Tuesday, March 24, 2020

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.

---

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. 

---

Jalandhar S.R. Kang (1934 - 2019)

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Do Smells have Names?

Few days back I realized that I often try to remember my experiences as if they occurred in a linear trajectory. When in fact different timelines keep messing with each other. I am trying to put jumbled thoughts together. I don't know what beginnings to give, and what endings to expect...

***

I woke up in the middle of the night because I thought I smelled him. They say you can't 'feel' smell but I felt it heavy on my skin. I felt him on my skin. It travelled from my nose to the back of my head, slowly caressing its way down my spine and then suddenly - that feeling, that smell vanished just as quickly as it had arrived. Few days later I smelled him again. It hit me at an odd moment. Standing in the moving subway. Somewhere between 51 St Station and Astor Pl on the 6 Train. Even after almost two years of living here, I am still surprised by how carefully, strangers inside NY subway avoid touching each other. Even in crowded moments, even when you are carrying heavy luggage, you have to maneuver your way around people - around bodies. It felt strange smelling him while I avoided my leg scraping the leg of the woman standing next to me. I felt like someone had touched me - even when people around me avoided touching each other.

***

The city feels new to me even though I keep going in and out of it. Having barely explored the full depths of it, I think I know my way around. A little bit. I avoid opening familiar (yet unfamiliar) apps because I don't want them to mediate the way I experience a space. Whatever happened to meeting people outside of these apps! Maybe that's why I had reluctantly agreed to meet him. Because he hadn't reached out to me through those annoying apps.

***

I was so scared when I was on my way to Brooklyn to meet him for the second time! New York is a lot like New Delhi. People are obsessed with what exciting spots you are going to next. Or who you hang with. Quick to tell you whose parties to avoid. Perhaps I thought I was becoming a New Yorker too? Which is why I thought I was going to be an unnecessary addition to an equally unnecessary clique at your home.

***

I wanted to know his body before I made any move. It's a strange thing - wanting to know how someone's fingers would feel before their lips, or tongue. An obligatory hug when I met him didn't do much. Honestly, I wasn't expecting anything out of that first interaction. In this fast moving world, who the fuck knows what is 'socializing' and what is flirtatious! But over the next few hours, sitting on the couch next to him did something. I don't know whether it was the bareback gay porn playing on the big screen in the bar, or random video cuts of atomic bomb explosions in between those scenes of men fucking, but somewhere in between those scenes I found myself moving closer and closer to him on the red velvet couch. When did our bodies touch? When he went to the bar to get the next round of drinks? Or when I came back after peeing? Our bodies touched and my fingers found his and that's when I really started to know him.

***

When I was going to meet him again, I decided to leave the apartment that I was staying in absolutely drunk. I needed courage. I needed a little lack of direction even when I was clinging desperately to the directions to his house! Somewhere on the 4 Train, I started listening to music on full volume. Sometime before  Borough Hall I noticed two desi girls loudly gesturing at each other and people around them noticing. I took my earphones off and overheard one girl shouting loudly in Hindi, "I think we are supposed to get off here?" and the other one say "Where have we come!?" ("yeh kahan aa gaye hum"). Then a white woman offered to help and after talking to her, they got off at the next stop. I wanted to run behind them! I wanted to tell them that I was lost too! That I knew where I was headed but didn't know why I was headed to that place!

***

TBH rarely have my hookups gone as I would liked them to. I wasn't expecting my fingers to make the decision for me. I usually let my dick decide. Lolz. Even after minutes (or was it hours?) of our entangled fingers and the stories they were telling each other - I realized that we hadn't kissed! It was the perfect setting! Our heads were leaning into each other's, I was devouring every word of his, I was still figuring out the color of his eyes, and more importantly - I had a raging boner! My dick felt so hard that I thought it was going to tear itself out of my pants. And then I asked him if he would like to come back to my place. He said yes. We still hadn't kissed.

***

God, what is with me and constantly living in nostalgia! When I started talking about figuring out the subway with him, I instantly thought about someone else. I wanted his responses to be the same as that 'someone else'. Because that 'someone else' is an urbanist. Lolz. Ever since meeting that 'someone else' - I carry him wherever I go. I want to experience places the same way he does! Alas! I could never create memories with Crown Heights because Lajpat Nagar got in my way. I think that 'someone else' was the first guy I told my caste to. I don't usually bring that up on dates. You know...cause I am still ashamed of mine, even when I pretend that I am not anymore. And then him. He was the second guy I told my caste to. On a first date. And I tell everyone now. But I immediately feel exhausted after I tell people. Like I have given something intimate away? But I didn't feel exhausted with that 'someone else'. Sigh. People move on. Wait, where was I?

***

Over the years, many men have said many memorable sentences to me while fucking. Once I took his clothes off and kissed him, I started feeling his chest hair. GAWDD!! HE WAS HOT! His nipples felt warm and it took all my will power to not greedily run my fingers all over his torso. Instead I kissed him even more. God, I could have kissed him for hours! I leaned back a bit, looked him in the eye and said, "You are really fucking hot". I meant it. Within a second, he replied, "We look really hot together" And I swear to god - that's one of the hottest things anyone has ever said to me in bed.

***

I try to remember the smell now. I think I left it behind with the city and the train. Or maybe Trump impeachment took over and his smell got too busy saving the world. Why should I care for someone who has time for revolution but not for love? Lol - I think I write these posts to see how randomly abstract yet oddly specific I can get. 

***

New York, December 2019

P.S. My blog completes 10 years in 2020! Thanks for sticking with me! <3