Photo: Ranbir Singh Sidhu.

Dreaming in Punjab

A feverish journey to Jullandar, Punjab in search of the author's ancestral roots.


The night before I take the train, I fall sick, about as sick as I’ve ever been. In the morning, I persuade myself I can handle the seven-hour train journey from Delhi to Ludhiana. It’s the tail end of summer and I booked late and got a place in Second Seating on the Shane Punjab. No AC, a crowded car, and I have to beg my seatmate to squeeze me in by the window. The smell of urine and rotting garbage along the tracks blows across my face with every gust, but it’s better than the airless interior where I’d be crushed between strangers. For a short while, through the haze of my fever, I convince myself I can do this. I slip on headphones and let the world slide away as best I can. Half an hour into the journey my fever spikes and I pass out and wake covered in my own vomit. It takes me a few minutes to gather the strength to stand. In the toilet, I discover I’ve shat my pants. I change clothes and roll up my soiled shirt and place it on the toilet floor and collapse onto it, my back pressed against the door. Like this, pouring sweat and shivering, I enter Punjab.

Dad’s ancestral village sits in the Doab, between Jullandar and Ludhiana. He tells me how as a young man he cycled to the big city, passing through the villages along the way. Almost every day, I run into one of his old school chums who shakes my hand and is pleased to reminisce about his old friendship with my dad. Everyone knows me, though I know hardly anyone, and my Punjabi is poor. The only question people have is whether I’m married. I get asked three or four times a day and nod and answer as best I can. One woman, high-strung and shrieking, demands to know why I’m only spending a month in the village. If I think it’s beautiful, I’d spend six months, she says. She says this again and again and I do my best to hide my annoyance and smile blandly and tell her the village is very beautiful. If I honestly thought that, she says, shrieking even louder, I’d spend the rest of my life here.

There are moments when I fall in love with the play of light across the fields. The sun dances on the stalks of wheat. The narrow dirt paths glow.

It’s harvest time. The wheat is turning golden brown and the rice stalks are drooping from the weight. Combine harvesters shuttle back and forth across the horizon. In the evenings, the air is thick with smoke. After the harvest, the fields are set on fire. I taste the burnt air as I fall asleep. My long walks grow easier as new paths are opened up and I walk from village to village. Everywhere, new houses are being built. They are gaudy mansions made of concrete and with high, enclosing walls. The money comes from Toronto and New Jersey and London. On the way to Cheema, a man sitting on a bullock cart starts shouting at me. I have no idea what he’s saying, and after a minute of failing to understand, I walk on. A schoolgirl approaches. She understands. I stop and watch. His bullock refuses to turn left, keeps wanting to go right, no matter how much he shouts and whips. The girl pulls at the bullock, and she, the bullock, and the man on his cart careen wildly into a field. Later, I pass him again. His cart has crashed into another field and when he sees me approach, he pulls his dick out and starts peeing in full view and calls me over. He is shouting all the while. He finishes pissing and pulls his pants up and points to a heavy bag of concrete that’s fallen from the cart. Together we right the cart and lift the concrete bag back up. As he drives away, he asks if I want a lift and I tell him I’m going in the other direction at the next crossroads. I regret it as I watch him ambling away, thinking how pleasant it would be to pass the afternoon sitting on the back of an unruly bullock cart as the fields gently sweep by.

There are moments when I fall in love with the play of light across the fields. The sun dances on the stalks of wheat. The narrow dirt paths glow. The flooded fields shimmer and in the late afternoons, as the sun sinks into the thickening haze, the brick walls of pump houses soften and I can almost see through them, into the black interiors. Diwali arrives and the houses are strung with electric lights. I worry there will be no clay lamps, that nothing of the old world before electricity will show itself. But on the night itself they appear as if I’ve conjured them, and I help Mom place them on every balcony and ledge. Each door and wall in the village soon glows with their soft, penumbral light and I feel I’ve entered the India I once visited as a kid, alive with shadow and mystery. We set off fireworks from the roof and I light a fountain that starts a blaze on the neighbor’s straw roof. Dad and I run for buckets but out of the nearest tap the water is little more than a trickle. By the time we return someone’s found a hose and extinguished it. A rocket comes whizzing down from the sky and lands, burning, at my feet. The wedding season has started and every night the village is kept awake by bhangra blasting from a party. The animals become unsettled and for several nights in a row a water buffalo snorts loudly next to my bedroom. Dogs howl at the slightest sound.

This isn’t my world, and I doubt it ever could be, but I’m surprised to find a part of me wants to stay, to learn the language and live this life.

One day I lose my way and ask some field hands for directions. They’re crouched, drinking tea and eating neon orange and sickly sweet jelabis, which they offer me. I settle down among them and share their meal. After half an hour, they point me in the general direction of my village. I cut across flooded fields and find a farm house where a man leaps up from a charpoy at my approach and shouts questions into my face. Who am I, what am I doing, where am I going, etc. I tell him as best I can, but how can I explain I’m just walking, passing time, searching for a certain quality of light and air. In the days after the harvest, the fields look as if a desolation has visited them. They are blackened, scorched, flooded, thick with mud. I think of how the farmers must see them, acre upon acre of crops successfully grown, the blank landscape readied for another season, work and patience brought to fruition. These are practical men, with practical concerns, their lives constrained by the elements.

This isn’t my world, and I doubt it ever could be, but I’m surprised to find a part of me wants to stay, to learn the language and live this life. I’d be the eccentric American—or Amreekan as they’d call me—the crazy guy who left it all behind to live among them, here in this backwater world where all the talk is about marriage, or crops, or children. I can see myself hunched over my laptop, writing stories about the lives lived here. One afternoon a man grabs me by the arm in the village street and demands I get him a green card for the US. “I want to live in New York,” he insists in Punjabi, “like you! Take me back with you. I can still work.” He speaks no English, is in his sixties, and dreams of uprooting himself and starting another life, in another world that he’s never been to and couldn’t possibly navigate. I pull away as fast as I politely can, and the encounter leaves me profoundly sad.

When I pack my bags, Mom is genuinely surprised. “It’s only been a week, maybe two,” she says, though it’s been almost two months since I arrived. Like the shrieking woman, she too wants me to stay six months—why not a lifetime if I really like it? Dad has already built me a room, with its own kitchen, where I could pass my days undisturbed. As the car pulls away to drive me to the station, I watch Mom briefly, standing there waving in the street, and I think that we are both stranded, me in New York, she here, and even as we dream of other lives, we fail to see the ones we’re living.