Spring 2024


By Navneet Bhullar

The trains chug latitudinally there in my birth country, India, like they do here, in my new one of a score years and some. I see myself on window seats of trains running west or east.

There trains smell of sweat, rubber sleepers and roasted gram called daal announced with a bleat : coffee, chai—-. Here trains smell of nothing unless you walk through the dining car. 

Here you choose your smells. 

The elderly sit outside their gates on driveways there, walking sticks resting on the warm concrete on winter mornings and summer twilights. Like they sit here in stoops on summer days on 49th street.  

There are walls around houses there. Not here, where the front door is strong and sometimes painted red.

Folks there and here are curious, spouting the predictable queries which emanate from people who have never crossed borders except vicariously. Here it is in bygone stories of navy uncles, Peace Corps sisters or cousins who were USAID officers. There they have emigrant kids who studied like mules and gave up all pleasures in their teens, so they are now doctors and engineers. There are also gas station, taxi medallion and Seven- Eleven owners who have made homes here. 

The last category buy hummers for their daughters’ dowries. Then they return there to their land each winter to open their cavernous padlocked houses and make them transient homes, and scour their birthplaces for charitable entities to make donations to, their hearts weighted down in renovation. The kids though have to be persuaded to visit India.

India is not an easy country to go back to even for those born and bred there, and especially for those born and bred there. 

The rich, who never left there, prefer to pile their car holds with nylon-wool blankets and drive around on foggy winter nights, handing them to pavement dwellers who have migrated from the poor eastern states or Nepal to farm and construct.

The rich there sometimes feign philanthropy to get faux letters of attendance from disability charities for kids applying to North American universities. It is a given give and take. The kids are all exiting. To the west for studies. In droves. The studious ones land in the United States, others elsewhere. Punjab, our state was cleaved into two in 1947, the year the British left India. 

Now there are three Punjabs—east, west and diaspora Punjab. 

There, in the birthplace of three of the six major world religions, we celebrate secularism. The word is officially in the constitution. “India is a secular state.” The word means all religions are respected. It is about political equality in our own lexicon.

Religion seeps deep. It is lived in rituals. Inside all homes, there are shrines and holy books tailored to one’s religion, while live TV channels broadcast music from historic religious shrines. The music wafts inside shops too sometimes, from a television aloft the wall. 

Lofty ideas of truth and aiming for high ideals in action wear a patina layered over centuries. These ideas are to be worshipped, not executed. Red tape is a given. It is the very old world, wizened and stoic, prostrate in acceptance of the status quo. 

There grooms who decline dowries or the wealthy who give money to build services for the less able, make headlines. There is an online magazine called betterindia which showcases their stories. Working for the greater good is a niche calling. Just living and its accoutrements consume all.

The guest is God. I visited a poor family last winter in a village in Punjab on a cold rainy morning. Their teenaged son had uncontrolled seizures and intellectual disability. Since he was incontinent everyday, his mother had to wash his apparel and bedclothes but they would not dry fast enough, the sun having retreated in the recent rainy days. She seemed tired. She nevertheless served us a home made delicacy of fried flour and dry fruit with hot milky tea. Dry fruit is pricey. But I was a guest to be honored. 

Here, communities give freely. Money. Time. Lofty ideas are a way of life to aspire to. Private space and time is guarded religiously. Life has ease unhindered by logistics of laundry drying or finding the right doctors to treat seizures. Creating is made easier.

There, one loses years of life as summers pile on with birthdays. The fury of May and June empties you until the monsoon arrives. The blazing tar on the roads will peel skin on contact, the fire that is air numbs the mind and desiccates ideas from human vessels. One passes cities with no green in sight. Forests have been denuded for industry, vultures made extinct, crows’ numbers oppressed, house sparrows expelled. Just this summer, I asked my dad about strange birdsong in the veranda. We could hear an almost barking bird new to him and me. Nature has been mauled. 

One’s energy drains dry merely going through the hot days, even with siestas. Being outdoors for long can harm one’s health. Any creative work must happen in the night and one wishes only for more night to pour into the days.

One has air conditioning, but few can stay inside one room all day. My sister would take bucket baths in ice cooled water. 

Ice cannot form quickly enough in the little trays slopped into freezers. Ice cream is best eaten inside cool shops, but getting to the shop can sap you in the daylight. 

The rich escape to the Himalayan foothills in their cars. Writers, who can afford it, rent rooms or own cottages in Mashobra or Kasauli, several thousand feet above the plains on fire. There are no poor writers.

Here, nature is a block away for many. Even city dwellers have open parks to seek solace. 

There, eyes yearn for green. 

I grew up in Indian army cantonments with expansive old trees and lawns outside homes. Dad told us of his walks in the enigmatic Himalayas, which were field postings he could not take the family to. We never went camping. We could not name trees. We dreamed.

When I arrived here, I joined the Sierra Club and went canoeing down Missouri’s scenic rivers past hidden caves and springs. Ecstacy non-pareil. I lay on a tarp one August night in the newborn century to watch meteorite showers near Rowla with strangers. 

I dream of taking kids in forest-denuded Punjab to the green mountains so they may start to scrape the patina off those lofty ancient ideas and think big and different. Nature is salutary to the spirits. It is the calming balm in turbulent worlds and the font of a creative inner life.

Girls of my generation had no experience with men there. Few dated. Dating meant chatting with your beau under the girls’ hostel banyan tree, sipping tea together or riding pillion on his scooter for an ice cream in town. There were clear lines. We all just got plucked fresh off the tree to be thrown into the soup of matrimony. And cooked. Many were burnt.

Here, some handy experience of relationship work may be gained in the dating process. Marriage, an inherently risky enterprise anywhere, was and is a ring of fire there. Men are born gods to rule. 

A young girl of the diaspora, in her early twenties, and like me, startled out of marriage, was now reuniting with the same husband. She nailed it. “It is pretend play always”, she said sagely, “now or if I remarry. At least I know this one.”

One chose one’s poison. 

My aunt had no choice. We saw her exist in a prison, her soul twisting out of shape with the passing years, lying to herself to stay sane with the husband. She cannot distinguish lie from fact now, into her late sixties with the same husband. 

Here, women can have higher expectations as men try harder than their Indian brethren. Here too, women bear burdens but they are lighter. They speak freer. Though being married imparts social status both there and here, there is more pressure there to conform.

Here, women or men do not waste time. Time is to be used for higher causes. No dawdling in futile unions. 

Writing, my new calling has birthed and fostered here in fertile soil.

Writers in the act of putting pen on paper, tear the veil unflinchingly. They have bent status quo uncowed as long as they have written through the silent ages. 

The generation before my aunt’s, there lived a celebrated woman, a Punjabi poet. This rebel, Amrita Pritam’s, emotions spilled free range on her pages. She lived out of wedlock with a man for forty-five years. Together they raised her grandkids. He wrote to her once, “Love is the only freedom in this world.”

She wrote this, her death wish:

Donate my dreams
to all those women
who between the confines of
the kitchen and the bedroom
have lost their world,
have forgotten years ago
what it is to dream.

We the women of the diaspora can dream anchoring on new found immigrant verve, marinating in new possibilities. We choose our trains and our journeys.

Navneet Bhullar is a global health physician and climate activist who divides time between central Pennsylvania and Indian Punjab. Her poetry and essays have been published in Cagibi, Paddler Press, Last Stanza Poetry Journal, Citron Review, Wordgathering, and elsewhere. When not writing to question our dogmas or attempting cures of illnesses birthed by capitalism’s ravages, she finds refuge trekking in mountain valleys. 

Spring 2024