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Authors: Anita Rau Badami

Tags: #Historical

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BOOK: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
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Every morning for the next several years, Sharan walked through the narrow gullies of Amritsar, past the
Golden Temple, to Mrs. Hardy’s home, where she sat before the elderly Englishwoman’s sky-blue gaze in a drawing room festooned in lace and learned
ABCD
and 1234 like a little girl. From one window she watched the gardeners struggle to tend an English garden of roses, delphinium, phlox and lilies that drooped and died under the scorching sun of Amritsar. From the other window she gazed at the dome of the Golden Temple. When she first arrived, determined if often scared and lonely, Sharan would glance out of the window before her lessons for the blessing she believed she would receive from the mere sight of that golden structure rising gracefully into the hot shine of the sky. On Saturdays and Sundays she would go to to the temple to learn a different alphabet at the free school run by the priests, to become the two-edged sword that her husband wanted her to be. Not that she minded the effort all this sudden flood of learning involved. She would tell herself that if it had not been for a husband as enlightened as hers, she might still be an illiterate farmer’s daughter, waiting stupidly for her fate to turn. But now she had the opportunity to be something better, and so, not being one to turn up her nose at chance, she applied herself with diligence to her studies.

Twice a year, to celebrate the Baisakhi and Diwali festivals with her mother and sister, she caught the bus back to Panjaur, glad after each visit that she had managed to get away from the smallness of life there. During one of her visits, in 1940, Kanwar gave birth to her second child, a daughter named Nimmo. Sharan cuddled the warm baby
and wondered whether she would ever join her husband in Canada. She decided to accompany Kanwar back to Dauri Kalan for a few months and help her with the new infant before returning to Amritsar.

Finally the war was over, and one evening she returned to her relatives’ home from her session with Mrs. Hardy to find her immigration papers had arrived. By then she was no longer a villager from a dusty dot on the map but a city girl who knew how to read and write, who had surreptitiously broken the religious rules of god-fearing Sikhs and cut her hair a few inches to even out the ragged ends. She was ready to take her future in her own hands and shape it to her liking.

She paid scant attention to talk of the impending independence of her nation and the division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, even when the murmuring turned to a shouting. She had too many things to do in preparation for her departure. And then, in January 1946, waving goodbye to Gurpreet, who had made the trip to the city to help her daughter prepare for the journey, Sharan caught a bus from Amritsar to New Delhi, a train to Calcutta, and from there a ship that sailed via Hong Kong to Vancouver. While Kanwar stayed behind in a land that would soon be split into two nations, Sharan— inheritor of her father’s dream and that troublesome question Why Not—was on her way to a new life.

Two months later, when she reached the port of Vancouver and saw the dark trees pointing at the sombre, rain-laden sky of that city, when she heard the cry of the gulls in the harbour, when she finally set foot on the
damp earth, Sharanjeet Kaur felt that she had overcome space and time and won the country that had turned her father away all those years ago. Her life, she thought buoyantly, was complete. What more could she ask?

THREE
G
UILT
Vancouver
1951

S
haran—Bibi-ji, as she was now called—sat at the cashier’s desk in the dim interior of East India Foods and Groceries. She tapped out a tuneless tattoo on the wooden surface in front of her with one plump, long-fingered hand. The late autumn sun warmed her gently through the sheet glass window she cleaned every morning so that she could see the world clear and undimmed by yesterday’s grease and dust. And, of course, so that the world would see her, Bibi-ji, wife of Khushwant Singh, or Pa-ji, unchallenged owner—no,
proprietor;
that sounded grander—of East India Foods and Groceries, 2034 Main Street. And full owner also of the apartment above the store—the one with two bedrooms, one and a half
bathrooms, a living-cum-dining room, and a kitchen with more pots and pans than she knew what to do with.

