The liver took the longest to burn. That’s where the disease had likely lodged itself, the maid’s 6-year-old grandson explained. I was carrying my father’s remains. The boy walked beside me, already a veteran of the funeral pyre.
Only hours earlier, he had ridden his rickety bicycle to the front door of my ancestral house, which was an act forbidden in normal times. Sweat dripped from his palms; his face and ears looked hot. It was not yet time to return, he said, his voice almost out of range. The boy lived on the outskirts of the village near the crematory. He seemed to know something I didn’t: the body can burn for a long time.
Dressed in white, men and women from low castes arrived and congregated in our courtyard. We drank tea from the same cups. They had promised not to wail, giving the occasion a Western sensibility. So we waited, mostly in silence, except occasionally a relative would walk over with specific advice. An aunt handed me a white cotton bag. “Ash can be heavy,” she said. “Hold it from the bottom like a full grocery bag.”
This was Punjab in 2013, where in villages like Khanpur, a seven-hour drive from Delhi, a variation of feudalism has remained intact. The villagers considered the entire place my family’s jagir, a land reward we had received from Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 1800s, placing us at the top of the hierarchy. Farmers and workers called my father Sardar, their lord. For three generations, the men in my family had lived primarily in the West, but they’d returned to Khanpur toward the ends of their lives.
“Take me back to India,” my father had said to me on a rainy London evening as we drove home after his last appointment, bumping along Fulham Road, whose bends had become familiar. Deciding where to die was a test of his immigrant loyalties, and he chose India. He was unfazed by the fact that essentials such as oxygen tanks and nurses were unavailable in rural parts of the country. Morphine shortages risked turning a cancer death into a brutal ordeal.
So from spring to summer, I relocated to Khanpur. I resented the disruption this posed to my career and personal life. I worried mostly about what my father’s sickness might reveal about me. I was 36 and unmarried. For years, each time I left, Nina — the family maid from Bihar, who wore pink-and-green bangles on hands hardened like the bark of a dead tree — would stand in the driveway and offer me her grandson, pleading with me to adopt him. “This house,” she would say, pointing to the rooftop, “has not seen a day of celebration.”
As I waited for the pyre to cool down, I escaped to the the rooftop, from which, as children, my sister and I used to peek into other people’s homes. A tight world of rooftops, some lit, some eclipsed by shadows. You could still hop, climb one wall, and jump off another. We sensed the asymmetry then, in the height and sizes of homes, between our world and our neighbors’.
Around midday, the boy returned with an update: the earth was cool enough to collect the remains. I grabbed the empty white bag and walked out the front door. The women stayed behind and the men followed me. Only twenty-four hours had passed since I watched my father go up in flames, but I felt more confident; I knew my way to the cremation ground and I didn’t have to carry a coffin as hundreds of people watched, including politicians, their bodyguards, and local media. I could walk fast, avoiding conversation, speeding up time, bringing the day of my departure closer.
I walked down an uneven path that cut through the village square; a temple on one side and a sheltered communal area on the other made this bare space a center where people gathered. Soon, the road narrowed and I walked by a cluster of homes, newly painted and extended by money received from abroad. People lurked by open doors. I averted my gaze. I knew the insides of these homes. I had visited them when I was young.
Ahead, on the next block, a black dog emerged from an abandoned pink house and climbed on top of a half-collapsed wall. Someone threw a stone from behind and the dog ran inside, vanishing into the fallen walls and overgrown trees. I reached the village periphery, turned onto an unpaved path, and walked past a school largely built by my family. I could see the dusty imprints of children’s feet.
When I arrived at the cremation ground, a dry patch of land surrounded by verdant fields, the maid’s grandson was sitting on a low-hanging branch. He had remained there until dawn, watching my father’s body burn slowly and keeping the vultures away. Now he watched me as I took a stick and sieved through the ash, discovering a layer of pale gray powder first, and then some of my father’s nails.
The scent of sandalwood and ghee rose from the ground. Tractors roared in nearby fields. I was glad for the noise. Relatives and village elders stood around, awkwardly waiting for me to invite them to pick the remains, to turn this into a communal act. “Come,” I said, and they all stepped forward.
