The Pleasures Of Providing Directions To The Lost

A short while ago, as I alighted at the New York City’s Herald Square subway station, I was approached by a Chinese gentleman seeking directions to Penn Station; he needed to catch a New Jersey Transit train to, well, New Jersey. I was already ‘late’ for my weekly Tuesday stint at the library, but I stopped and gave him explicit and detailed directions. He listened eagerly and attentively and then sallied forth; I slapped him on the back as he left, calling out ‘good luck’ as I did so. As I strode off to the library–where I am now writing this post–I had a smile on my face. The beneficiary of my directions had been bewildered and disoriented; now, hopefully, he wasn’t any more.

Once, some twenty years or so ago, while walking up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, I had spotted an elderly Sikh gentleman clutching at the hands of passersby, imploring them for something; I crossed the street, and heard him asking for directions in extremely broken English. I sidled up to him and spoke in Punjabi, “Sir, what are you looking for?” (Rather, I called him ‘padshah,’ a colloquial term that literally means ’emperor’ but doubles as a respectful term of address.) His expression changed dramatically from confusion to the broadest of smiles; he grasped my hand and squeezed it with some feeling. A minute or so later, I was heading off again, to the same library as I was headed to today, once again smiling from ear to ear.

There is something deeply satisfying about providing directions to the lost, to the bemused, to those cast adrift in strange environs. I have not yet descended into the realm of the symbolic or the metaphoric, and I don’t need to; getting lost, even if only temporarily, is a disconcerting experience. The fear of being so informs every step of mine in the great outdoors; it has prevented me, until this past summer, from ever going hiking solo. I can empathize effortlessly with the lost, with those temporarily ‘unsure of their position.’ I have ‘been there,’ I have ‘done that’; and I didn’t like it. (This act has special resonance for me in New York City, my first port of call in the US some thirty years ago; back then I was often too scared to ask for directions, intimidated by the city’s reputation and by the supposed dangers of being mistaken for a tourist.)

For that hopefully brief period of time when we are not sure which way to turn, we are overcome by a panoply of emotions, novel and archaic: frustration, irritation, impatience, anxiety, these all surge to the fore; we worry about missed appointments; we curse our inability to magically walk on the straight path home; men fret about whether their masculinity faces its most rigorous challenge yet; the GPS rises in our esteem as the greatest blessing of this technological age. To apply a healing balm to these myriad afflictions is Good Work; we should not shirk it.  And I don’t.

Punjab, Palestine, Israel: Refugee Resonances

The way I first heard the story of the Jews from my mother it was about refugees, endlessly wandering from expulsion to expulsion, who had finally found a home. The first history of the creation of Israel I read introduced me to the Palestinians; they were refugees too. And I had learned, long before, that I was a Punjabi, from a land which had been divided during the Great Partition of India in 1947, that my ethnic demographic included many who had become refugees during that bloody and violent movement of peoples, that I lived in a city–New Delhi–whose population had grown to accommodate many who had moved there from the former West Punjab, now part of the newly created nation of Pakistan. My father’s family had moved from their older home too, not quite in the dramatic way that refugees moved during the Partition, fleeing murderous mobs: my grandfather had found employment in Central India and moved, calmly and sedately, in 1930; his brothers followed. They were all safely across the border well before 1947. My mother’s family was from the East Punjab; they did not have to move, but they lived through bloody riots in the city of Amritsar on the eastern side. But my father’s family still lost lands–agricultural and residential–in our old home; and so as I grew up, moved around India, and then later, migrated to the US, I could still say with some fidelity to the facts, “My family is from the part of the Punjab now in Pakistan; we were displaced.’ It granted my otherwise rather humdrum biography a little frisson. (There was one refugee story I was told about a pair of my father’s cousins, a boy and a girl, a sister and a brother, who had traveled back by train together but alone during the Partition. The train was stopped by mobs before it could cross the border; the girl, just older than a toddler, hid below the seats, while dead bodies piled up around her. She was pulled out, covered with blood and barely breathing, at the next station. Her brother was beaten and left for dead; so many bones were broken in his body that he never regained the full use of his limbs and had to walk with a cane for the rest of his life.)

