As we approach the summer solstice in June 2024, I am sitting on a couch in an air-conditioned private hospital in Jalandhar in Punjab. The last and only time, I visited the Punjab in India in June was in 1998. The heat was oppressive, the start of the invigoration of India hadn’t yet touched the population, since the door to the Indian economy was slowly being prized open since the reforms of the early 1990s when India’s first and only Sikh Prime Minister set the scene for the current success the country is economically experiencing.  

With the thermometer touching near 50 degrees Celsius, I contemplate on the differences of my experience of Punjab, my personal life and what learning I can take from it.  

Punjab in the summer of 1998 was an equally vibrant place as it is today, however the State is located in a precarious position between the nations of India and Pakistan, between which the original Punjab region of British India, was split at the end of colonial rule. Pakistan and India had both in recent times successfully tested nuclear bombs and had joined a growing but elite group of nations declared as holding nuclear weapons. The intense heat of the summer in 1998, which then had been the hottest for at least 50 years was blamed on the Pakistani nuclear testing, the summers have been getting longer and hotter since then, and this year I am again being told by the Indians there has never been an intense summer like it (although I still remember the summer of 1998).  

Like the intense summer heat, other things still haven’t changed. I am still recognized as not being ‘local’, ‘Punjabi’, Indian’, ‘normal’ – whichever may apply depending on with whom I interact. Although my heritage of course is Punjabi, much like others in the Indian Diaspora around the world, most of us were not born in India, do not speak the languages (certainly not as a native), nor understand cultural differences nor body language. An instance of this while staying in this private hospital room, when I encounter staff whether they be doctors, nurses, orderlies, security guards or cleaners, I will smile at all who I pass, and fold my hands in the traditional Indian form of greeting someone – rarely will my ‘friendly’ smile or my folded hands, be acknowledged, nevertheless I persist. They must think I am really weird.  

When I was a teenager, I used to visit the Punjab every couple of years in the summer holidays, to get to know my maternal family, learn Punjabi and have a holiday. I was wonderfully treated like a member of royalty by all, but my mum’s sister was the closest relative to me in the Punjab, as she had visited us in the UK since I was young, so I knew her and she recognized my strange spoken Punjabi, which often bemused others.  Growing up in the UK I thought we spoke Punjabi, but it turns out it was a hybrid version 

of Punjabi and English and my cultural references made no sense in the Punjab, and nor did theirs resonate with me.  

A few days ago, I received a call that my aunt was critically ill in hospital, and it felt like the right time to travel out as quickly as possible to the Punjab – not much time to worry about the heatwave hitting the Punjab at the current time. I obtained emergency leave from work, applied for a visa (thank goodness it is an easier process than two years ago), obtained a ticket and within 36 hours, I arrived in India. I was picked up from the airport and brought straight to the hospital and here I have remained ever since. I went  to see my aunt in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and as soon as she saw me walking  towards her, the color re-appeared in her face, a smile was growing and after asking  slowly, how I am doing (quite normal for her to always show concern for others) – my  aunt automatically tried to be cross and asked why I had travelled out in the intense summer heat and who would look after me now that she was in hospital. Secretly I know she was relieved to see me, but outwardly she was showing immense concern for me. My response was as per usual cheeky, ‘If you wanted me to visit, you should have just said rather than end up in hospital’, she smiled. I reassured her I had organized a room in the hospital and as soon as she was better, she would be moved out of ICU and into the private room where I am staying.  

All I can say is that I am a curiosity for many of the Indian hospital staff and my inability to navigate the complications and intricacies is equally bewildering for me. Some of the advantages of the Indian hospitals is that they do allow a family member to stay with the patient but to be honest this is more of a necessity than a luxury, as I was soon to discover, the dependent who stays at the hospital is required to collect medication, pay bills, sort out the administration and go from counter to counter dealing with lovely Indian bureaucracy. Interestingly, they have great queuing systems, one line in, one line out, a different counter for men, a different one for women, separate lines for disabled or elderly people. Nevertheless, if it isn’t busy, you can use any counter which is free.  After a few days, I realized, everyone ignores the order and all just queue up wherever it is shortest, however I use the word queue loosely as it has a different meaning in India to what I expect to experience in the West. It sounds simple and straightforward but for a novice like me trying to work out how all this works, it can appear rather overwhelming, particularly when many Indians have a different understanding of personal space to me. It also took me a few days to realize, if I want to get something done, I just need to move forward and speak wherever required. The standing back and waiting my turn patiently quite quickly becomes a case of me standing next to people being ignored whilst others happily push in and get things done!  

