A Sunday at Sukh Niwas
Reading Time: 12 minutes
This essay originally appeared in Issue 21 of Tahoma Literary Review. While there are many reasons why I selected this essay to publish, the clincher was "Today it is Sunday! We are going to watch Star Trek today!" Haer so effectively brings alive the routines and traditions of her family, in this place, at this time. The energy of this piece and of Haer's writing voice is palpable.
Punjab, India 1982
Today is Sunday. Yesterday, I was unaware of it being Saturday. Tomorrow, it won’t matter that it’s Monday. Only today, being Sunday, does it mean anything.
Everyday we have breakfast, lunch, teatime, and dinner. Life passes in a series of breakfasts, lunches, teatimes, and dinners; visits and visitors; and the comings and goings of servants and dogs.
My elder brother didn’t go to school this morning. I didn’t hear him half-asleep, offering his resistance in wooden movements; nor the sound of my grandmother herding him into the bathroom, and later scolding him to sit still, while she combs the knots out of his long hair, and arranges it in a joorhi on top of his head.
Tejbeer woke up this morning and announced first thing: “Aliya! Today it is Sunday! We are going to watch Star Trek today!”
In the next room my grandfather is listening to records of classical Indian music. A sitar explodes into passionate wail. Tejbeer and I smirk. We think it’s funny that our grandfather likes such awful music. I think it sounds almost as bad as his snoring.
Grandmother says that our grandfather snores whenever he drinks alcohol. Last night he gave us sips of brandy, said it was like medicine, that it would keep the cold away.
My parents are in Canada. I was conceived in Canada, born in India, brought back to Canada at two months and travelled like that, back and forth between the two countries till I was four. I’m six now, I have little to no memory of that other time. It seems that all I know is here at Sukh Niwas; it is my entire universe.
I know that mango season is over, and the weather has cooled, and we are waiting for the guavas to ripen. This year it’s as if I’d never noticed anything before. Yet somewhere in my bones I know I’ve seen them before—the seasons.
Outside on the lawn, Grandfather is in a terrifically good mood. These are his moments after a good breakfast: still in pyjamas, not yet in his turban, listening to ghazals on the radio—his content smile keeping us in check, keeping us from running around the lawn, shouting taunts and senseless slogans at one another. “You're a donkey!” “No, you're a donkey!” “But I said it first!”
By and by, Tapusya the cleaning woman comes along. The way she walks, it’s as if she were being propelled forward by her protruding belly. “Sat-Sri-Akal ji!” she calls out, always the same with her, never a dull greeting.
“Yes Tapusya! Sat-Sri-Akal! You've taken your time coming to work today! Where is that husband of yours?” Grandfather asks in that half-humoured way he has of speaking to her.
“What should I tell you, Sardar-ji? He drank a lot last night,” Tapusya says smiling but apologetic. On Sundays, her husband Dheemchand comes to the house to iron clothes.
“He didn’t beat you, did he?” my grandfather asks, still in that half-humoured way, as if it were funny.
“No—no he’s not like that, but he threw abuses at me, scared the poor children. Jaya, woke up and started crying and then he starts swearing at her. By then the neighbours also woke up, and don’t ask—that Ravi's mother, she's a real battle-axe. She thinks too much of herself, talking to my husband that way, like her husband white as milk! Even I filled her ears! In that much time he laid himself down in bed and fell asleep!”
“That Dheemchand, he’s a real specimen,” Grandfather says shaking his head but amused.
They both shake their heads. “He left a good job in Delhi for nothing,” Grandfather continues, “through so much trouble that job was got for him—and now he wants to leave the factory. What will he do? Run away to Bombay and join the movies?”