So I found, at some level, the story of Israel and Palestine lay particularly close by; I did not need to move too far in the space of my affective responses to find one that lined up for Israel and Palestine. I was primed to read the story; one part of it–of seeking home–is universal, but other parts are only available to those who have traveled and lost, who can speak of another place other than ‘this one’ as being ‘home.’ Later, I exiled myself voluntarily to another land, losing one home and beginning the hunt to find another. I became another kind of refugee–seeking refuge in an ‘outside’ into which I had cast myself. Stories of refugees were always more meaningful to me than those of other kinds. But not all came to me in the same way.

When I first encountered the story of the Palestinians in the history of the creation of Israel, I skipped past it. I did not want to face up to the grim reality of their refugee camps, of the story that lay behind the black and white photographs of a grimy-faced boy and girl, clad in rags, visible through the barbed wire of the new homes created after 1948. Somehow, I felt overburdened by their tragedy; could it really be possible that the creation of a homeland for a people I knew as refugees would have turned another people into refugees? Israel and the Jews made a powerful claim on my attention and sympathy, drowning out the call of the Palestinian displaced; it left no space for them. The history of the Jews, the Holocaust, the stories of their suffering–they seemed to demand all the empathy I could muster.

But the Palestinians would not go away; they were refugees after all. I heard their stories–at some only dimly perceived level–in my descriptions of myself, in my invocation of a village, and its waters and food and peoples and summers, endlessly and glowingly talked about by my grandfather and my grand-uncles, in the way I would and could claim ethnic solidarity with Punjabi Pakistanis, who now, thanks to a geopolitical tactic, bore a different nationality than me; they all reminded me there was, in my family and life, the touch of the displaced. I had left home too to move to this land of people from elsewhere, who could all, in the right circumstances, dream nostalgically and wistfully of places other than this one. If the Palestinians could not find sympathy in me, living here, in this land, soaked with the tales of the dispossessed and their searches for a place of rest of repose, then where else would they find it?

 

On Male Brazilians And Revealing Ethnic Origins Through Cussing

Today was a painful day; twice, I encountered good old-fashioned physical pain. None of that fancy, dark night of the soul, melancholic stuff. You needed topical balms for this, not therapy. (Though I suppose opiates would help both varietals.)

Incident Numero Uno (in which I inadvertently receive a varietal of a Male Brazilian): Shortly after I had finished working out at my gym this afternoon, I collected my sore body and my gear, and began the walk back to the subway station to catch my train back home. On the way, I stopped to talk to a friend of mine; she was crossing the same street. We commiserated about some bureaucratic nightmares she is currently experiencing, and as we talked, I began removing a pair of taped straps from my wrists. I had been using these while performing two sets of heavy front squats a little earlier, and had forgotten to remove them. This procedure is always a little painful, thanks to the presence of hairs on my wrist–I am not unusually hirsute and carry a standard complement in that location. As usual, I moved gingerly and slowly, an action which did not fail to catch the attention of my friend who offered to help by delivering a short, sharp yank to the remaining part of the white tape. She did so, perhaps adding an emphatic flourish, and I let out an agonized yelp.  We both stared in some astonishment at the strip of tape that had just been torn off my right wrist: it was flecked with many a hair that had formerly adorned my wrist. At that moment, I felt deep empathy and sympathy for all those countless women who have undergone the agonies of a Brazilian to prepare for a season at the beach. How do they ever do it? Why do they? Patriarchy has a lot to answer for.

