Kids Corner


I Learned Punjabi For My Dear Wife




The clock on the stove blinked 7:08 a.m. I stumbled into the kitchen in a daze.

I picked up the receiver on the third ring and said hello. The caller was quiet and tentative, a slight tremor in her voice. She answered with a single word: my wife's name, spoken with a distinct accent, the "r" pronounced with a hard roll off the palate.

I was immediately awake. "Eh kaun heh?" I asked calmly, confidently, taking care to deliver each syllable with the correct inflection. "Who is this?"

A pause. A stutter. Then a tear-flooded babble I could not comprehend. No matter; I had been waiting for this call for years. I turned to my wife and handed over the phone. It was her mother, asking for the daughter she had disowned more than a decade ago.

Did it startle her to hear her son-in-law speak Punjabi? She would not be the first. You can hear any language on the streets of Vancouver, and Punjabi more than most. But in the 18 years I have been twisting my tongue to speak the language, I have yet to meet another gora - "white" male - whose knowledge extends much beyond the word samosa.

In the beginning, learning Punjabi was a labour of love: audible proof of my devotion to this amazing, beautiful woman for whom I had fallen head over heels. The more I learned of her birth tongue, the more connected to her I would be. Her language would become our language, a bond that would draw us closer and make us unique.

As our relationship evolved, language served a more practical function. While our country prides itself on its cultural mosaic, not every family wishes their daughter to be part of it. Here, language would be my talisman. While Mommy-ji and Daddy-ji might frown upon the colour of my skin, they would surely be soothed by my mastery of their language. It would all be so easy: a respectful salutation, an earnest discussion, a clever turn of phrase, and soon the wall between "us" and "them" would come down.

What folly. The day my wife left the family home to move in with me was the day her family imploded. Forsaken by her mother, denounced by her father, shunned by aunts and uncles, her pleas for reconciliation fell upon deaf ears. Calls were unanswered; letters returned. Excommunication was total. While my wife slid into despair, I stood silenced, denied the opportunity to make my case or give voice to my outrage - in whatever language.

And so it was that language itself became a war. Driven by pride and frustration, I doubled and redoubled my efforts to learn Punjabi. My logic was simple: I would attack intolerance with its own words. Every muddled dialogue, every rambling conversation would be a linguistic act of defiance, a method of striking back at the ugly prejudice that some Indo-Canadian families forbade a woman to marry outside her caste, her culture, her colour.

I attacked my endeavour with zeal, if not constancy. I attended language courses. I bought grammar books and primers. I made flashcards. I watched films and listened to music, trying to pluck out words I recognized. I conjugated verbs, declined pronouns, fretted over gender. I memorized the letterforms of the Gurmukhi script and read all manner of signs, posters and bills.

From the start, shock and awe was my strategy. I ambushed unsuspecting shopkeepers and security guards, taxi drivers and telemarketers, proprietors and patrons of restaurants, delivering volleys of words and phrases in their own language. Some were indifferent to my elocution, most astonished by it.

When inevitably the conversation turned to where I had learned Punjabi, I replied with self-righteousness: "Meri vohti apnee heh." Literally, my wife is "one of us," colloquially, my wife is Punjabi Sikh. I hoped the bitter irony of my suggestion - that I too was one of "us" - would not be lost in translation.

I look back and my face flushes at the vanity, the smug egoism that lay behind this war of words. Still, good has come from the struggle. While fluency remains a distant goal, the language has indeed become a bond between my wife and myself, one we extend to our children every time we tell them in Punjabi to wash their hands, be careful or stay out of trouble. On a personal level, speaking the language has helped purge me of rage and heal the scars of banishment. It has assuaged my guilt over ripping a family apart. It has prepared me for what must come next.

My mother-in-law visited the weekend after her call last year. As she stood at our door, hugging the laughing grandchildren she had never before seen, I rehearsed the words in my head one last time. And then, finally, it was my time to speak: "Sat Sri Akal ji," I said, bowing slightly and drawing my palms together. Hello. "Mera naa(n) James heh." My name is James. "Tuadda kee hal heh ji?" How are you?

It was perfect: grammar, accent, elisions, tone. Which only made sense. I had seen it, heard it, imagined it all before, dozens, perhaps hundreds of times.

"Sat Sri Akal ji," she replied meekly, her eyes wet with tears. "Maihn theek heh." I am fine.

Which, I have come to understand, is a fair translation of the word "peace."


James Dolan lives in Vancouver.


[Courtesy: Globe & Mail]

March 23, 2010




Conversation about this article

1: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), March 23, 2010, 10:06 AM.

Beautiful and touching. How I wish it could be true more often - and even how love could render it unnecessary. Love conquers all, but not always. You two seem to have created a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. My congratulations and, as Robert Browning said - "The best is yet to be ..."

2: Taran (London, United Kingdom), March 23, 2010, 10:19 AM.

All I can say after reading your article, James, is - Chakk de phattey!

3: Amardeep (U.S.A.), March 23, 2010, 2:36 PM.

Beautiful piece and feelings in so many different aspects!

4: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), March 23, 2010, 3:12 PM.

As the story in myth and legend goes, Hanuman once asked Sita why she smeared the parting of her hair with vermilion (sandhur) religiously every day. "It was for his love and well being", said Sita. Then, in that case if a virtuous woman like Sita can please her lord with a little colouring, Hanuman thought, then I should do the same thing, and took the whole bowlful of vermilion and smeared his whole body. James Dolan, you did the same thing for your beloved - spoke in her own language, and at the same time, as a bonus, won over your mother-in-law.

5: O.P. (Chandigarh, Punjab), March 23, 2010, 11:07 PM.

Touching ... Hope, and everything else, happens for the good.

6: Devinder Pal Singh (Delhi, India), March 24, 2010, 4:57 AM.

James, your dedication towards making your environment conducive, happy and comfortable is remarkable. Where couples from the same background often take years to reach out, you and your better half's has been an exemplary success. It is a wonderful portrayal of what human beings can do to dismantle myths, customs, and taboos to attain a life of Bliss. On behalf of all readers (I am sure they would join me in this), we wish you both many many happy years of being together and enjoy the blessings of the Almighty. We wish your story would invoke introspection in all to understand delicate human relationships and encourage others to contribute towards each other.

7: Sonu Singh (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), March 25, 2010, 12:16 AM.

James, kudos to you and your approach for overcoming a very difficult situation!

8: Pankaj Sharma (Amritsar, Punjab), March 26, 2010, 2:12 PM.

James bhaji, tussi great ho! I would like to meet you in person some day!

9: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), March 27, 2010, 8:50 AM.

Sweet! James, you are so cool! My big guy is also a Canadian. He can say a few things by now - daal, roti, sabzi ... and understands 'thappad maarangi!'

10: Manpreet Singh (San Francisco, California, U.S.A.), March 27, 2010, 7:50 PM.

Your story is really touching. Let's meet up during Vaisakhi this April. I'll be in Vancouver :)

Comment on "I Learned Punjabi For My Dear Wife"

To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.