Yes indeed, Bibi-ji had arrived. Her life was now enriched by all manner of luxuries that an ardent Pa-ji poured into her lap, even though he could not always afford them. Pa-ji was a great giver of presents. He loved the feeling of power that he experienced every time he entered a shop, pulled out his wallet and purchased something for his young wife. He loved spending because he could. There was a time, not so long ago, when he had to count every penny. In most people the experience of extreme poverty inspires extreme parsimony, but Pa-ji was different. He forgot the past by living it up in the present. These gifts to Bibi-ji were apart from the ones he purchased on birthdays, on anniversaries and for every festival he could find in the calendar. He insisted on being multi-denominational as far as festivals went, and celebrated them all—Baisakhi, Diwali, Eid, Hanukkah, Christmas. If there was no reason to buy a present, he discovered one. When Bing Crosby came to the Sunset Community Centre as the star attraction the year Bibi-ji arrived in Vancouver, Pa-ji decided to celebrate the twin arrivals of wife and film star by buying a gramophone player and two Bing Crosby records. The first day of winter was greeted with new toques and matching mitts for both Bibi-ji and himself. The appearance of buds on the cherry trees, the arrival of a pair of blue jays in the garden of the house behind theirs—anything was reason enough. Sometimes Pa-ji made up these occasions. “Business boomed this evening,” or “Churchill came to our shop to
buy basmati rice,” or his favourite—which always drew a laugh from Bibi-ji, no matter how often it was repeated— “I was just elected the Prime Minister-ji of Canada.”

Bibi-ji, though, was torn between wanting all the luxuries Pa-ji heaped on her and being appalled by such extravagance. The poverty of her childhood had made her cautious about spending money. She found pleasure in hoarding and counting, in making sure that there was more money rolling in for the future.

“Why are you buying all these things for me?” she demanded of Pa-ji, even while splashing her favourite lavender perfume all over herself, carrying a different handbag to the shop every morning or trying on yet another pair of shoes. “I am not in need of three sets of cutlery, ji. I eat with my hands.” But none of her protests had stopped him. What, he had demanded, was the use of having money if not to spend it? And what was the use of having a beloved,
and
beautiful,
and
smart wife, if not to spoil her?

Bibi-ji glanced around the tiny shop. Four rows of shelves loaded from one end to the other with sacks of rice, bags of mung, toor, chana, masoor dal, kidney beans, chick peas, navy beans and spices from India. This is all mine, she thought proudly. What a transformation she had undergone—from a girl named Sharanjeet who had nothing to a woman of substance named Bibi-ji.

It was her husband who was responsible for the new appellation. He had a variety of affectionate nicknames for her—Honey, Rani, Bebby. The last was the one that had stuck. He really meant to say Baby, like the characters
in the romantic Hollywood movies he loved to watch, but his Punjabi accent interfered and messed up his English. People in their small Punjabi community, who weren’t sure what this word meant, tagged on their own marker of respect and called her Bebby-ji. And soon “Bebby-ji” became a word used so frequently that, like a stone worn small and smooth with caressing, it was turned by the constant touch of many tongues to Bibi-ji. She did not mind the transformation. The term meant Wife, and that was what she was: the respected wife of a respected man. It went well with Pa-ji, which was how Khushwant Singh was addressed by the newly arrived immigrant men over whom he presided like an older brother.

In the thirteen years since she had snared Pa-ji with her fluttering eyelashes and dimpled smile, Bibi-ji had become a handsome young woman of twenty-nine. She had put on weight, and her cheeks were taut and pink with good eating and better living. Her hair was piled fashionably in a bun, with a curl or two escaping artfully to decorate her wide, smooth brow. She applied make-up with an extravagant hand, her special weakness being lipstick in shades of dark red and pink. Her voice too had changed. It had grown deep and resonant as a temple bell, ringing solemnly out of the generous spread of her body.

Smoothing a hand absently down the pink and green kameez that she wore, she wondered what her mother would have made of her new status in life. And what about Mrs. Hardy, to whom Bibi-ji was daily grateful for teaching her the p’s and q’s and other things about the
gora way of life—how to eat food with a knife and fork, how to hold a teacup, how to use a hanky to blow her nose? Mrs. Hardy, who had taught her that it was polite to constantly say sorry and thank you—habits that were dismissed scornfully by Pa-ji, even though he had insisted on Bibi-ji’s English education.