Incident Numero Dos (in which I am reminded of my ethnic origins): I returned home, my wrist still smarting, determined to feed myself well after my grueling workout. I entered the kitchen and set about making some scrambled eggs to accompany a leftover hot Italian sausage from last night’s dinner. After whipping up a rather tasty looking four-egg medley, I moved the pan over to where my plate lay and then, absentmindedly, reached for a serving utensil to begin ladling my preparation out. I had cooked the eggs with a wooden spatula, but forgetting that momentarily, I reached for one with a metallic handle. Unfortunately, this one, lying on the cooking range, had been exposed to the flame of my cooking for several minutes. As I grabbed it, a searing, agonizing, pain shot through my hand. I dropped the spatula, and stared at my hand, which showed two burns forming rapidly–one on my little finger, and one on my palm–even as I cursed loudly and pungently. Two cusswords had emanated. Both were in Punjabi. Modesty forbids me provide any more detail than that. Old instincts die hard. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Passing For Pakistani And The Two-Nation Theory

I often pass for Pakistani. In my zipcode, 11218, once supposedly the most ethnically diverse in the US, it isn’t too hard. I speak Urdu, but perhaps more importantly, given Pakistan’s linguistic and ethnic demography, Punjabi; I am brown-skinned (but not all brown folk are alike for I, given my linguistic capacities, cannot pass for Bangladeshi); I can converse, comfortably, about cricket; I slip into stores and buy spices and condiments, asking for them by name, with practiced ease; I order food in restaurants like a seasoned gourmand, entirely willing and able to consume those that include beef in their list of ingredients. I could, with some sleight of hand, even claim I am ‘from Pakistan’; for after all, my father’s side of the family hails from a little village–now a middling town–called Dilawar Cheema, now in Pakistan, in Gujranwala District, Tehsil Wazirabad, in the former West Punjab. I do not lie or dissemble; when asked if I am Pakistani, I say I am not. On one occasion though, on my hearing my response to his question about my origins, my young interlocutor burst out, in some surprise, ‘But you speak Punjabi like a Pakistani!’ Well, I did hone my spoken Punjabi in this city by speaking to Pakistanis.

On most occasions, my passing is not deliberate; I do not intend to deceive. But sometimes I do. Most notably, I did so during a cricket game, the T20 cricket World Cup final in 2007–between India and Pakistan. That day, I had been watching at home, content to cheer on the Indian team in splendid isolation. But thanks to a rare power failure in Brooklyn, the telecast failed. I went looking for relief and succor. I found it in a Pakistani restaurant with a large screen television. Being the solitary Indian fan in a Pakistani stronghold during a cricket world cup final did not suggest itself as a pleasant activity at that moment; I decided to go undercover. I asked for the score in Punjabi; I might even have introduced a tone of solicitousness in my queries about Pakistan’s prospects as they chased the Indian total. When Pakistan lost, I did not celebrate overtly or loudly; I quickly left before texting some jubilant messages to friends in distant locations and time zones.

My passing earns me some easy acceptance in these ‘venues of deception,’ but otherwise no great advantage accrues to me. Neither am I seeking any. I do not think I will be charged more, or refused service, if the fact of my national origin were to be common knowledge. Pakistan and India might have an edgy geopolitical relationship, but the micro interactions that take place in the great subcontinental diaspora tend to be regulated by far more mundane matters. I am not a solitary offender in the passing business. I presume that, just like me, many Pakistanis pass for Indians, and see no reason to loudly and explicitly clarify their nationality or national origin in their otherwise anonymous interactions with Indians and Indian establishments.

Perhaps these easy passages–back and forth–between one supposed identity and the other suggest other zones of contestation of the two-nation theory.

On First And Second Languages V – Nabokov’s Lament

In his famous Afterword to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov closed with:

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

In a post paying tribute a scholarly friend of mine, a close and careful reader of the books he owned and an exacting writer to boot, I had written:

Even more impressive was his attention to elegance and conciseness in both his verbal and mathematical expression; we co-authored a journal paper together and I was–for lack of a better word–blown away by his insistence on getting our written and technical formulations just right. No superfluous words, no bloated definitions, no vague sentences were to be tolerated.

