Zipping up my boots, going back to my wife’s roots, yeah.
Another must do if you’re in Amritsar is the Flag ceremony at Wagah, a short ride away. This is both Pakistan’s and India’s idea of non-ironic pantomime. Both sides have soldiers in full military wear, that are far too camp to be allowed into any real army and they take it turns to carry out ‘silly walks’ foot stomping and general theatrical hilarity, while a couple of red coats on either side of their respective borders whip the crowd up. ‘Hindustan’ ‘Pakistan’ back and forth, back and forth. Just when you think there might be some tension brewing, opposing hands are shaken and flags are exchange. So technically India belongs to Pakistan for the night, and vice versa and that appears to keep the peace and nuclear missiles are tucked up in bed to sleep silently. I suspect both sides sit down with a nice cup of char and sing show tunes when the tourists have gone. It would be semi-sensible to way to solve the Kashmiri conflict, a straight forward pantomime/slapstick X Factor showdown, winner takes all, and the losers have to concede, “Yeah, you’re the funniest, you’ll have a jollier time running the border state!”
One last visit back to the Shiny Temple; a lovely experience for all of us, especially the children, to visit The Holy Place that their grandma holds so central to her faith and existence. The people had a calm welcoming reverence to them, even in a tourist trap like this. Watching the Sikhs immerse themselves in their holy tank (pool) was quite cathartic, even though a little unhygienic in appearance.
Then we were off to Paghwara (central Punjab). This is not the type of place you take an excursion to, unless you like bustle and photochemical sunsets. It is here on the outskirts of the town that the family’s only relatives still live in India now. The rest have been scattered to either Canada or England. There is confusion as Nani has not told her cousin and Aunty (the spitting image of the ‘fat-aunt’ in England), which of her three daughters is actually arriving, but they make us welcome. Another cousin is over from Canada with his wife and young daughter and there are also the family of lodgers/servants and their two sons. In total there are sixteen of us, but this is not unusual for an Indian gathering. They are farmers and have the type of compound that Bin Laden would have as a summer home. There is a large courtyard that is the focal point. It is opulent by India standards, and basic by western, they have their own generator which is useful as the electricity is forever going off. They also have their own well with a pump. Satnam is showing me both with pride and trying to explain how he will irrigate the fields next to the house later in the week. I am bemused how he will do this, in the end he says I will see later. The family are liked as they have a number of Water Buffalo and allow the locals to have the dung for free. One person’s shit is another person’s fuel!
Satnam has lovely family, wife, two shy girls that speak perfect English, but are reluctant to talk and a lively younger son. The other Canadian cousin is a character, in the rough diamond mould. He is keen at every possible opportunity to get me to drink Indian whiskey on the flat roof; just looking at the bottle could give you a headache and Trade Descriptions palpitations. Back in Canada he is a lorry driver and his wife has a professional job, but out here in his ancestral family home he is the maharajah of The Punjab. He has one of the live-in boys running around after him, getting cigarettes and whiskey, filling his glass up by silently giggling it in his direction when it is empty. One the second night my daughter asks me if the boy is a slave! I am as confused as she is, the servants seem to do an inordinate amount of housework, the wife/mother is there all the time, and the father works in a factory in the town. I ask Satnam how the arrangement works, he is a lovely humble and teetotal man and tells me with complete honesty, “They come from Gujarat, and if we had not taken them in they would be on the streets, they get free food and lodgings in return for helping out. One day when I know the family are all out of the compound I take peek in their room. It is the size of a single bedroom with two bunk beds, one wardrobe, and two sets of drawers. I make sure the children see the room also; both their rooms back home are nearly twice as big as this. It is inadequate, but it is better than the alternative.
We are here so Nani can sell some land in a nearby village that belonged to her grandfather. We all visit several villages where everyone abroad with roots to these places seems to have a house to double-check the details of the sale. We then spend many hours the nest day in banks and eventually end up at what is the equivalent of The Land Registry (Pudwari), the office moves around the district and we track him down in a building next to the largest football sized field of drying rice I have ever seen. Nani and The wife disappear to sort the land out and I get the kids out of the car, whilst the driver sneaks off for a cig. All the workers wander over to me. I’m dressed like the Man from Delmonte. The foreman, the only one that can speak English asks what I’m doing here. I flippantly say with a cursory sweep of my arm, “I’ve come to buy all your rice.” He translates for the workers benefit and like all the little aliens in the vending machine Toy Story they all mutter ‘ahhhhrr’ together. Then the antithesis sound when I tell them I’m only joking followed by the truth.
