goes on for a long time. Meanwhile a young girl in her teens dressed in a tight outfit, wet hair and face packed with make-up and the shiniest lip gloss I have ever seen comes on the stage to dance to a ‘sexy’ tune. 3 or 4 boys join in dancing around her throwing 10 rupee notes over and around her-I am not impressed I have never seen this happen in the UK maybe it happens, I don’t know but I don’t like it!
I learn that the bride is Canadian in her 20s marrying a local Punjabi boy in his late 30s. This happens so much, so many people in the Punjab both men and women marry someone from overseas and start married life often saying goodbye to their parents and siblings in Punjabi towns and villages in search of a better life. The craze continues and now there are Punjabis in every corner of the globe, working hard making a living to give their children a good education and increase their opportunities for career success. After the wedding we go back to the house in Phagwara and drink tea, at first I was disappointed by the little cups offered as I love Indian tea, but now know it’s because here they drink numerous cups a day! Mami’s other younger sister is over for a while with her husband, they have one son in his 20s. They seem different, the way they are dressed and the questions they ask me. Her husband spent 10 years living and working in Amsterdam before he returned to India. They ask me what I like about living in England and I go on and on about diversity, freedom of speech and the law and order we have, the value of having a British passport and the opportunities this has given me, and our culture in general. They seem a bit taken a back when I mention where I have travelled and ask me if this is one of my hobbies-well indeed it is. Most of my friends and relatives in the UK have visited many places so I guess I have taken this for granted, as the majority of India’s population will never leave the country in their entire lives. In the evening after more chapatti we all sit together drinking hot milk before bed and I open a box of Cadbury’s hero’s I bought from the airport. Little Harsh shows me his homework books and I help him with his English. He shows me his Punjabi books and I read one of the stories and he helps me where I get stuck-they are impressed that I can read Punjabi. I wrap up for bed as tonight it’s really cold!
In the morning mami ji has to give me a nudge to wake me as I’m the last one up. I am still adjusting to the slight time difference. They give me parathas for breakfast then we sit outside in the sun and relax. I can hear music, there are around 5 young men at the door with little instruments wearing strange looking head dresses, and matching outfits. They want us to give them money and will not leave until we give in, so my cousin hands them a few rupees. I get in the car with Sonu and mami ji and we drive to Flor, another little town where we meet Mami’s brother as they have some business to attend to here. Me and mami ji stay in the car and she tells me about the lack of employment opportunities for educated young people, hence one the many reasons why so many Punjabi’s look to move to Canada, America, England etc to pursue a career and live a decent life. From here we drive to Chandigarh and arrive there around 3pm, this is where mami ji lives with my mum’s brother. Mama Ji is a police officer and pops home to say hello to us over tea and samosas. We’re quite exhausted so we spend the evening relaxing and getting an early night. The following day mami continues to feed me lots of yummy food, making me masar daal and saag-one of my favourites. We go to a neighbours house in the afternoon and here I meet lots of local Sikh Punjabi women that gather together in a different house every week, They spend a couple of hours reciting prayers, and I join in too. A few blankets have been laid on the floor and we all sit on this. I look at the different women in their nice salwar kammez, gold rings and bracelets, make-up, and some wear nose studs. They all seem happy and content. They tell me that my Punjabi is very good, again I am so glad that my parents encouraged me to attend Punjabi language classes during weekends from the age of 7. Once the prayers are finished the host makes chai and serves us samosas. There is a real community spirit, a very friendly and welcoming atmosphere that I love.
On Friday 29 January my uncle wakes me up at 4am, we’re leaving Chandigarh for another wedding, this time my aunt’s nephew. We stop in Phagwara on the way to pick up a few passengers, then drive down GT Road to Govindpur, my aunt’s eldest sister’s village, home of the groom to be. Mid route we are stopped in out tracks by a religious festival going on, people (and the odd cow) fill the streets as there’s a huge procession. Eventually we find a gap and drive through it. As we draw closer uncle complains about the state of the road, it’s a bit of a mess and the car bobs up and down on the rocky broken path. We drive though many fields growing various crops, it’s beautiful and I can hear a popular Bollywood song ‘Tujhe Deka to Ye Janna Sanam’ from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenghe (DDLJ) playing in my head. We eventually arrive at a huge house that is surrounded by lots of land owned by the family. We don’t waste time and make a start on wedding traditions by beginning the maaiya on Pardeep, this happens two days before the wedding to both the bride and groom, but separately at their parents homes. A yellow thick paste is rubbed on their skin (usually face, arms and feet) whilst the older women sing Punjabi songs. All of the relatives have come over and I get on with everyone, I am treated like a guest of honour with people bringing me snacks and drinks and asking me if I’m alright. I’m enjoying myself here so much. I have a snooze in the afternoon and we have dinner at around 6pm. Soon after the mendhi man (henna tattoo artist) arrives to decorate our hands. He looks about 22 and is so skinny. Us girls have our hands decorated and sit for hours with open palms allowing the green goo on our palms to harden so we can ensure a dark orangey-brown finish when we wash it off. We talk and laugh until late, then go to bed and I fall fast asleep.