My friend’s writing did not lack flair either, and so I once complimented him on his style. He accepted the praise reluctantly, issuing a lament similar to that of Nabokov’s: He was a native French speaker and writer, and he was painfully aware, as he wrote in English, that he was not writing as well as he could have in French. His distinctive style, his skillful deployment of the resources of the French language were simply not available to him.

I’m bilingual too, but only in a fashion, and so I do not experience the kind of regrets expressed above. As I have noted here on previous occasions, I do not read and write Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani–my supposed first language(s)–with anywhere near the same facility as I do English, my actual first language. Indeed, I do not read or write in Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani at all. I could, but slowly and painfully. And so I don’t. I had intended to read three novels in Hindi by the great Indian novelist Premchand–which I own–to ameliorate this state of affairs (and to evaluate the quality of their translations into English), but they are still sitting on my shelf, unread. I know a struggle awaits me when I open their pages; avoidance seems like a rather perspicuous strategy. (I suspect my reading abilities would trend upward on a sharper slope than my writing in Hindi et al., which was always hopeless.) I am well aware, when I write in English, that this is my chosen medium and vehicle of expression; it is the only one I have.

I say this even as I revel in my bilingual abilities when it comes to the spoken word. I enjoy dipping back into the stores of Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani/Punjabi idioms and expressions when I speak with other speakers of these languages. There are some pungent descriptions of this lunatic world’s state of affairs that I only find available in those linguistic frameworks. And when I do use them, I’m struck, as always, by how the mere utterance of a sentence or two can instantly transport me to a distinctive place and time.

Language and Identity: The Case of Punjabi

My last name is a giveaway: I’m a Punjabi. But I’ve never lived in the Punjab and I have yet to master its language. The story of my attempts to do so reveals familiar struggles—by people like you and me—to fashion an identity, no matter where we live, whether in India or elsewhere.

As a child, I was not particularly keen to take on the mantle of being a ‘Punjabi’. My first homes were in Indian Air Force bases and later, in a city with a large Punjabi population: New Delhi. On air force bases, the lingua franca was English, and ethnic identities were de-emphasized in favor of a more pluralistic Indian one. At home, my parents never spoke Punjabi to me though they did so—with fluency and aplomb—with their parents whenever we visited them. So I grew up listening to a great deal of Punjabi, but like most urban Punjabis of my generation, without learning our supposed ‘mother-tongue’.

This cultural and linguistic distancing from the Punjab had other dimensions. When an Amritsar-resident uncle invited me to spend my autumn vacation with him, I politely declined; its historic attractions—the Golden Temple, Jallianwalah Bagh—did not seem to exert a strong enough hold on me.  I spent a day in Jalandhar on my way to a family holiday in Kashmir and did not think much of it; compared to Delhi, it seemed impossibly small-townish. Punjab smacked of the rustic, the agricultural, the homespun; I saw myself as an urban Anglophone. I lived in a big city, the capital of India; my ancestors seemed to have lived in dusty villages and provincial towns.  If this was my ethnic heritage, then I would do better to leave it behind and take on the new one that my parents’ expatriate lives—elsewhere in India, away from the Punjab—afforded me.

But migration—of whatever stripe—can change such perspectives. In my ninth and tenth grades, during two years spent in boarding school, away in India’s North-East, I was not-so-gently nudged toward my Punjabi identity by my fellow students, who, though by virtue of hailing from all over the country constituted a demographic similar to the one I had enjoyed on air force bases, were not shy about showing off their ethnic prejudices. Perhaps it was simple immaturity; perhaps it was the absence of the military impress. Be that as it may, whereas previously the label ‘Punjabi’ had never been applied to me, now, I was now supposedly a hick, despite being from New Delhi. As a confused and callow act of defiance, I became interested in acquiring my new identity’s other trappings. One important and seemingly singular one was language. Soon, I struck up a friendship with two Sikh lads—transplanted from Chapra, Bihar—and started some rudimentary practice in spoken Punjabi. For the first time in my life, I drew on a supposed ethnic solidarity. The irony of a Delhi lad finding it with Bihari boys was not lost on me. My early attempts at spoken Punjabi were, as might be expected, ludicrously bad, but a halting journey had commenced.