“The goras hide behind these politenesses and commit all kinds of sins,” he told her. “You should say sorry and thank you only when you feel it from the heart, not every two minutes.”

But truth be told, Bibi-ji didn’t feel quite as strongly about the goras as he did. In fact, she had a sneaking admiration for these fair-skinned people who had infiltrated every part of the world with their manners and customs and languages, who had managed to make even a refrigerator of a country like Canada a place of comfort and plenty. Unlike the Panjauri villagers who assigned everything to Fate, the goras, Bibi-ji noticed with admiration, wanted to know why and what and when. It was not boats or horses that had transported them to all corners of the world, but their long noses, which quivered with a desire to poke into everything. Their sky-coloured eyes watered with the need to peer under every stone, their white fingers itched to take everything apart until they understood it, learned how it worked, found what they needed to make their own lives better.

“Bibi-ji? What should I do with these two sacks of rice?” It was the lanky Sikh youth, Lalloo, who helped in the shop. He was Pa-ji’s protégé, the son of a school friend from Amritsar. Lalloo was only about nineteen, but Bibi-ji
was pleased with his bright mind, which soaked up information as rapidly as a sponge, filed it away and used it whenever the opportunity presented itself.

“Put them on a shelf, not on the floor. If there is a flood or something, we will lose it all,” she said.

From her apartment upstairs, which had become a stopping place for newcomers who needed a bed and meals until they found their feet, came the muffled sounds of the radio and of people moving around. Pa-ji believed in running an open house. Anyone was welcome: relatives, friends of friends, refugees, children of friends on their way to somewhere else, they were all ushered in. They slept wherever there was space—on the floor in the living and dining rooms, in the landing and in the spare bedroom. Pa-ji, she knew, would be locked in their bedroom, working on his grand book of history as he did whenever he had a spare moment.

She shifted in her chair and reached into her capacious handbag for a letter she had read so often it was beginning to fall apart. It was the last letter she had received from her sister, Kanwar. It had arrived four years ago and was dated February 11, 1947. A few months later, in August, the British had left the Indian subcontinent and Punjab had been divided between two new nations—India and Pakistan.

The Punjabi lettering was neat, written by the schoolteacher in Kanwar’s village.

“My dear sister, I have bad news for you. Our mother died suddenly yesterday. It happened in her sleep and without any pain. Only people who are blessed die in this manner. She was
speaking about you a few hours before she fell asleep, my sister, and was sad that you were so far away from us. She missed you and so do I and the children.”
Tears welled out of Bibi-ji’s eyes. She wiped them away with the end of her dupatta.
“Your niece Nimmo, in particular, asks after you often. She is now almost seven years old and talks without stopping. She looks at the letters that you send and asks me what they say. I have to pretend to read them out to her. I feel ashamed sometimes that I do not even know what the pen-marks on the paper mean. I have asked my husband if she can go to school with her brothers so she too will learn to read like her foreign aunt. I am also happy to tell you that I am expecting another child.”

Bibi-ji remembered guiltily how envious she had been the first time she had read this letter. Now Kanwar was swelling with another baby, she had thought, while her belly, for all of the nightly loving that she and Papa-ji indulged in, remained flat as the Gangetic plain. At first she had told herself that her body needed to adjust to the change in climate. Vancouver was so different from Panjaur. Perhaps all the rain they endured here in this place full of trees was not good for growing babies. The fetus turned to mould like bread left out in the damp. Which would explain why there were hardly any people here. Deep down, Bibi-ji knew such thoughts were ridiculous, but her desperation made her willing to believe almost anything. She wished that her mother was near to give her advice on what she should do about her lazy womb. She had racked her memory for the recipes that the midwife in Panjaur had suggested for barren women. She swallowed concoctions involving turmeric, nettle
juice, milk, saffron, almonds given to her by other women in her community. She lay in bed with her thighs crossed tight after Pa-ji had poured his sticky seed into her, and she lay there with a bladder full of urine, refusing to go to the toilet, afraid that it would wash away the fetus that she prayed was forming in her womb.

BOOK: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?
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