I went off toward the lower body, squatted, and dug my hands into the pile of residue. The ash was paste-like, thick and soft, altered by the gallons of butter we had poured on the pyre. Even in the gentle breeze, it adhered to the ground.
I didn’t find much there. When I turned around, the maid’s grandson was standing by me. He instructed me to move to the center, close to the pelvic area, and then try the hip, or go toward the right arm, announcing the limbs like landmarks.
At the right arm I found my father’s silver bangle, the one he had worn most of his life. “Mr. Singh, could you please remove that,” the nurses would say to him back in London during each treatment.
It was a short walk back. Family and villagers had gathered in the village square. My aunt explained that the house was empty so I could complete the last ritual. I would take my father’s remains back to the house, walk through every single room, and ask him to come with me. “Speak to him loudly and tell him it’s time to leave the house,” she said.
I entered the house with one hand on top of the bag and one on the bottom so the sediments wouldn’t blow in the wind. Three crows sat on the outer wall. It was quiet.
Standing alone in the courtyard, as I was about to whisper the words, I stumbled. This place, seemingly at the edge of the world, had been an important nexus between India and the West for my family for over a century; first, for my great-grandfather, who immigrated to America in the early 1900s; then for my grandfather, who left for England; and finally, for my father. I was up against the multiple legacies of my ancestors, who had gone abroad and returned to die here. This property, where I now stood, had been their cure to what Edward Said called “the crippling sorrow of estrangement.”
I reminded myself of my other life. I wasn’t a Sardar, and America was my home. I was in a same-sex relationship, and the fact that my partner was a Muslim American whose parents were born in Pakistan meant the Indian authorities would not readily give him a visa. In fact, he wasn’t at my side now for this very reason.
I began to close the bedroom doors, the wooden doors with rusted nails, unsure as to how and when I would ever return.
Our house in Khanpur was built in two phases. The older part, a red brick tower with arched windows and stained glass built in the early 1920s, was designed with specific purposes: to showcase the family wealth, to place the men of the house so high that others would need to look up, and to encase the women of the house so they could gaze out but not be seen. Grand like a fort, its high walls enforce a sense of privacy and inwardness.
Growing up, I heard stories about its construction: how the brick had come from Multan, the peacock murals from Amritsar, and the stained glass from Delhi. Most importantly, the money was sent from some rural farm in Yuba City, California, where my great-grandfather Puran Singh worked as a peach farmer. He was among the first South Asians to set foot on American soil in the early 1900s.
As our house was constructed, people traveled on foot from nearby towns and villages to marvel not only at the building but at the abundance and opportunities a brush with America could bring. The distance added to its allure, a country so far away that when it was dusk in India, it was dawn in America. Puran Singh acquired a mythical status for winding up on the other side of the world. For a long time, our house was known as Amerika-wallan da Kar, the house of the Americans.
The second part of the house was built in the late 1950s with my grandfather Bawa Singh’s earnings from his work at a Dunlop factory in Coventry, England. Just as the dollar-funded tower was tall, the sterling-funded house was sprawling, as if my grandfather were saying to his father: You built high, now I will build long. Three bedrooms enjoined by a long veranda look onto a paved courtyard. Naturally, the newer addition overtook the older tower, and soon our house became England-wallan da Kar, the house of the English, equipped with fluorescent tube lights, fans, and a Western-style bathroom.
Punjabis paid particular attention to entrances, believing that front doors revealed the fate of a house. Ours were wooden and oversized, with blue patina and bronze nails. On each side of the these, carved into the brick wall, were two inlets made for oil lamps. These structures ritualized lives; someone had to light a lamp every night, for a dark entrance foreshadowed a dark future.
Doors also stood for regret and longing. According to family legend, it was by the front entrance that Puran Singh and his wife — a young couple in their early twenties living on a meager farm income — fought one evening, their voices so loud that the crows fled our roof. At dawn, before she rose, he departed on foot to the nearest town, where a train took him to Calcutta, followed by a ship to Hong Kong. Then he booked himself a place on a large ship to cross the Pacific, where he ended up on Angel Island.