Tapusya bursts into a cackle, “Sardar-ji has spoken correctly! Sardar-ji knows my Chandu! His mind has been given a twist! What with everyone saying he looks like Amitabh Bachan! Everyone says so—my Chandu looks just like Amitabh Bachan! Last night he says to me, 'I've had enough—I'm going to Bombay to work in the film industry!' As a double he tells me, 'I'll work as a double for Amitabh Bachan!' I said 'Fool, who's going to give you a job?'“
“Tapusya, the noon sun should be good and strong today,” Grandmother interrupts, “a good day to wash clothes. Might as well wash the children's hair while we're at it—and give them a good rub down with oil.”
Life is lovely on Sundays: a full body rub, lathered head to toe in mustard seed oil; sitting in my underwear, the welcome winter sun soaking in my bones. And then when a large pot of water is done heating on an outdoor fire, I'll have it warm and smoky-smelling poured over me; I'll be dressed and placed in the sun, with my long, dark hair hanging over the back of a chair.
“Sit there,” Grandmother ordains, “you’re not to move till your hair is dry, else you might catch cold.”
“Tapusya let's have another glass of tea.” Grandmother is feeling sprightly today. Tapusya is glad to oblige, she too will have another glass of tea. “And bring the children some milk!” she adds as an afterthought.
“Grandmother! Why can’t we have tea?” Tejbeer protests.
“Because you’re too young—you don’t need the stimulation.”
“But Grandmother, please! I don’t want to drink milk! Why do we have to have another glass of milk? We already had one!”
“Alright then,” she gives in, “you can have a little tea in your milk—just a pinch.” Grandmother knows—today is Sunday.
We sit with our backs to the sun, my brother Tejbeer and I, our long unshorn hair draped over the back of a chair, sipping our milk with tea in it. Grandfather is listening to the news on the radio; I try and listen too, but I don’t understand anything and I feel stupid. Just as the news is over, it is Tejbeer’s cue to jump out of his chair and yell, “C’mon, let’s go watch Star Trek!”
I must go find Malti. Over at the tube-well, Naresh the farm-hand is running water out to the fields. Tapusya is washing clothes at the tap: she wets them, soaps them and beats them with a wooden club. Her daughter Malti stands beside her chatting.
“C’mon! Star Trek! Star Trek is coming on TV!” I say.
“Touch-wood the light hasn’t gone,” says Malti, kissing her fingers and touching her forehead. We run off leaving Tapusya to her washing.
The family, that is, Grandmother, Grandfather, Tejbeer and I, are arranged on the sofas and loveseats in the living-room, which we call a “drawing-room.” Tapusya's children: Jaya, Ashok and Malti, sit cross-legged on the carpet. They barely understand a word of English yet they sit as if hypnotized, spell-bound by a magician, till Star Trek is over, and the television screen has returned to its usual display of multi-coloured bands when nothing is being broadcast on Doordarshan, the single (government-run) television station.
“Tejbeer-ji,” Ashok, Tapusya’s one and only son asks, “do little people live inside the TV?”
“Yes! Yes! They do! There are thousands of little people in the television, it’s like a little world and they put on shows for us to see!”
I go over to the television and peek in the back of it. “I don’t see any of them,” I say. Malti joins me. Then Jaya. Soon we are all standing around the back of the television, trying to spot through its tiny ventilation holes, the little people who act out the news and entertainment.
“They’re resting now silly!” my brother says. “They’ve drawn a curtain all across the inside – they’re hiding! You’ll see! They’ll come back when we watch the movie this evening!” Mention of a movie gets us into even more of an excitement. This is the first year that television has been available outside of large Indian cities.
“C’mon kids! Stop milling around the television—come have lunch!”
It is after lunch. The grown-ups have scattered to their resting places. Malti, Tejbeer and I remain on the circular driveway. “What a show that was!” Tejbeer says, still thinking about Star Trek. “It was scary huh? When all the kids started throwing stones at Captain Kirk and the others?”
“Tejbeer-ji, were they beggars, those kids?” Malti asks.
“No Malti, it was another planet—like another world and a disease killed all the grown-ups and then the kids started ruling themselves.”
“I like Spock,” I say, “he’s an alien. He’s not from this earth, Malti. He’s from somewhere else—another world!”
