I had a really interesting encounter this past weekend. It was the last long weekend of the summer, and my family had run off to the local pool. Before leaving, my husband had ordered Royal Tandoori (because, let’s get real, I cannot make naan, no clay oven here. And please don’t be that person arguing with me about which South Asian food place you think is the best, it’s rude to diminish my cultural history to what your taste buds think our food should be), and I answered the door to receive the food from the delivery person.
The delivery guy was a college aged young man, and he fumbled with the food and the payment machine on our doorstep. He said, quite softly, as he tried not to drop things, “theray gee, ek second”, which is kind of a soft-Punjabi / hard-Urdu way of saying, please wait, one sec. I spoke to him back in Urdu, “mujay jaldi nahi hai, “ then switched to English, “Take your time.” The young man nearly dropped everything.
It’s such a small thing, to respond to someone in their mother’s tongue. It’s such a small thing but such a gift when it happens. The rest of the conversation fell out of us like water bursting out of a dam.
”Did you just speak Urdu?” “Yes, my parents are Pakistani” “My grandfather was Pakistani! He was from the city of Lahore! My grandmother, she was from Sialkot. Then Partition happened and we moved…”
We traded stories like you would sea shells from a trip taken long ago, with the sandy beach still fresh in your mind. It was such a great gift, and yet, there was a haze of sorrow around it.
We can’t talk about our history without mentioning the effects of war and displacement on our lineage. We can’t speak about our ancestry without acknowledging the cities we have lost from our consciousness. All we have left sometimes are the odd words in our mother-tongue, thrown out carelessly in a mumble we think no one would catch. It’s a gift to be heard, seen and understood, even if just for a second.
I realize I’m very lucky, that I have encounters like these, that my mother tongue is still accessible to me and our stories reside in our collective memory. I hope to hold space for others to find similar gifts when grappling with the effects of our tumultuous history, so we can all find belonging in some shape or form.