She would wait for him for thirty years — a wait so long it could only be understood as mythical, the work of the fabled doorways.
I was 6 years old when I first came to Khanpur, in 1984. Faced with old age and early dementia, my grandfather Bawa Singh had asked my father to take him back to India. He obliged, and since my mother didn’t want to leave us behind, the entire family relocated from Coventry.
I remember walking into the courtyard and meeting a woman who was sitting cross-legged, cleaning her glasses with the ends of her dupatta. She was my step-grandmother, and this was the first I learned of her existence. A short, fierce woman, she married into the family in the 1930s. She bore no children, and was left behind after the rest of the family immigrated to England. So when we showed up on that hot summer’s day, exhausted by the travel, it was no surprise that she didn’t get up to offer us even a glass of water.
We called her Mataji. That was how she’d been known to the village for so long that even my parents couldn’t remember her actual name. She didn’t like the adults we came with, but she took to my sister and me. During our seven-year stay in India, we attended a boarding school several hours away from Khanpur. When we returned for summer holidays, Mataji would stand at the doorstep of the house, ready to pour a few drops of mustard oil by our feet to ward off evil spirits, welcoming us as if we had returned from a long exile.
The story of this house and of Punjab, she would say, is not about the men who left but the women who stayed behind.Tweet
This role, of waiting and welcoming, was familiar to her. The story of this house and of Punjab, she would say, is not about the men who left but the women who stayed behind. She told us about Puran Singh’s epic return from America in the 1930s, when as a young bride she had been the one to open the door for him, meeting her father-in-law for the first time. She had done it again with Bawa Singh, her husband, receiving him in his half-steady state, afflicted by dementia.
Those long years as the sole occupant of the house, night after night, she was the one who lit the oil lamps and left them by the door. She would climb the tower every day and gaze out of the stained-glass windows, updating her mental map of the village. She built a wide network of patronage, slotting each person into their deserved role: Taj, the Muslim bachelor whom she considered dispossessed, capable only of collecting cow dung; Nina, the immigrant from Bihar, who became Mataji’s sweeper; the woodworker’s wife, whom she would meet at the back door of the tower to collect village gossip in exchange for grain.
As a child, I had this sense that the world was fractured. Daily, people showed up at our front door with their troubles: a dowry demand, land confiscation. During the 1980s, at the height of communal violence in Punjab, mothers pled for the release of their sons picked up by the police. This desperation, which unfolded on our doorstep, was often met with benevolence, but was never to be mistaken for intimacy or trust. We were not them, and they could never be us. I could play with the children of the village, but I was prohibited from eating with them, from drinking milk from their cows, from ever talking about my family. And they were never allowed into our courtyard and bedrooms. “Some people have you in their prayers, most have you in their curses,” Mataji would remind me every time I struck up a friendship with a kid from the village.
My father was 16 when he got on a plane to England, in 1962, but no one came to receive him on the other side. He searched the airport for hours, looking for an uncle who should have been waiting at the terminal. Two pounds were all he had in his pocket — a customary amount that newcomers from the subcontinent typically carried. He also had the address of a distant relative who lived in London.
He followed the crowd out into the damp night and stood outside long enough to realize the black cars that came and went were taxis. He got into one and arrived at the only address he knew. When the door swung open, a Jamaican man asked my father his name, and informed him that the relative was at work and would return in the morning. My father waited. The next day, he sent a telegram to his parents, asking them to come and get him. An uncle eventually showed up. In a borrowed Morris 1100, my father arrived in Coventry a week later, the town that supplied Jaguars to the world.
I’ve often wondered if that was the moment when his relationship with this adopted country soured. Dislocation of time, of place and language, experienced so acutely on arrival. To have waited and watched the quiet agony in the faces of arriving immigrants gaining a foothold in a strange land. To have told himself he was different: that it was ambition, and not desperation, that had compelled him to get on that plane. After all, though he was a worker here, he was the son of a lord back home.