“He has this special power where he puts his hand on your neck like so and you fall asleep. Like so.” Tejbeer demonstrates on me and I crumple in a heap on the floor. “But Captain Kirk, is my favourite. I’m Captain Kirk because he’s the leader and he gets all the ladies!”
“I’m Spock!” I say, “I’m going to be Spock!”
“Who should I be?” Malti asks.
“You be the doctor, Malti! He’s the doctor and he fixes people when they’re sick.”
Malti is very impressed by this, “Doctor!” she repeats, nodding her head side to side.
We have decided our roles, now we must find a spaceship to begin our intergalactic journey. It is found by the side of the house, under the overhanging grapevines, in the form of a gigantic metal drum, big enough to hold many more children than just the three of us. Metal spokes run out from along a bar in its center, we hop onto these spokes and make the drum rock, gently, with little pressure at first, then a little harder, back and forth.
“Okay! We’re there!” says Captain Kirk and we stop rocking the drum and jump out. “Be careful!” he warns. “There could be aliens anywhere!” The game continues, the henna bush is our ally, the thorny bougainvillea our nemesis. We are under hot pursuit, we must jump into our ship, and run away as fast as we can. We jump into the drum, Tejbeer and me on one side, Malti on the other, and we start to rock it, and we rock it, and we rock it till the drum starts to roll. Then round and round we go, upside down and up again. Before it stops being fun, Naresh comes and stops the drum from rolling over the bougainvillea fence.
“You children get so naughty!” he says, “Come let’s see what your grandfather has to say about this.” We’re marched off to Grandfather. I'm scared because Grandfather even when he's not angry can be quite intimidating, with his erect posture and authoritative voice, but to my surprise he looks amused. “Don’t do that again,” he says, “you’ll damage that drum before I can get it into the ground—it's for the 'gobar-gas'—it takes cattle dung and turns it into bio-gas.”
“Grandfather, so it's true what they're saying? We’re going to be cooking our food with dung?” Tejbeer voices the concern that's been on both our minds. Ever since the servants put it there—an image of food and poo commingling.
There’s no power that evening, cut off just before airing-time for the Sunday feature on Doordarshan. From amongst Tapusya, the cleaning woman’s children—already lined up cross-legged on the carpet, eagerly awaiting—Malti jumps up and shouts, “Bijlee gaee! Electricity’s gone!”
As if on cue, her brother responds, “Kahan gaee? Where’d it go?”
“Dilli gaee! Dilli gaee! To Delhi it went! To Delhi it went!” And all Tapusya’s children flee home.
We sit around an open fire of twigs and branches. This is something of a nightly ritual for us, Tejbeer, Naresh and myself. Just a little fire, right across from the kitchen door, enough for three people, one big, two small, to sit around on their haunches, warming their hands.
The night is clear, and past the fire I see stars twinkling above the poplars which line the way to the tube-well.
“In the whole of the country, the peacock is the most beautiful bird, is it not? Of course, it is. How can it not be? When it is our national bird!” Naresh asks and answers his own question.
“I hear peacocks taste like chicken,” says Tejbeer.
Naresh ignores him. “It has such beautiful feathers!” he continues. “So many different colors in its tail, no?” he asks, turning his attention to me.
I don’t answer. I’m still wondering if peacocks are truly the most beautiful birds—being partial to turtle doves myself at the moment.
“But why does such a beautiful bird have such black feet?” Naresh wrinkles his nose in disgust. He is bent on something. We can tell. His insistence raises a mild curiosity in us, and we listen attentively.
“The peacock’s feet were not always black, they were once white,” Naresh says with authority, “when all the birds lived in one courtyard—”
“All of them?”
“Yes, it was a beautiful courtyard with fountains and vast, vast gardens and trees bearing the most beautiful flowers and the most delicious fruits-”
“Wasn't it noisy?” Tejbeer wants to know.
