A Warm Welcoming in Punjab

Our next destination was Punjab, the north Indian state that was brutally halved between India and Pakistan after they won their independence from Britain in 1947. Maserji drove us to the Delhi airport (also the bus terminal) where we searched for the chariot which would take us to our destination. When I saw it I was shocked. It was an extremely luxurious bus with internet, a computer/television screen in the back of every seat, and free snacks and refreshments. Jessy and I spent a comfortable eight hours riding on the Grand Trunk Road, which cost us a price comparable to a round-trip ride on a standard bus from Moncton to Halifax (only four or five hours).

Mustard field along GT Road

The Grand Trunk Road runs for 1,500 miles from Kolkata on India's eastern coast all the way to Peshawar on Pakistan's western edge. A 170-mile section of the ancient trade route—now designated National Highway Number One—cuts diagonally across the Indian Punjab. “Truly,” Rudyard Kipling wrote in Kim, “the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle….bearing without crowding…such a river of life as exists nowhere else in the world.” That river flows far faster now and is no longer uncrowded. Kim and his contemporaries moved mostly on foot; the fastest travellers rode in horse carts. Now, big gaudily painted trucks race past one another in both directions, blaring horns and spewing black exhaust. Motorcyclists weave among them, wives and small children clinging on behind. Bicycles and sputtering motor-rickshaws join the flow; so do jeeps that act as country taxis and spavined buses so oversold that a dozen or more men ride with the baggage on the roof.

Wheat field in Punjab countryside

The brilliant green of the countryside through which all this traffic elbows its way is broken only by the trees that set one wheat field apart from the next and by occasional patches of brilliant yellow mustard.

Since five rivers pass into the state, it is also called the land of rivers (“punj” meaning five and “jab” river). This state’s primary occupation is agriculture as it is blessed naturally with ample river water, fertile soil and moderate climate. I was in awe by the amount of farmland, but was disappointed that the vast majority of the crops are cultivated using chemically-intensive farming methods.

Pesticide Plane -- picture borrowed from wikipedia

In 1970, Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in developing high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of wheat. The “Green Revolution”, launched by Borlaug's “miracle seeds”, is often credited with having transformed India from “a begging bowl to a bread basket”, and the Punjab is frequently cited as the Green Revolution's most celebrated success story. Yet, far from bringing prosperity, two decades of the Green Revolution have left the Punjab riddled with discontent and violence. It has led to reduced genetic diversity, increased vulnerability to pests, soil erosion, water shortages, reduced soil fertility, micronutrient deficiencies, soil contamination, reduced availability of nutritious food crops for the local population, the displacement of vast numbers of small farmers from their land, rural impoverishment and increased tensions and conflicts. The beneficiaries have been the agrochemical industry, large petrochemical companies, manufacturers of agricultural machinery, dam builders and large landowners.

Others may have a difference of opinion, yet a growing amount of evidence is backing up my claims. Vandana Shiva and her colleagues working at Navdanya, amongst many other great scholars, have published a wide variety books and research papers on the topic. After learning everything I have about environmental degradation in school and through books, I am convinced there are far better farming alternatives which can even resolve the disastrous effects of the Green Revolution. I will discuss the solutions to the crisis further once I begin experiential work on organic farms during my stay in India. For now, back to my adventures.

Local farm outside the town of Nakodar

Like its fertility Punjab is known for its hospitality, which I was about to discover. We were picked up at 8am by Jessy's cousin Aman and his uncle, who we referred to as Chacha (meaning Jessy's father's brother in Punjabi). I was instantly amazed by the amount of cows on the road. Far more than there were in Delhi, but I guess that is to be expected when entering a farming state. Dozens of cows gather in clusters in the middle of the road, often creating more traffic jams than the vehicles themselves. We had another two hour drive ahead of us, but the ride was smooth. Aside from all of the cows, there was surprisingly little traffic.

After a quick tour of Nakodar, their home town, we made our way to Aman's house to meet his mother (Chachi) and sister (Satvir). They gave us a warm welcome, with food already prepared on our arrival. I can imagine they were as excited to see us as we were to see them — it was the first time Jessy had ever met any of these family members in person.

Once we were finished eating and chatting over chai we made our way to Jessy's other relatives, whom happen to live only thirty seconds down the road — apparently that is a typical situation for Indian families.

As we ventured down the tiny alley, Aman said, “here it is boys, the Roopra Watch house, your home for the next month.” The living quarters were located on the second story, while the ground floor was a big workshop. There was a rusty sign hanging outside on the building which read 'Roopra Watch house'.

In the warehouse they manufacture mass amounts of the tools watchmakers need to make and repair watches. This has been the legacy of three generations of Roopras and is still carrying on strong. Jessy's father, Kuldip, began his long road to establishing a business in Canada working at a small desk in this very shop. Jessy did not say too much of it at the time, but I could feel a whole whirlwind of emotions running through him as we approached the building. He was beginning to understand his familial roots, which I could tell was a humbling event for him.

Aman led us through a little blue hinged door which slammed behind you if you did not ease it shut. As we made our way up the stairs, we noticed Chachi and Chacha (Goguen's parents), Goguen and Jessy's grandfather there waiting for us. Again, we were greeted with warm smiles and open arms.

I felt blessed to be so fortunate to be welcomed into their home for the next month without them ever having met me. I really wanted to express my gratitude but I had a difficult time communicating my feelings.

Aman and Jessy could speak fluent English and Punjabi so they could understand everything I said. They were able to translate between the two languages for me. Chachi, Gogen and Satvir could speak broken English, so we were generally able to manage small conversations. The rest of the family members knew no English at all.

At times it can be quite frustrating and overwhelming when you are the one person in a room of many who cannot understand the conversation. It makes it extremely difficult to share stories, crack jokes and express oneself. Jessy's relatives are understanding of my situation and just happy to have me as a guest, but there are times I wish I could connect more through conversation.

How I feel trying to communicate in Punjabi -- borrow from webpages.scu.edu

On the other hand, it has been only two weeks since I have been exposed to the Punjabi language and I have noticed that my vocabulary is expanding fairly fast. Although I have begun to pick up the vocabulary, the pronunciation of the dialect is a different story. Their accent is quite rough sounding in comparison to Hindi. Personally I feel that I have a softer accent and would be more successful speaking Hindi. None the less I attempt to pull the grittiness out from deep within when I speak Punjabi, despite everyone laughing at me when I do so.

The Punjabi language also has many words which sound almost identical — I still can't tell the difference between some of them — but have a completely different meaning. For example, the word “tika” can be pronounced in two subtly different ways. One way means OK, which is the most commonly used word in my Punjabi vocabulary, while the other pronunciation translates to needle. In spite of my best efforts I often mispronounce the words, making for a good laugh with those who I am conversing with. The intense language barrier has certainly contributed to my culture shock, but I have patience and am grateful to be surrounded by people who are willing to help me learn.


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1 Response to A Warm Welcoming in Punjab

  1. Jay says:

    I finally had a chance to catch up on your blog. This is really great stuff man, i’m so happy that you are living in such a rich and inspiring environment, and that you’re taking so much from it. Nonetheless, Sackville misses you. You’re on my mind brother. Much love!

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