6.30am and Mami Ji wakes me up as we’re going to her mum’s house 5 minutes away to get washed and changed. It’s a huge 2 storey house with a massive roof terrace. There’s a Gurdwara in front of it and other houses and shops. I wash with cold water and quickly get changed before we return to the other house. The Path has started, a tent has been erected in front of the house and prayers are blaring out of a speaker as a local priest reads from the Guru Granth Sahib. It’s amazing how things have been turned around at the house overnight! We have breakfast tea then after prayers lunch-so much food! I talk to the workers of the house, this is quite amusing and fun. Some of the girls don’t like me talking to them and pull me away a few times. I also get to know more members of the family over long chats about this and that. I notice that one of my aunt’s younger sisters arrives later than everyone else. She is a Jehovas Witness and we talk about this for hours, our belief in God, different theories, the end of the world and numerous other speculations and ideologies. It is fascinating, I am certainly not converted but appreciate the new information and another perspective. She explains how Sikhism, Islam and Christianity (in her opinion) don’t make any sense and are incorrect. I listen patiently but don’t like to think of other religions in this way. Sikhism has taught me to respect all religions and not consider them or those that follow them as being better or worse. My journey towards understanding God and the meaning of life continues. Our 3 hour debate comes to an end as the maaiya is about to begin, as we did yesterday. The house is covered in green, red and yellow little lights. They look pretty, it feels exciting. The tent from earlier has gone and a DJ booth has been set up in a corner. We dance and sing into the night, everyone is smiling and laughing. Every now and then someone pulls me amongst the dancing crowd, I am a part of the family within 24 hours, it’s great. Some men flick 10 rupee notes into the air above the dancers, and the local kids from across the village run to snatch these from the ground, sometimes getting their hands trodden on or ripping notes someone else has grabbed. We eventually return to the other house to sleep as so many guests are over. I talk to Gopi and Jas until about 1am while Jas busies herself ironing everyone’s clothes, including my new outfit. Everyone is determined that I don’t lift a finger. I feel so at home and so happy, even a bit overwhelmed and fall asleep while the ironing and laughing continues.
It’s an early start and the day of the wedding. We go straight to the ‘palace’ for morning tea and snacks, and the milni (formal meeting of the two families, men hang garlands around each others necks etc etc). From here some of us go to the Gurdwara to see the wedding. I last saw Kuldeep on Monday and we couldn’t stop chatting, now here she is getting married looking nervous in her wedding gear! The wedding runs smoothly and finishes at 3pm-way later than English style, I note. We head back to the palace for a dance and more nosh, it’s a huge spread, there’s even candy floss! We head back to the house eventually with our new bride. I help her out of her outfit and get her some tea. The house is full of happiness and laughter and we joke around until late. Another late night, eventually we decide who is sleeping where, and I’m off to the other house again. They give me some hot milk to drink and we continue joking-I love chatting so much in Punjabi, especially as they love it and think my Punjabi is excellent, they can’t believe I was born in England! They ask me if I prefer Indian weddings here in India or in England. I say both, but based on my experience so far I am lying-I prefer weddings in England as there is a more structured plan! They are amazed at how much I have travelled, most of them have never left the country and maybe never will, they tell me I am lucky. Thank you mum and dad for moving to England and giving me so many opportunities!
