Friday, 10 October 2014

Lost in the New World, pt 2

The flight to Punjab is probably better than any domestic flight taken at home. It would probably beat the short-haul Europe flights too. Everything is clean, comfortable, and we are in the air for forty minutes. Tickets: a pound, a minute.

We begin our descent, taking in expanses of farmland below us. Land, pick up our bags, exit past more rifles. I hang back a little, ready to surprise my grandfather – I haven’t seen him for five years. It is exciting – an extra guest, yes, but another grandchild means a little more love, and a little more joy.

Driving past roadside shops, I see signage for Gagan Wine. At first I take a few pictures to send to my namesake friend. After about the tenth sign, I start concocting drinking games in my mind. I would have been passed out in a drunken stupor within the half hour drive had I had a bottle with me.

We get to my aunt’s house – there is a lot of love between her and my mother, her little sister. The resemblance is uncanny, the genes strong, and I am introduced to my cousin’s son, who looks exactly like another cousin’s son. Harry is naughty, and won’t sit still. He runs away from us, and hits his mother when he doesn’t get sweets. I honestly thought children in India were better behaved, scared of their parents even, but apparently he is only scared of his teacher. I tease him with threats of calling ‘Ma’am’ if he does not start behaving. He hides behind his mother’s salwaar.

We waste no time, and after refreshments and estate talk, we are back out, walking through the market alleys, finding the entrances to stores between stalls, ready to part with money for more wedding shopping. Each of the stores has a downstairs with readymade Indian suits to be picked out and bought, and upstairs, most of the floor is covered in cushioned blocks, so we can sit as materials are pulled out to be shown, and stitched to size. As bridesmaid, I sit and watch my mother and aunt haggle, and my sister be forced to stand up from the cushioned floor every time the assistants want to drape the materials over her, and show her just how beautiful each item looks. I take pictures, documenting it all for back home.

The shop assistants bring us drinks, Mountain Dew and Pepsi, and offer to run out and buy us snacks. It’s a nice twist on champagne and bridal dresses. I snap pictures of the “Contains no Fruit” information on the bottles to send home to my little sisters. They will see what I find funny. Eventually, measurements are taken, suits are paid for, and we leave, strolling back home.

My aunt tries to persuade us to stay the night, but we will be staying a little more in the city. She takes us around the corner to Singapore House, the home my maternal grandfather built when his family moved away from Singapore. I take her keys and show myself about the grand house – most of it unoccupied, kept for visiting family and my great-uncle’s share of the estate. Part of the third floor is lived in, but my uncle is not home.

My aunt begrudgingly agrees to let us sleep at a hotel, but insists on feeding us dinner first. She is hospitable to us girls, but doesn’t have the chance to be with her sister – my mother has made herself at home. She offers to make something fresh, and then quickly, as if the thought is inappropriate, changes her mind. Should she send out for pizza? Do the girls want McDonalds? My mother doesn’t get a chance to respond – we want to eat Indian. Over the next few nights we try out the famous dhabas of the area. We don’t just eat the food, we inhale it.

We spend a few nights at a specially made NRI residence outside of the Golden Temple. We aren’t quite non-residential Indians, and my mother is not Indian-born, but they are kind and our ethnicity makes it the same thing for them. We are literally fifteen steps from the Golden Temple, and my mother visits at night, before bed, and goes for 3a.m. strolls when they start the day again.

She asks us if we would like to accompany her – my sister goes along occasionally, and sometimes on her own, but I decline. It is odd for me to say no, and my mother notices although she does not broach it. Something has changed since the last time I was here. I am no longer the eighteen year old searching for God, or even taking in this culture, my culture. I am not a hybrid identity, or a lost soul, searching for a sense of home. All of this is different to the India I once knew, and I am different too.

I go to the Golden Temple twice only, as I would go to a temple at home – when everybody happens to go whilst out together. I feel sad that the wonder has changed. I wish I could go back there, be a little confused, but so open to everything and anything. I wish I could go back to being hopeful. But in the last five years, the growth of cynicism has never been so clear. I am alien to myself, to my family, to what I once was. My grandfather is nice about and keeps me company. He hasn’t seen me in years, but he can recognise that something is wrong.

Some nights I walk out by myself. I walk down the alleys, buy bits from the little stores – ponds face wash, top-ups for my sister’s ‘India phone’, bangles. I become a familiar face. Even the tea shop at the bottom of our hotel start to remember our orders.

Despite the sadness and the loss of something recognisable, the stay within Katra Ahluwalia is fun and exciting when we commence wedding shopping. My sister and I, although in our twenties, are like little children around my mother and grandfather. We are mischievous, and pair together on every rickshaw. We take photos, and narrate adventure videos. She speaks on the phone to her fiancĂ© a lot, with me screaming in the background. We are amazed by the literal translations – we know Punjabi, but until now, we never took time to recognise that tea without sugar translates to bland tea. We teach the young shop assistants terms like ‘Cheerio’ and ‘Ta’ because they want to practise their English. We make jokes following trains of thought and cultural references – we speak in our own secret language. It lifts my spirits to rediscover a part of India that is like the India I knew as a child – bumpy roads, dry heat, something almost rural, in a ridiculously populated way. But between it all, every time we sit down in a shop to tick off a wedding to-do, my sister transforms into the glowing bride-to-be, flattered and somewhat overwhelmed, and I, into the focused bridesmaid.

I articulate her style to my mother, the tailors, and another aunt – my father’s cousin – who has joined us for the shopping. She knows the best places to go, and secures the best prices. My grandfather sits behind us, sipping tea, on the phone to my grandmother. They speak every day, and every meal time she calls to see that he has eaten, and that he is fine. He cannot keep secrets from her, and lets pass that I am here too.

I connect to the wifi at the bridal store, and Skype my younger sisters as styles are pulled out for viewing. They give their opinions too. Eventually, the tailor brings out a hand-stitched silk piece that has been specially designed for a Canadian bride. My sister falls in love with it. Reassuring her that she is not stealing someone else’s piece, and that he can create another, the bridal outfit is commissioned, and we sit for a further half hour chatting about weddings with the owner. He knows there are three more girls to go, and he is securing returning clientele.

Like a positive omen, everything else falls into place. Wedding bangles are selected and sized – they file the inner-side of bangle to fit perfectly. Ivory colour shavings fill up the table, as the bangle maker glances at my sister’s wrists, immediately knowing the size she needs. Tailors glance up at her, and select out the pieces that would do her justice, to complete her bridal wardrobe. We buy garlands, rangoli, and all the extra traditional pieces needed for the ceremonies. Drinks containing no fruit are drunk, mosquitoes don’t bite, mineral water does not taste like plastic – this new, wifi enabled, credit-card taking India is starting to appeal to me despite an initial sadness. After a few more days in the golden city, a little more family time, we head out to Chandigarh.

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