Yuba-Sutter, My Punjab
My Punjab is a small ranch-style home in Northern California. In my childhood, the falls smelled like burning leaves and apples rotting into rich, carrot-sweet soil. In the past few years, the smell of smoke has become rarer from regulations to help prevent another drought. In the front of the house, there’s a large walnut tree. The wind shakes loose black and moldy husks onto what flowers are left.
The house shares a lot with an orchard that is cut across by a levee for the Feather River. Even when quenched high from snowpack, you would never guess, now, that the levee could spill over and flood. There’s a paved area for family to park. There was a basketball pole that was put up, left for fifteen years, and taken down. As the price of oil increased, my uncle swapped gas tanks for an apiary. Plastic chairs are moved to find the best sun or shade for tea-time. There’s kale in the garden now, joining lentils and eggplant. My grandfather tore out rows of trees when a virus was spreading in the kiwi. Now, that area is filled with tall grass, loose earth, and the tractors, cherry pickers, and forklifts that my cousin buys at auction. He tinkers on this equipment in his hole-pitted grey t-shirt when he’s not working as an elementary-school principal. Occasionally, one of these project vehicles is sold and a new piece of farm or construction equipment or an old diesel truck takes its place because life is about trading out what is for what might be.
Inside the house, there are pictures of Sikh martyrs. Furniture and appliances and televisions and blinds and linoleum are replaced. In the kitchen, my grandmother stir-fries fresh vegetables, exchanging traditional ingredients for what was on sale, what was in season, or what her tastes dictate. There’s a back office with new computers, old dead computers, theological texts, and books on socialism where my grandfather writes stories, poems, and articles in Punjabi and English. Photos and 4H trophies and save-the-dates and a painting of dinosaurs are put up and moved and taken down to be dusted and put back up. There are several calendars in the house, all left open on different months and from different years, because it is disrespectful to remove any pictures of Guru Nanak Dev Ji. A second beige radio is placed in the living room fixed, like its mate, to a station that plays devotional music until my mother gets up in the middle of the night to switch it off so she can finally sleep. There’s a television in the living room where my grandparents watch news in Hindi and English. They used to watch the Today show until Matt Lauer broke my grandmother’s heart.
Over a fresh tablecloth and chai, my grandfather tells stories of the Sikh martyrs. Less confident in her understanding of canon, my mom pulls her parables from the local newspaper: statistics and anecdotes about an amoral and vicious world. My grandmother laughs and jokes through memories. My uncle and cousins talk about work and the kiwanis club. We split mithai and bags of chips and oreos and fresh pies. I wade into the Punjabi language, grabbing hold of familiar prepositions and the familial habit of rhyming words for emphasis, resting on English words and phrases.
My mother recently returned to India. The last time she was there, she was seven. On the phone, she lists the holy sites she visited and avoids questions she knows I’ll ask about food. Her descriptions are all comparisons: changes in the cut of kameez and the length of chunni, how sharp roadside food smells compare to the sweetness of onions fried slow at home, the loudness of early calls to prayer and late night parties compared to the quiet of home. She was troubled by how many places she went that didn’t have running water. She pauses her anecdotes to tell me of American amenities she’s grateful for. She pauses with the realization that my Punjab is her Punjab, too.
Jordan Vanderbeek - live at Jon’s Apt on the Lower East Side
video courtesy of the author, watercolor by Noppanun Kunjai, drawings by Anna Valenty