England was not a place with which one fell in love instantly. Coventry, the most bombed English city in the Second World War, was still recovering. The terraced house on Coronation Road, where my father lived with his parents and two brothers, along with a roster of newly arriving immigrants, was shockingly underdeveloped. No central heating ran in the house; a fireplace in the living room was the only source of heat. The toilet was in the garden; a bucket in the bedroom served as the nighttime option. In the morning, family members walked to the end of the street and paid sixpence to use a public bath.
We never spoke about race because we believed that class could erase our exclusion.Tweet
My father quickly realized that outer appearances mattered in achieving assimilation, so he cut his hair and dispensed with his turban. For a long time, his mother kept the hair tucked away somewhere in the house.
One day, at the age of 21, he came home to learn that his marriage had been arranged. My mother would soon arrive from India. She was light skinned and from an equal family. They had not met before. It was to be a marriage among migrants, a bet on two outsiders finding their own solace.
Success meant full adaptation at every important milestone. Unable to find a venue willing to host his religious wedding ceremony, he picked a pub instead, clearing the smell of booze with incense and convincing a priest to bring the holy book to a bar.
With the rise and fall of the British car industry — the golden age of the 1960s, the slump of the late 1970s — career trajectories changed. There were promotions in our family. My father became a foreman, another uncle a supervisor, and there was movement within divisions from the assembly line to managerial work. My father led efforts to organize immigrant labor, to help correct the lopsided bargain where immigrant workers kept the factories running while their British peers went on strike.
However, in these turbulent political times, my father’s interior life was largely inaccessible to the rest of us. My family emulated the three-tiered structure of British life: the home, the factory, and the pub. These domains rarely overlapped.
Except that warm July day in 1981, when Charles and Diana got married. My father had the day off, and aunts and uncles came to our house to watch the wedding, wearing their finest clothes, as if they were invited. A rare day when we seemed to belong to the same reality as our English neighbors.
As the family became confidently middle class, my father’s turban reappeared. By the early 1990s, he and his brother owned a grocery store. Because this was a family business, it became a family space, and I got to see my father interact with the rest of British society. It was mandatory for the children to spend a few hours in the store after school, stacking shelves, counting produce, and ordering inventory.
It all seemed to be going well until one day, at the age of 13, I happened to be alone with my father at the store when a teenager kicked the door open. His name was Danny. He was a council estate kid who wore a gold chain around his neck. He scouted the lanes, picking up a few items here and there as my father tried to keep an eye on him; he had stolen before.
Danny placed two packets of Opal Fruits on the counter and waited for my father to ring him up. “Take out the chocolates from your jacket pocket,” I remember my father saying, his voice calm but firm. “Fuck off, Paki,” Danny said before he ran out.
The two of them brawled outside the shop. My father’s turban unraveled. I watched him fall to the ground and wished he would pick himself up, fast, before someone from my school saw him. Danny bolted in the direction of the estates. My father returned to the shop with a Cadbury bar in his hand, reclaimed from Danny. The chocolate had broken in two; it was damaged goods. He ate one piece and then he went to the back of the shop to fix his turban.
Soon the front door opened, and we moved on to serving the next customer. We never once talked about the incident.
We never spoke about race because we believed that class could erase our exclusion. We couldn’t change the color of our skin, so we worked harder to become more prosperous.
Strategies for class mobility were my father’s area of expertise. He turned up for every national and local election. Local members of parliament knew him by his first name. He signed my sister and me up for the Labour Party, asking us to pay our dues because a day would come when we would need representation. He cut out job advertisements from the paper and urged us to apply. He lauded the British for their industriousness, marveled at how small they were in size as a country and how large an empire they had ruled. Nevertheless, every time a newly elected British prime minister visited India, he would register his usual lament: “Will they ever apologize for their colonial crimes?” English pride and Indian nationalism went hand in hand: although he was a “midnight’s child,” born in 1947 in a free India, the British loomed large in his psyche. They were the masters, and they had taught him that power itself was a value, worthy of respect, even if grudgingly.