“No, the birds were civilized, they kept court, they could even speak like us,” Naresh answers impatiently. “But out of all these birds, the peacock was the most vain. He snubbed his beak at everyone—especially the ugly chicken, who though he is ugly, is at least humble.” Pausing for effect, he continues, "The peacock was so vain that he imagined himself more important than The Creator. The Creator who made him. So! To teach the vain peacock a lesson, The Creator took the black feet from the chicken and put them on the peacock. And took the white feet from the peacock and gave them to the chicken. So today, the peacock has black feet and the chicken white!” Naresh ends triumphantly.
I think white feet would look tacky; peacocks are much prettier with black feet. “Chickens have gross feet,” says Tejbeer. I say nothing.
Naresh starts again, “You children must never go near the Pabhat Road.” The Pabhat Road is a dirt road which runs parallel to the house, some distance back beyond the fields, along the boundary of an acacia forest which serves as a buffer from the nearby Indian Air Force base.
My brother and I are all ears again because a man was recently found, in the wee hours of the morning, laying dead in the long grass that grows by the side of this road. Rumors claim the man was murdered but Naresh has a different theory.
“Must’ve been the other week, I was bringing the cows home from the dungar-doctor (cattle-doctor). Going along must’ve been seven in the evening—night was about to fall. I was trying to hurry—the sun dipping fast. What do I see? Like someone approaching through the light evening mist, a dame, straight and thin. Long, black hair strewn about her face. Just then a cold wind came spying my way and a chill went through me. I knew something was amiss. Like this, like this she came walking …” Naresh rises and imitates someone walking in a trance: dead stare, arms limp by the sides. “I felt her gaze pulling me, calling me to look at her, to lock eyes with her, but I resisted. I threw my eyes to the ground and kept on walking. And as I pass her, I look sideways down at her feet and what do I see? They are on backwards! Turned right around the wrong way! I knew, I knew then she was a daayan, an evil sorceress—”
“Is that how you can tell if a woman's a daayan? Her feet are backwards?” Tejbeer asks.
Naresh nods affirmatively.
“What would've happened if you'd looked at her?”
“Children come inside! The table’s been set!”
Without further ado, we're at the dining table. Tejbeer and myself that is; Naresh will eat in the kitchen, continuing to sit on his haunches.
We are having chicken tonight. I watched Naresh kill it earlier, watched blood sputter out the neck where the head had been, body flailing wildly and then go still.
Grandmother has prepared it which is special because she never cooks but we are without a cook at the moment. The chicken is delicious and I eat heartily with nary a thought for the humble bird who once had black feet. Everyone agrees it is delicious.
“Because Ali helped me to make it,” Grandmother says.
“I only stirred it,” I say grumpily; she's always exaggerating. How I know this, I don’t know but I feel it in a flash, the annoyance that she exaggerates.
“But you stirred it so well! It made all the difference.”
“Well you won’t fuss over chicken!” Grandfather remarks. “When you were little you couldn’t say ‘chicken’—you’d always say ‘kicken!’”
I masticate the chicken bones—cooked to softness in the curry—ends, cartilage and all, and I swallow. Doing so makes me feel superior to my brother—older by two years—because he has to be reminded to chew the bones on his plate; he does so distastefully and then spits them out.
Sunday comes to an end in bed, beside my grandmother, her voice soft in prayer, closing the doors on my consciousness, my brother on the other side of her, Grandfather in the room next door. Tomorrow it won’t matter that it’s Monday.
Reprinted with permission of the author
Haer had this to say about her piece:
This piece forms the first chapter of my unpublished memoir about my childhood growing up in rural Punjab during the 1980s, a time that feels a hundred years from my life now, in Canada. Here I stitch together a typical Sunday, an idyllic experience, were it not for the growing awareness, in my six-year-old self, of an unequal world.
Aliya Haer (she/her) is a sociable recluse, living in the traditional territory of, and working for the Ucluelet First Nation on Vancouver Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.