I have been getting hospital food and the quality is fantastic, all for the equivalent of 60p per tray. This includes two curry dishes, plain yoghurt, one sweet dish (yum), a side salad and three chapattis. Surely this is something the National Health Service (NHS) can learn from? However, the cost of treatment is eye watering, and it makes you think, what do those who cannot afford to pay for medical treatment do. It makes me understand why a national health system is a human right and shouldn’t be left only for with the means to pay. While I describe my surroundings as rather quite nice, I have to acknowledge the many others who cannot afford to have a private room and who would be expected to wait in communal waiting rooms with ceiling fans and standard uncomfortable hospital seats to sit on.  

The curiosity I invoke and that which gets invoked within me too is all down to Colonization of the former Sikh Kingdom of Punjab into British India, which led to my paternal family settling in the UK after demobbing following the end of the Second World War. This has led to those in the lands of my ancestors having different lived experiences to my own. When I think about my identity, for me the identifier as a Sikh man is the most visible one. My faith has grown in importance during my life as I have become more aware of the wisdom the Sikh Gurus have shared through our living Guru, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji (embodied in the sacred Sikh Scriptures). I embrace my Punjabi family heritage in terms of the food and language and love visiting the Punjab, but I know nothing about Punjabi Popular Culture and nor do I have any interest in it. I feel very English and foreign to these lands.  

When I have in the past visited the Punjab, it has mainly involved visiting family (who are all Sikh), Sikh historical sites and Gurdwaras. Amongst the Sikhs, Punjabi is widely the main spoken language, and the greeting therefore consists of, two folded hands with palms clasped, held close to the chest and the greeting ‘Sat Sri Akal’ (God is the Ultimate Truth) is spoken. For the first time, being widely exposed to Indians more broadly in this hospital setting, I see so many people of different races, ethnicities, religions, I wonder if my traditional Sikh greeting is less recognized here by people due to the wide range of backgrounds.  

Within the hospital where I am temporarily based in Jalandhar, there is a Catholic Chapel. I have been along to participate and observe the services which take place each morning and evening. The chapel and its associated practices are closer to the practices I would expect in a Gurdwara as opposed to a Catholic Church. In Sikhi (original term for Sikhism), we believe in the Oneness of the whole universe and that truly can be witnessed in places like Punjab which are truly multicultural, multifaith, multilingual and presents an interesting proposition for those in Europe and North America who are of a view that there is only one way to live collectively in society. 

As I continue to sit here in this air-conditioned hospital room in Jalandhar with my aunt now out of intensive care and sharing my room, I reflect on my past and present experiences, I am struck by the profound contrasts and enduring similarities between my visits to Punjab in June 1998 and June 2024. Then I was a young aspirant graduate, now I am a middle-aged man, with experience from the University of Life.

Despite India's significant economic strides since the 1990s, the intense summer heat and my sense of being an outsider remain constant. My journey to be with my critically ill aunt has been a blend of emotional challenges and cultural revelations. Navigating the complexities of the local healthcare system has been bewildering, yet it has also highlighted the stark differences in healthcare access and affordability.  

The experience has deepened my appreciation for my Sikh heritage and the wisdom of our Gurus, while also making me acutely aware of my cultural disconnection from contemporary Punjabi life. The hospital’s diverse environment, including its Catholic chapel, underscores Punjab’s rich multicultural tapestry, challenging monolithic views of societal living. This trip has rekindled my fascination with India, revealing new layers of complexity and beauty in its culture and people. The kindness I encountered during my journey has been a poignant reminder of the shared humanity that transcends geographical and cultural boundaries. As I prepare to return home, I carry with me a renewed sense of connection to my roots and a deeper understanding of the place my family once called home.

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