Surely this was ordinary interplay between real and imaginary homes, the kinds of conversations that took place in every immigrant household. Nearly all my uncles at some point considered returning to India, but none had followed through. Home was not the land of one’s childhood but the place where one’s children grew and lived. Plus, the daily conveniences of living in England tempered their nostalgia. The National Health Service, public libraries, and free bus passes won over the rustic appeal of villages in Punjab.
I had expected my father to be similarly pragmatic. I didn’t realize his attachment to his original home was so deep that one day he would be willing to accept a more painful death over remaining in England.
Fifty years after his first arrival, three months before he died, he was back at Heathrow Airport, bidding farewell to England.
Around the village, a rumor spread that my father was making a decent recovery. Never mind that he was bedridden most of the day and was kept hydrated by bags of fluid changed every few hours by Harjinder, a male nurse from a local hospital who was living in the house and on duty around the clock.
If my mother and my cousin had known about the existence of nondisclosure agreements, they would have made Harjinder sign one. He got the job because he was a blue-blooded Sikh and he could keep secrets. He always wore a baseball cap, a jock whose main preoccupation was obtaining a visa to work in America. Once a day, as part of his fitness regimen, he would jog through the village. Before his maiden run, my mother prepared him with a response to any questions asked of him: “Sardar is sleeping, eating, talking, and occasionally walking.” But my father was rapidly deteriorating.
I could return their butter, fatten them up, offer some money, provide transportation, and fill the blood bank.Tweet
The nearest hospital, in Bhanga, a small bustling town on the Grand Trunk Road, was owned by Dr. Karan, a chubby man and a family friend who ran the place like a gas station: quick check-in and checkout, and a rotating roster of patients on a cycle that lasted only a few moments. Deeply religious, Karan’s ringtone was a hymn, but he never kept his promises. He had failed to secure me the morphine and oxygen tanks I had asked for. I raged against this initially, but soon accepted it as the reality of our situation. I didn’t want to offend him. He was the best I could find.
“What your father needs is new blood,” he said to me one morning. He promised to call me in the next few hours with a plan. As I waited, I went to my father’s room and helped Nina change him into new clothes, rotating his legs and twisting his arms. The patriarch was now Nina’s rag doll.
Sooner than I had expected, my phone rang, but Dr. Karan sounded less confident. “No one has type O,” he said. Before I could respond, he promised to call me back within the hour, and hung up.
“The doctor’s a crook. Is he giving blood or taking blood?” Nina said, sweeping the floor, her bangles jingling.
When Dr. Karan didn’t call back, I reached out again. “The Almighty has offered us a solution,” he said. “Round up a few men from the village, put them in a van, and take them to the nearest blood bank. Repeat the process until we have a match,” he said, hanging up again.
A terrible idea, I thought. I felt uncomfortable using my authority to source blood in this way. But in my moment of desperation, I convinced myself that if feudalism was good for something, it would be to make home-based palliative care easy. After all, nearly every household in the village had offered fresh milk, butter, and sugarcane. I could return their butter, fatten them up, offer some money, provide transportation, and fill the blood bank. I ran toward the kitchen to update my mother and cousin.
“This cannot happen,” my mother said, plainly. She looked around to ensure Nina wasn’t lurking close to the kitchen. “Generations would know that their blood ran in your father’s veins.”
I pushed back. He was dying, this place was dying, did it matter whose blood we took?
These debts could never be repaid, my cousin explained. By giving blood, people would exact a price — not from your father but from you.
That night, when darkness fell and the power went out, I walked to the end of the courtyard and took the stairs down to what was once a grove, now a paved space where we had a functioning bathroom and toilet. A bucket bath had become my nightly therapy. I turned the corner and was surprised to see Nina squatting outside the bathroom. When she saw me, she rose to her feet quickly and began to tie her drawstring. “What are you doing?” I asked her.
“We could have helped Sardar,” she said, walking away and disappearing into the dark.
I walked right up to where she had squatted and flashed my phone. A wet patch reeked of urine. It was an act of disrespect, enough to warrant expulsion from the village in my grandmother’s time.
