Jalandhar, Punjab - II

I visited Jalandhar in August 2019 almost 13 years after having left it in 2007. Jalandhar, a city in the State of Punjab in northern India, with a population of around 1 million, is where I was born and grew up for the first 15 years of my life. The reason for my visit (and return) to a city which I had desperately been trying to forget, and yet hold on to, was because my (paternal) grandfather’s health was slowly collapsing and everyone in the family knew that his days were numbered. My relationship with my grandfather, to put it mildly, was (is?) complicated. My kinship ties with him are closely related, not to love, but to violence, abuse, neglect, loss and trauma. Over the years, when I had been avoiding ever visiting the city and choosing any possible excuse to avoid social gatherings that might lead me into the city, I realized that the city itself had become my grandfather. I didn’t know at what point I had started relating every experience that I had in my hometown to him. Every pleasant memory of the city, of myself, turned bitter. Every instance from the past situated itself in reference to what he said after that specific instance or before. I started feeling these memories physically. I realized how, my body, would subconsciously shift when I remembered him and the city. My neck would start bowing down on its own, my eyes would start shifting to the ground, my shoulders would start stooping forward - my body would start turning passive. As if, my past was returning to my body through specific locations in my body. I had promised myself in 2007 (as immature I was in 8th grade!) that I would only return to Jalandhar when my grandfather dies. And, thus, I returned, years later, to see him immobilized to a bed, in a hospital emergency ward, several tubes sticking out from his skin and a thick tube emerging out of his open mouth. Few days later, after an excruciatingly painful non-recovery, he passed away. 

I had written Part I of Jalandhar, Punjab in May 2018. A year before he died. Now, I look back at moments and day(s) after his death.

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“I noticed that you didn’t cry at all. Not even a single tear”, my mother asked me the morning after we had set my paternal grandfather’s pyre on fire.

“Did you ever love him?”, she questioned.

“No.” I answered within half a minute.

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Customarily the dead body would be kept in the house for few hours before taking it to the cremation ground so that well-wishers and family members could grieve and pay their respects. Seeing that many of his family members and extended relatives lived in villages far from Jalandhar, my father decided that we would keep my grandfather’s body from morning till evening. The bureaucracy of death kicked in. People scurried around arranging drinking water for many people who would come. Sikh priests from gurudwaras (Sikh place of worship) were called. A portable glass box with inbuilt cooling was arranged. His body was kept inside it so that people could see him. As the hours passed, people in ones or twos or groups would keep pouring in.

“Ah, here he is!”, exclaimed a family friend while affectionately putting her hand on my head. The last time she had seen me I was a 13-year-old kid.

She looked at my father and said, “Ravi…. he is the next S.R. Kang of the family” - suggesting that I am the only person in the family who truly embodies my grandfather. Her husband, an old friend of grandfather’s gravely nodded in my direction. I gave a polite smile, didn’t say anything and continued running around the house fulfilling my duties as a grandson. I don’t know who felt the irony of this statement more: me or my father. Surely, she knew I am nothing like him!

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Before the body is taken to the cremation ground to be burnt, the members of the family customarily wash the dead body. The men (women if the person who died was a biologically born woman) of the family are required to carefully rub the body with fresh curd/yogurt, wash it and put some fresh clean clothes on it. The body, which up until now was kept in the glass box was taken out by me and few other male members of the family. I immediately smelled his rotting corpse and remembered thinking that this is what his life would smell like too. It would be the smell of his horrible ways. I remained silent throughout and diligently rubbed the body with curd. I was standing near his feet. Everyone around me was crumbling emotionally. Heavy eyes, teary eyes, swollen eyes and I just looked at him... Every time I would touch his body, I would silently curse him. I wanted to spit at his body. I wanted to step on his fucking corpse. I thought only if my emotions and words could materialize, his flesh would burn wherever my fingers touched him! I remember being disgusted, not by his rotting corpse but by him. His life. I felt nothing. I felt everything. 