The kids have discovered there is a theme park in the next town, so have decided that this is their choice of activity. The theme of the park is ‘absolutely no health and safety.’ It is empty due to it being a school day, or maybe because the locals know the death toll. The Wife and I close our eyes and cross our fingers as I take the kids on the rides. I tell them they can stay until one of us dies or loses a limb. The Wife takes photographs, more to show the accident report team and for the holiday insurance claim, rather than the family album. We survive the day and when we are not awarded certificates, we award ourselves ice creams instead.
The next day Satnam shows me how the irrigation system works. The two fields are ploughed into peaks and furrows. The water is piped to the highest point and spills forth, running along the troughs like watching toppling dominoes, he watches over it and very occasionally when some errant water tries to break free to an adjoining furrow, he is there to dam its path. It is like watching an ancient Egyptian irrigation system. I’m mesmerised by it, especially after trying to work out how it could possibly work. The same day one of the Buffalos gives birth to the amazement of the kids.
The week drifts by, but it is time to move on. The Canadian cousin is causing a lot of consternation for everyone. The occasional drinks I have had with him on the roof as the sun sinks below the yardarm, I am now deviating away from, and there is only so much self-opinionated zenophobia you can listen to– he hates a lot of peoples and things! On the second day I have been chased out of the kitchen by The Aunt with a sweeping brush while I tried to make some Chai, everyone has found it quite hilarious, except Canadian cousin, who gives me a look that says I have brought great shame on the family. Later on alone he tells me straight, ‘Don’t do it man, we have people that do the cooking.’ We do at home as well – it’s me, and I quite like it. I strongly suspect he doesn’t do much in the kitchen area. He is still puzzled as to why I would even contemplate making tea as it is women’s work!
He hit a dog on the way to eat one night; there were five of us in the car. He didn’t even stop, just muttered something very offensive, we are all shocked, including his wife, on another occasion a large lorry has very lightly shunted into the back of us and we have been pushed into the car in front. No one is injured except cous–two broken fingers, due to him trying to punch the driver through the window! He is an Indian man in the old-fashioned sense of the meaning. This is the first of our three minor car-crashes in India, more in three months than the forty years before. Everything is sorted without the need of the police; if they arrive they want their baksheesh as well. I am told on two occasions if there is a fatality, do not touch the body, if the police arrive they have been known to accuse you of the murder and want a hefty bribe to place the blame elsewhere! There is a lot of non-sense talked about safety in India, but the roads are one area I would offer caution, especially if you are travelling on a duel carriage way and large lorries are travelling towards you on the same side. No one seems to think this is unusual, or just wrong.
There is an almighty row on the penultimate day with our driver, a family friend of the hosts. He has overcharged us, we are not that bothered, but the rest of the family are. We agree to pay him, but he loses out as we decide to get the train rather than him drive us to Jaipur.
On the last night we decide to take everyone out for a meal at a basic hotel in town that offers great food. They offer caution as the hotel will only take cash. The Wife and I debate how much we need to take. There will be seventeen of us; the driver has been forgiven. I have the equivalent of £120 in my pocket; there is no alcohol, although cranky Canadian cousin wants some. The final bill comes to £17!
It was good for all of us to see how an Indian family, albeit quite a well off one lives. We would have probably stayed a little longer, but we have had enough of the annoying cousin. I secretly leave what is quite a large sum of money, the reminder of the meal money and a bit more, to the live-in family, for them to find in their room after we have left, but somehow The Mother finds it before, as we are about to get in the car to the station. She hugs both me and The Wife for the first time, says nothing, but her uncontainable smile says enough. It is only one of the reasons the week has been worthwhile… And at least we can embellish the ‘heritage’ side of the gap year!
’50 Mistakes of the Fledgling Fiction Writer’ now appears weekly in the Huffington Post. This is the very first one: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/ian-m…
Ian M Pindar writes books, and also about himself in the third person sometimes, so it looks as though he has a huge team of dedicated professionals working around the clock. His latest book is in fact a novella and has the strange title of: ‘Foot-sex of the Mind’. It is not a Mills and Boon, but about finding out what is important in life far too late. It will take you four hours to read, or about the time it takes for irrigated water to travel along the furrows of two fields on the outskirts of Paghwara.