Nina had long ties to our family. She had sons and grandsons whose blood she had wanted to offer. My father was not yet dead, and the order was shifting already.
The next day, clandestine efforts kicked into full gear. My cousin made secret arrangements to set up a blood bank. The transfusions would take place after dark.
A car pulled right up to the front door. We carried my father, laid him down on the back seat, covered him with a sheet, and drove to Dr. Karan’s hospital. The car moved slowly in the winding dirt roads of the village. We relied on headlights to blind onlookers, dimming the lights once we got to the paved road, and sliced our way through the green fields. We breathed a sigh of relief when the village road joined the Grand Trunk Road, a thoroughfare where all of us were more or less anonymous.
Coming out to my parents in Punjabi had proved nearly impossible. The words for it didn’t exist in the language. Resorting to English would make my sexuality feel like a Western construct. When parts of myself were translated into different tongues, a wedge seemed to be driven through me.
But duality was not unfamiliar to my father. It had seeped into his parenting. He would moralize in Punjabi and transact in English. He didn’t care how I chose to live my life in the West. He was mostly concerned about India, that nothing would come in the way of its enduring pull. It was only after his stage-four cancer diagnosis that something changed: each time I left England or spoke to him on the phone, my father would say in English and in Punjabi, “Be happy,” and, “Don’t worry.”
Acceptance was not immediate. For a short while my father thought my partner, Muneer, a law professor, had all the markings of a Muslim terrorist. Being an avid newspaper reader, he started saving specific types of articles. One such clipping traced the journey of a UK-born, Ivy League–educated Muslim man involved in a terrorist plot.
Sikhs haven’t always had warm feelings toward Muslims, given the history of warfare during the Mughal Empire and Partition. I told my father I was sure of one thing: Muneer was not into blowing himself up.
A few months later he mentioned another story he had read, about a same-sex couple becoming parents. “You should have a child,” he said to me one day, as I accompanied him to his chemotherapy treatment. “In fact, have twins, since you are starting so late.”
In 2012 my father asked me to visit India and to bring Muneer with me. I resisted; London would be easier, given India’s restrictive visa policy for anyone with ancestral ties to Pakistan. He pushed, and we relented, aware that we were being asked to demonstrate how this relationship would not hinder my heritage.
We waited for several months, but the visa never arrived. I called my father to give him the bad news. “With your education, I’m confident the two of you can find a way,” he said, taunting us.
Eventually we did. I prepared Muneer for the visit: lots of idle time at the village house; be sure to mention he hailed from a part of Pakistan that is home to a famous Sikh gurdwara; tout his work in immigration rights; drop in the fact that he wasn’t religious and had no mullah in his life.
We arrived late on a warm, humid afternoon, and my parents were standing at the door. I watched nervously as they hugged Muneer. My father’s face lit up as he heard Muneer speak in Hindustani. They hugged again.
The next morning, over breakfast, my father pointed in the direction of the Wagah border, about one hundred kilometers from the village. In good times, one can take a taxi from Amritsar to Lahore. He told the story of Mian Mir, a Muslim saint, who was invited by a Sikh guru to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple in 1588, the holiest temple of Sikhism.
From the rooftop, I could see the fertile fields and the dark soil, the kind of topography Puran Singh would have encountered in Sacramento Valley.Tweet
That afternoon my father asked Muneer if he would be willing to meet a few people, to talk about his work and share his impressions of Punjab. So far our visit had been an intensely private affair, unannounced to relatives or the village community. I wanted to keep it that way.
But here was my father, living his true life, and it proved hard not to respond to that. Over the years, he had become an important power broker, collaborating with local politicians and businesses to mobilize investments from the Punjabi diaspora.
We found ourselves walking into a cantonment in Nawanshahr, dotted with offices once occupied by the British army and civil services. Unbeknownst to Muneer and me, in one of the offices, ten journalists and three TV crews were waiting. At the front of the room, a long table was arranged with four chairs.