On returning to Delhi to finish high school, I noticed my partial competency in Punjabi made me an outlier in my cohort. None of my cousins—and indeed, just about no one in my generation of urban Punjabis in New Delhi—spoke Punjabi; they were content with their fluency in English and Hindi; perhaps they were just as ambivalent about their Punjabi identity as I had been. More broadly, the migration of Punjabis outwards from the ‘home’ state seemed to have condemned their language to a slow death in India’s urban centers, overcome by the homogenizing effect of Hindi. (Elsewhere in the world, Punjabi flourished in locales like Southall and Vancouver.)

I now grew to dislike the sense of exclusion I experienced when a fluent conversation in Punjabi was conducted in my presence. I wanted to be able to understand Punjabi songs, to crack jokes in Punjabi, to perhaps even watch a movie or two in Punjabi. I still did not speak to my mother in Punjabi; our relationship was too entrenched in the familiar contours afforded by English and Hindi. But my grandmothers had no such established habit; if I attempted to speak in Punjabi with them, they replied accordingly. I began some tentative conversations in Punjabi with my grandparents. The Punjabi I acquired thus was old-fashioned; it had to be given its provenance.

At the age of twenty, my fluency in Punjabi was still minimal. Matters picked up, like they had before, when I left home. This time for a land ten thousand miles away: the US. There, as I struggled with the immigrant’s familiar and peculiar schizophrenia of identities, I made attempts to seek refuge in one or the other of the many variants—American, Indian, Punjabi—available to me. Sometimes I sought rapid assimilation and Americanization; sometimes I dreamed of returning to India; and at yet others, my old desire to speak Punjabi reasserted itself with some vigor.

New York City, my new home, played host to a large Punjabi population; opportunities for learning Punjabi were only limited by my enterprise and shyness. (They still are.) Thanks to my displacement from India, I had made contact with a brand new community of Punjabi speakers: Pakistanis. Once, while dropping off a friend for a flight back to India, as I walked through JFK’s departure hall, past a gate for a PIA flight, I was stunned by the Punjabi I could hear spoken around me by the travelers headed home. This was a huge community of fellow Punjabis; once they had only been those my father had fought in the 1965 and 1971 wars; now, perhaps, I could view them as potential brethren of a sort.  A charmingly naïve view perhaps but in that context not an entirely misguided one.

My attempts to practice my Punjabi in New York City had unexpected consequences: on many occasions, a cab driver from the Punjab–Indian or Pakistani, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, it did not seem to matter–delighted to make acquaintance with a fellow Punjabi-spouting homeboy, would simply decline my payment of the fare, and give me a free ride. I grew embarrassed at these inordinately generous offers and would try my best to pay, but to no avail. My American friends were suitably nonplussed and impressed by these remarkable displays of generosity and ethnic camaraderie. So was I.

My progress in learning Punjabi was halting; all too often, in the midst of a conversation, my verbs, tenses and vocabulary would break down and I would have to, yet again, switch back to the safety of Hindi-Urdu. I discovered that the Punjabi spoken in the Punjabi hinterland–of whose representatives in New York City there were many–was far harder to master than the urban variant I had been previously exposed to, and I would frequently switch to Hindi-Urdu in the middle of a conversation, unable to keep up with the barrage of incomprehensible words coming my way.

My progress was hampered occasionally by some old ambivalence about my Punjabi identity; I was a graduate student in philosophy, immersed in sophisticated theoretical discourse; what was I doing, expending precious time and effort in learning a language that seemed destined to be confined to India and Pakistan’s rural regions? I had married an Indian-American woman who spoke no Punjabi at all; what role did Punjabi have to play in my future family life?