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My sisters would often whisper family scandals to me. I came to know how uneducated, illiterate chamar women of villages were smitten by our grandfather. His fair-skin and learned ways. I learned how he would have affairs and sexual relations with many women. My mother would often jokingly tell me of an instance when a wife of a distant relative in nearby village couldn’t get pregnant and S.R. Kang famously said, “let her sniff my underwear”. His three sons were also famous for breaking many hearts. My sisters and mother would tell me how these men were met with giggles, and women would usually be dying to get their attention. I would hear about all these unnamed faceless women who were disposable to the men of my family. I would see my sisters and mother be treated as if the men in my family owned them. I would see the many men in Jalandhar eve tease them, harass them, touch them. I always knew I was attracted to men. My sexual awakening happened much later in life, but I was always romantically drawn to men. It’s only when I was 16, I came to know that people like me are called ‘gay’. And I remember thinking (as silly as it may sound now!), ‘Huh. Maybe this family desperately needed someone gay. Because the men of this family have been so horrible to women, it needed someone who is just not into them!’

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I returned to Jalandhar in 2019 after leaving it in 2007. I had promised myself that I would only return when my grandfather dies. After a series of unfortunate accidents (slipping inside the bathroom etc, broken spine, chest congestion, lung failure), he ended up in emergency care. I was in New Delhi, spending my summer break away from America and was summoned by my father to Jalandhar. Family members from different locations across the country were called to be beside my grandfather’s bed in the emergency ward at a local hospital. Everyone suspected that his days were numbered. Not able to speak anything because of a ventilator shoved down his throat, my grandfather started scribbling on a notepad - phrases like ‘water’, ‘hot’, ‘don’t leave me’. When he didn’t have the energy to scribble, he would take your hand and move his fingers on your palms one alphabet at a time. My father would attend to his every word and when everyone failed to read what he had written; my father would have the final word on interpreting those scribblings. At one point, my grandfather started scribbling in Urdu. Born in a pre-independent, and pre-partition India, he belonged to the generation which was fluent in Punjabi and Urdu. None of us understood what he had written. Frantic phone calls were made, and text messages were sent to friends and family members hoping that they could interpret what was scribbled. Looking at that scribbled Urdu I remembered how he would tell us kids about his life when the British still ruled India. He told us about learning their Queen’s national anthem, how Indian soldiers in their uniform would march inside their village, how he lost so many friends and neighbors in partition communal riots, how it was common for men to stop other men on streets and take their pants/shorts off so that they could see if you were Muslim or Hindu or Sikh by checking if your penis was circumcised or not, how he stole books from abandoned Muslim households, how borders weren’t as heavily patrolled as they are now, how the price of petrol was so low.
.
.
.
.
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The scribbled Urdu ultimately did not reveal anything grand. He had written ‘every inch of my body pains’

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I had always hated the house that we grew up in. Now that I live in a big crowded city, I have begun to appreciate the value of physical space. Where marginalized and disenfranchised lives fight over each square foot, I consider myself very lucky. The ceilings in that house were so high! But I still despise the house. Because of everything that happened in it. In my dreams, however, a moving image would keep returning to me. That image is from a bright day. The sun is out and I can see the rays coming into the room from large windows on the wall that run from roof to the floor. Sunlight flooding in outside my room in my house in Jalandhar. Whichever new house I hunt for in new-strange cities – I am looking for those windows and I am hoping to feel the sun through those windows. I am hoping that, maybe, I can re-write my life through sunlight pouring in through big windows. 

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Jalandhar S.R. Kang (1934 - 2019)

Comments

  1. Hey man, it's nice to see that you've started writing often, unlike past times when I thought you died. Lol
    Great post. Letting out these feeling must've felt like therapy. More power to you. Looking forward to another post

    ReplyDelete
  2. Such an honest post!

    When severely twisted notions of masculinity & virility are garnished with Sikhi/Punjabi culture, the resultant dish is usually scarring on both sides of the divide :/

    ReplyDelete

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