Being in Punjab from November thru February is like being immersed in every imaginable sensory experience of a North Indian Punjabi wedding. Since there is a plethora of Punjabi NRI relatives whose presence at their family weddings is essential, a significant number of weddings in families in Punjab, both in villages and cities, take place specifically in this month, December. Additionally, this is holiday season in the West so it is standard practice for NRIs to visit Punjab. And this year, my own family is contributing to these wedding festivities. My parents have journeyed from Richmond, VA to Jalandhar, Punjab and are now in the thick of preparations for my sister’s wedding, which is scheduled for 30th December. From my mother’s side of the family, my sister is the first girl in our generation to be getting married. My mother’s siblings and their families (11 people so far) have all gathered in my uncle’s home in Jalandhar for the wedding. It is indeed an exciting time in my family and for me, a good break from fieldwork in Amritsar. Jalandhar, the city where the wedding is taking place, is around 60 miles southeast of Amritsar and it is a city very close to my heart. I was born in the military hospital in Jalandhar’s cantonment and lived here from 1996 to 2002, before my family migrated to the US. Now that I’m here again and going all around the city for wedding-related shopping and other errands, I see sights familiar and unfamiliar. The military cantonment, which is where I used to live because my father was in the Indian military, hasn’t changed much. But the city outside the cantonment has changed significantly. Newly constructed highways and high-rise buildings now more than just dot the city. There presence, along with that of some of the most expensive luxury cars from the West, has made this city somewhat unrecognizable to me.
But besides what this Punjabi city means to me and to others associated with it, I’ve also come to learn something else very interesting about this month of December in Punjab. Just like people belonging to other major world religions, many Sikhs also follow their own religiously-ordained calendar called the Nanakshahi calendar. According to this calendar, the time period from 14th December to 12th January in the Gregorian calendar is called the month of Poh. While being out in the field with my project fellows a few days ago, I commented on how many weddings I could see underway at the ‘marriage palaces’ dotting the sides of the highway. In response to that, one of my fellows said, “Manleen, did you know that traditionally, no auspicious ceremonies or rites de passage are supposed to take place during this time of the year, in the month of Poh?” I was so surprised, considering the sheer number of wedding invitations my family has received for December. Upon my further inquiring, my fellow told me that it was in the month of Poh that the 17th century Mughal ruler of the Indian subcontinent, Aurangzeb, ordered the execution of all five sons of the tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh. Additionally, it was during Poh that his mother, Mata Gujri, was executed as well. Thus, traditionally in the predominantly Sikh culture of Punjab, Poh is considered the month of mourning. For several generations after the passing of Guru Gobind Singh, no auspicious occasions, like weddings, would take place in Punjab in the month of Poh. It fascinates me how much a culture can transform over three or four centuries, how much our globalized world and the convenience we believe we’re entitled to in it can allow for centuries-old reverently held beliefs to be easily disregarded.
Speaking of cultural beliefs, I experienced another heartrending moment just two days ago that left me somewhat speechless. In a Sikh wedding, the bride’s family has to travel to the groom’s home and deliver an official invitation, called saahi chitthi to his family to request them to bring the baarat (groom’s wedding troupe) to the bride’s home to commence the wedding ceremony. My sister’s would-be in-laws live about two and a half hours away from Jalandhar, in Chandigarh.
So, once I learned that I would be accompanying my parents to deliver the invitation I thought it would also be a good opportunity to meet a dear friend who was in Chandigarh at the time, immediately following the demise of his mother. The day before leaving I informed my friend that I will be in town and would drop by to see how he was doing. Just a few hours before departing for Chandigarh, I asked my mom, who also knows my friend and feels deeply for his loss, if it would be okay for us to stop by his house after delivering the letter to my sister’s in-laws. She said that would not be possible because at the time of a wedding in one’s house, when one steps out to perform an auspicious task (delivering the saahi chitthiin our case), it is not recommended to visit the home of a person or family that is in mourning. When my mother said that, I felt a deep pain within me. I wondered about how beliefs in my culture are keeping me from seeing a grief-stricken friend, the magnitude of whose loss I can’t even begin to imagine; a friend whom I desperately want to pay a visit to in this difficult time in his life.
Where culture brings people together, it also strives to maintain certain essential boundaries, boundaries that straddle the line between superstition and unconditional faith. But in the end, it is neither superstition nor faith that may decide what eventually happens. It is, indeed, destiny.