Years on, as I live in Brooklyn in a neighborhood that abuts a large Pakistani community, where my opportunities for speaking Punjabi are confined to short conversations with local shopkeepers, my fluency in Punjabi remains a couple of rungs short of full-fledged mastery. Perhaps such competence would be possible were I able to achieve total immersion; in the winter of 2006/7 during a visit to India, my family and I made a short road trip to the Punjab; my spoken Punjabi improved in the space of four days. Work and family though, leave little time for such adventures.  Perhaps I am destined to be stuck at my current state of fluency. My ten-month old daughter will almost certainly never learn Punjabi; indeed, it would be a miracle if she would learn a bit of Hindi-Urdu. The Punjabi speakers in my family, in my line, will end with me.  And Punjabi’s melancholic trend toward a seemingly ever-smaller cohort of speakers will continue. (Word has it that in Pakistan, Urdu is fast displacing Punjabi.)

My earlier angst about seeking an identity has died down. I am happy to slip in and out of the three languages—English, Hindi, Punjabi—I can call upon with varying degrees of felicity; I delight in the varied perspectives these linguistic lenses afford me. I am now, perhaps, finally comfortable in my skin; I am who I am, a transplanted person that can look back on a childhood spent elsewhere, and who can claim allegiance to, and membership in, various cultural traditions. I am destined to be a mongrel of sorts.

Note: This is a revised and extended version of an earlier post on the same subject.

On First and Second Languages – III

In this ongoing series of posts on partially mastered languages and my frustrating relationships with them, I’ve written about German and Spanish. Today, I come to the most vexed alliance of all, the one with Punjabi.

My last name is a giveaway: I’m a Punjabi. But I’ve never lived in the Punjab. I did, however, spend many years in a city with a large Punjabi population: New Delhi. My parents never spoke in Punjabi with me (they did so with their parents) and so while I grew up listening to a great deal of Punjabi, I acquired no fluency in it whatsoever. In the tenth grade, during two years spent in boarding school, away in India’s north-east, I struck up a friendship with two Sikh lads and started some rudimentary practice. On returning to Delhi to finish high school, I initiated some tentative conversations with my grandmothers and attempted to learn some Punjabi from them. I noticed that none of my cousins, and indeed, no one in my generation of urban Punjabis in New Delhi spoke the language.

By the time I left India for the US, my fluency in Punjabi was still minimal. Matters picked up, ironically enough, on moving to a land ten thousand miles away from ‘home.’ I was keen to practice, keen to establish a very particular sort of contact with the few Punjabis I met. I also made contact with a brand new community of Punjabi speakers: Pakistanis. Indeed, it seemed to me that more Pakistani Punjabis, even urban ones, spoke Punjabi than Indian ones. My vocabulary improved, as did some aspects of my grammar.

Moving to New York City in 1993 facilitated this process even further. The city is home to a large Punjabi community and opportunities for practice were only limited by my enterprise and shyness; they still are. I discovered that the Punjabi spoken in the Punjabi hinterland–of whose representatives in New York City there were many–was far harder to master, and I would frequently, embarrassed, switch to Hindi/Urdu in the middle of a conversation, unable to keep up with the barrage of incomprehensible words coming my way.

My attempts to practice my Punjabi had unexpected consequences: on occasion, a cab driver from the Punjab–Indian or Pakistani–delighted to make acquaintance with a fellow homeboy, would simply decline my payment of the fare, and give me a free ride. I grew embarrassed at these inordinately generous offers and would try my best to pay, but to no avail. (This followed me to Sydney, when on arriving there for my post-doctoral fellowship, the young man who drove me to the University of New South Wales also declined payment.)

My fluency in Punjabi is a couple of rungs short of full-fledged mastery; I need a period of immersion to make what I consider would be a significant breakthrough. (In the winter of 2006/7 on a visit to India, my family and I made a short road trip to the Punjab; my spoken Punjabi improved even in the space of those four days.) I do not think I will ever have the time or the patience to master the script but spoken mastery lies well within my reach provided I can achieve total immersion. Even two weeks, I suspect, would do it.  I’m not sure when and how I will be able to bring this about though; work and family seem to leave little time for such an adventure.

So near, and yet so far.