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Recently, my father was helping me settle into my apartment. Holding the length of a bed frame in place while I fastened its leg, his phone rang: a client. He was apologetic. I understood. Not a moment later I froze, nearly dropping the mallet on my foot. “Ki haal hai ji?” I overheard him say from the other room. Back and forth flew utterances of a language I’d thought lost. That I hadn’t heard in years.
When I comfort a family after a patients’ death, I often say that they are never truly lost. People remain embodied in things: like their wedding band that slides over the next generation’s finger, or their woolen quilt that drapes the end of another bed. But for me, my grandfather, who died in 2020, remains vividly alive through language. His memory is conjured when I hear Punjabi – a language I myself could never speak.
Punjabi rolls off the tongues of more than 110 million people. But in our little family, it was the exclusive territory of just two: my father and grandfather. From Ludhiana, a city of smog and industry in the northern reaches of India, they had moved to Canada in the 1970s: my grandfather arrived a few years before, to stake out a humble plot on the eastern edge of Toronto.
He worked long hours on an assembly line, running the seams together on car seats. It was a job that didn’t require him to know much in the way of English, and that left him with little morsels of time to learn it – thumbing through the newspaper, tuning into the radio, listening to the jabber of the other factory men on his breaks. My grandfather, in the end, laboured toward a simple, working knowledge of English.
A common misbelief, not so long ago, was that children who faced two languages were vulnerable to confusion. English was native to my mother, who was born outside of Ottawa, and she spoke it freely with my father. English embraced me at home and surrounded me at school, it came to me in the books I read and in the thoughts I had. Punjabi was something I learned gently, through city-sponsored lessons for a few hours early each Saturday morning.
I picked up the basics of the alphabet (Oo’rhaa, Ai’rhaa, Ee’rhee) and numbers (ika, dō, tina). But the other children had a command of the language far beyond mine. They were there not to clumsily string together a sentence. No, but to make conversation – to meet others with whom they shared a language. Punjabi hadn’t yet seeped out of them like it had for my father, who, at the cost of assimilating, peppered his increasingly with English words. I remember leaving those classes utterly embarrassed. As a third-generation Indian-Canadian, and as research has shown, it was precisely on my lips where the language of my Indian heritage became lost.
This rankled an inner sense of turmoil. Culturally, I felt unmoored. I mourned the loss of this language I never had deeply because India was rooted as a special place. A place where my name was pronounced without instructions (pair the letter “R” with the month “June”); where I didn’t have to provide a justification for not eating meat and where a pluralist society could thrive (the constitution recognizes Punjabi as one of 22 official languages, a fraction of the 780 thought to be in circulation).
But it’s been years since I set foot in India. I’ve watched the country become obscured by a spate of nationalistic and anti-democratic sentiments, and, at the height of the pandemic, condoning mass religious gatherings and fervent political rallies. Was it fair to wonder if the India that was loosely a part of me I wanted any part with at all?
As India became unrecognizable to me, so too had my grandfather. When he fell ill early in the pandemic, he was isolated in his home. His existence was funnelled through phone calls. If I picked up, he endeared me with calling me beta (son), which he did long after I had grown out of being a boy. I’d hear him speak Punjabi with my father, their conversations ebbing and flowing for hours. This continued when my grandfather was in the hospital, and up until he was brought to the ICU. My grandfather had always dressed smartly in retirement. To see him in a hospital gown and not his corduroy blazer with a pen and notepad in his breast pocket is one of my haunting memories of his final days.
I work in a small city now with few minority groups, and assumptions are made of me. Sometimes, heads are shaken in disapproval and tut-tuts push behind curled lips when a patient, eager to finally meet someone of their likeness, finds out I speak nothing other than English.
These are connections I wish I could make. With my patients, yes, but also with the Uber driver who shuttled me around one night, the owner behind the counter of my favourite Indian restaurant – each existence spelling a familiar language of silent sacrifice, in an unfamiliar place we now call home.
Listening to my father that day, a hard realization finally dawned on me. Punjabi stood as a gateway to a void: where lived the complicated tensions of connection, of love, loss and the many things my grandfather and I could not bring to say to each other in between.
These days, some of my old Punjabi lesson books are spread out on my desk. I’m trying to clear the cobwebs from the mental cubbyhole where some of the language is surely tucked away. In a few months, my father and I will return my grandfather to where he was born, to where our story all began. Standing on the banks of the River Ganges, the sacred waters will receive his ashes as it spills from the foothills of the Himalayas.
My heart will hurt, my throat will clench. But I will listen for the familiar tones of Punjabi. I’ll find the spirit of my grandfather, and my buried belonging, in each person who speaks it.
Arjun V.K. Sharma lives in London, Ont.