We watched more press pour into the room. My father tapped the table. The room fell silent. He turned to his right and introduced Muneer — professor of law, expert in immigration, and first-time visitor to Punjab — kicking off the press conference.
The local press rarely had a chance to interview someone with roots in Pakistan. They dwelled on what it felt like to be a visitor in Punjab, and how different or similar it was to Pakistan. I watched Muneer shuffle in his chair, clear his throat, and answer in Hindi, bending the language, reverting to English, and occasionally turning to me for help finishing his sentences. He’s an American, I wanted to say. But that would have been lost on the press. To them he was a Pakistani, both foreign and familiar.
“These kids need to see peace in their lives,” my father interjected. The message seemed intended for the local policymakers.
The day we left, he handed us a binder full of clippings from the local newspapers. “You are always welcome here,” he said to Muneer.
A week before his death, in his hazy state, my father told me about a box in his closet he wanted me to have. I took it as an invitation and walked straight to his bedroom. I found an old cardboard box on the bottom shelf, covered in a layer of dust.
“Dad, these are old registries,” I said. Engraved on the first page was the face of King George VI, the pink lips and bright eyes of the last emperor of India. Below, in thick black ink, Urdu script ran in long symmetrical lines, documenting debts owed to the family and proof of land ownership.
Underneath the registries, I discovered a letter in Urdu addressed to Bawa Singh. “America 1933,” it said on the top left corner. After years of searching the National Archives and ship manifests, how exceedingly simple it was to finally lay my hands on evidence of my great-grandfather Puran Singh’s adventures to America. He was no longer a tale of some uprooted ancestor.
I asked Nina to go around the village and find me an Urdu reader. But such was the legacy of Partition: there was no one left in our Punjabi village who spoke the language of my great-grandfather.
From the rooftop, I could see the fertile fields and the dark soil, the kind of topography Puran Singh would have encountered in Sacramento Valley. He was tall and his authoritative look probably enabled him to emerge as a leader, negotiating jobs for Punjabi laborers who had lived together in immigrant camps, earning around $1.50 a day.
Farming methods developed in the fields of Punjab were in demand in California’s newly arable land. These new immigrants could harvest in the scorching heat. They also knew fruit picking needed delicate hands. It was easy to bruise a peach.
The money they saved arrived back in India through the imperial postal system. Letters carried promises of families reuniting and making America their home. But the California Alien Land Law of 1913 prohibited immigrants from buying land. A 1920 report from the California State Board of Control described Indian workers as unfit for association with American people. Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled that Indian men were ineligible for naturalized citizenship.
Like the branches he pruned, as time passed, Puran would become too brittle to bear the weight of the fruit. After three decades, when he returned to Khanpur, the villagers saw a different man: shoulders hunched, feet dented by shovels.
In 1946, Congress passed legislation that made the first wave of Indian immigrants eligible for US citizenship. Had he been alive, Puran Singh would have shared in the triumph, but also grieved its terms. The India League of America had argued that Indians belonged in America because they “are anthropologically of Caucasian race.”
Erasing a part of yourself would be the only kind of progress available time and time again. Puran could be an American by claiming to be white, knowing that he couldn’t be, wouldn’t ever be seen that way.
By May the village was a furnace. Power outages were more frequent, and my home-palliative-care resources were near depletion.
Fortunately, due to Punjab’s proximity to Pakistan and Afghanistan, opium was rampantly available. Every few days my cousin purchased tar-black pills that Harjinder used for my father’s pain management. But as his bodily functions declined, he could no longer swallow or chew. Knowing this day would come, I had snuck a bottle of morphine, prescribed to my father, from my parents’ house in London to India.
One muggy evening, I realized the time had come to say goodbye. I asked Harjinder to remove the oxygen mask and leave the room. My mother and sister sat on the edge of the bed. I opened my father’s mouth and gave him the first dose of morphine. Over the next few hours, I poured into him all the morphine I had.
The air in the room grew thick. Each breath sounded like a sea roaring for an eternity. He was slipping, he was drowning, and at times he appeared to be resisting. Tears flowed from his eyes until all the air left him and his body sank.