After a great night’s sleep I wake up on the 1st of February and one of my new aunt’s cooks me some eggy bread. For some reason it tastes absolutely amazing, the Punjabi touch that’ll be it, and gobbling it down on the roof terrace in the fresh air-no sound of traffic here. I’m surrounded by green fields, cows and the odd tractor. We go back to the other house to spend the day with our new bhabhi (sister in law). Everyone sits in the courtyard and chats. I steer a lot of the conversation and we discuss life in the Punjab, taxes, why people continue to leave Punjab and go overseas, and apparently the fact that Punjabis in California and Canada are so much more welcoming and friendly that the British-this causes much debate and I am open to their opinions and experiences. It helps to explain a lot and I see the immediate welcome, love and warmth in Punjab and how that does not always exist abroad-it certainly does not in the English culture. We have so much to compare between the UK and Punjab and they have so much love for India and never want to leave, but end up doing so for better law, order and career prospects. Much is sacrificed though, which is why one longs for home. Even though I was born and brought up in England there has always been something big tugging at me to come here, and now I understand it and am so overwhelmed that even without setting foot here my heart and soul is Indian, is Punjabi through and through, which is why I have fitted in here so well. Amazing. I had no idea my feelings would be so strong coming here, it’s truly turning into a life-changing, life-enhancing, life-clarifying experience for me. I go and sit in the area in front of the house near the workers cooking, and sit down next to mami ji on a manja and to our surprise our weight makes it sink! We laugh and I chat to the older members of the family. Its getting cooler so we move inside and watch B4U Music (Bollywood music channel) under duvets. Saag (traditional spinach Punjabi dish) has been cooking outside for hours and is served for dinner-I am in heaven, everything is so fresh and the yogurt home made. I remember growing up eating homemade yogurt for years. Any of the pots, organic or whatever from Sainsbury’s, Waitrose or Tesco will taste awful when I get home. We talk some more about the problem with drug abuse by young boys with an education and nothing to do…hmmm. We drive over to the other house yet again for some sleep, I’m talked out and shattered, but very happy.
The following morning I have parathas for breakfast made by my new auntie on the lower floor of the house. She has a huge smile on her face. I’m really impressed by the strength of these women and how they rely on each other for love and support. Her husband is a very good man and provide well for the family through the business he owns and the land they grow crops on. However I think the pressure he is often under, the clients he has to deal with and his personality make him quite an aggressive man to the extent that he often shouts and swears, and I can see that my aunt does not necessarily get much affection from him, who knows? We take the food to the 2nd floor and eat with grandma and wash it down with some delicious tea. I feel fantastic. We take some photos and say our goodbyes. It’d been a great first week being immersed in mami ji’s family but now it’s time to move on.
On Tuesday 2nd February 2010 Me, mami and Sonu my cousin drive to Billi, the village that my mum grew up as Surinder Kaur Kang. I can’t believe I am actually here! Sonu stops the car next to a field and points to my uncle and bhabhi who are both working in the middle of it on their knees. They see us and wave. I walk down a little path closer to them and see my uncle coming towards me, I’m actually meeting my mum’s older brother for the first time! He is smiling and very friendly towards me. His daughter in law (my bhabhi) follows behind and gives me a hug. She seems lovely, her husband died a few years ago, such a shame as her children are still very young. My uncle’s features don’t really remind me of my mother, not straight away at least. At their house I meet my aunt too and we sit on plastic chairs in the courtyard. Bhabhi brings us Fanta and biscuits. I walk around the house, and on the rooftop and get a view of the whole village. So this is where mum spent her young life and teenage years. It seems so simple, rural India. I chat to bhabhi in the kitchen as she makes some tea for us. She tells me how wonderful my dad was and really wants me to spend a few days with them. I ask to see some old family photos and we spend quite a bit of time discussing these. My aunt comments on how my mother was always an extremely neat and tidy young girl, always looking pristine and never had a hair out of place. Nothing has changed there then! We talk and catch up over tea and my uncle reminisces with me his youth when he travelled to different parts of India as I share my itinerary with him.
I go next door to meet my older uncle, the eldest of the three brothers. He lives there with his wife, son, daughter in law and two grand daughters. My bhabhi here also speaks fondly of my parents, and talks, talks and talks! I meet Manpreet, one of her two daughters who is doing her homework in the bedroom. She is 12 years old and wants to live in England when she is older. I look at her English homework, her handwriting is excellent, much better than mine! After some more Fanta this bhabhi shows me around their house and then it’s time to leave. I feel a bit amazed, shocked, bewildered. How did my mum become so strong, confident, charismatic, and bring up of a family of five children having left this little village with virtually no education, no travel experience, not being able to speak, read or write English and start a new life in England with my dad to whom her marriage was arranged, and fly to England with him aged 19 in the 60s? My mother is a legend, and if I’m even half as successful as her in my life I will be satisfied. I say goodbye to everyone and promise to come back and stay for a few days soon. Next we’re going to Ludhiana, the city where my maasi (mum’s sister) lives, and I cannot wait.