The power went out. The entire house fell into darkness. It felt timely; we didn’t have to see each other’s grief-stricken faces.
The bedroom door cracked open and Nina arrived carrying a flashlight. First the light shone on the corner, where my father’s turban rested on a cane chair. That sky-blue, five-meter yarn, the one that had hung on our rope lines in England, that tumbled and took up all the space in our washing machine, the one that, as kids, we helped to stretch and starch.
The flashlight turned onto the bed, onto my father. Nina bent her head and clutched the light to her chest. She thrust herself forward, made a place for herself on the floor, and huddled by his bed as if she were taking shelter.
I left the bedroom and went into the courtyard, down the grove, and sat on the stone wall. What was I supposed to do next? We couldn’t do a cremation at night. But without power and air-conditioning, the body would soon start to give.
I called my cousin to arrange for ice. An hour later, a van pulled into our driveway. Four men unloaded a three-foot-long slab of ice and carried it into the house.
We lifted the corpse and placed the slab underneath, and two more on each side. The body felt warm, and my sister asked whether we were sure he was dead. “Otherwise, he might think we are taking him back to winter in England.”
Before they left, the men handed me a bag of crushed ice. I asked Nina to sprinkle the ice over his face and chest. Afterward, she sat outside his bedroom, sipping tea and warming her cold hands.
I slept on the veranda that night. As the night wore on, I could hear the water drip from his bed.
In our house in America, we talk about the house in India. I tell my 4-year-old son about the peacocks that visit our rooftop in Khanpur, and how one day we will make oil lamps and leave them by the wooden door. Hundreds of people will visit him and they will send him any animal he wants. It’s that kind of place: beautiful, but deeply unequal.
“Who lives there?” my son asks. I’m thrown off by the question, unsure how to explain the hold of an uninhabited place.
In the middle of my night, text messages arrive from people in the village. The banisters have cracked. The village temple needs a generous donation. Nina’s back is crooked and she might return to Bihar. My mother tells me there is a special kind of blessing my son can only receive if he visits the land of his ancestors.
We make plans to visit as a family but we falter. Muneer would have to submit his passport for an unknown period and wait for the Indian authorities to respond. Also buried in my resistance is not wanting to submit a visa application for my son. The application will ask if one of his parents or grandparents was born in Pakistan, perhaps prompting the Indian authorities to treat him as a Pakistani American, marking him forever and limiting his access to India. Or perhaps realizing that he has two fathers, they will be inclined to recognize only me, his Indian American father; India does not recognize same sex couples and continues to uphold a colonial-era sodomy law. Our visit is either a process of denying who we are or comes at the risk of banishment.
My mother often says I’ve changed the course of my son’s life by hyphenating his last name, by adding Ahmad, a Muslim surname, to Dhillon, a Sikh surname. The first time she saw my son’s passport she didn’t speak to me for days. “They won’t like it in India, they won’t like it in America,” she said.
“I always want you to be well,” Puran Singh writes in a letter to his son, penned from a rural farm somewhere near Yuba City in June 1933. “This is to say I wrote you three letters. Did you get them? If you did why have you not replied? I had sent some money to the bank in Amritsar. Did you receive the deposit book? Tell me how much interest you are earning. I hope you have the bank record so you know your due share and they are not fiddling you.
“You may have heard, I hurt my leg so I am walking with a stick. I think in five to six months I will return home. These days work is very slow. It’s only hand to mouth.
“How are the people in the village? Send me an update on them. I want to know if everyone is healthy.
“Shiv Singh’s daughter — has her wedding in Haryana happened and how much were the expenses? And Sucha Singh, who is studying in Jalandhar — let him keep studying and give him support.
“If Sham Singh had not tried to come to America it would have been better. One he suffered losses and second my 2000 rupees got lost in the process. I had to come and go quite a few times which was expensive and he hasn’t got anything from it.
“Answer me soon. I am reminding you. Answer me quickly. Write back.
“Where did you do your second marriage?
“Your well wisher, Puran Singh from America.”
I had carried the letter back to the US. Two years passed before I had it translated.