ABOUT A DECADE back driving on the Interstate 93 near Boston, my host who had left Panjab as a kid, started singing from the famous epic tragic romance Heer Ranjha. I asked him how he knew the lines? He replied his grandmother used to sing them to him. 'When did they arrive to the US?' He said his family had started moving a century ago. 'As cultivators to California. My uncles married Mexican women.' The information filled the gaps around the formation of the anti-imperialist Gadhar Party and the well-known saga of the ship Komagata Maru in the early 20th century.
Since then I have been curious to learn more about early Panjabi Diaspora in the North Americas and elsewhere in the world. The well-structured, quick read novel The Rainbow Acres
by Simrita Dhir
fills this gap. TRA sketches the era when gold was discovered in California and depicts the lives and journeys of a man and a woman from their faraway native lands on two ends of the world to the West Coast of the United States. Dhir alternates the chapters between Kishan Singh and Sophia Morales, from Noor Mahal in Panjab and Acapulco, later Guadalajara and then the village Bahia de Kino in Mexico, to parallel how people are marginalized – either through ravages of nature or political turmoil –and how they become migrants seeking refuge in alien lands.
Kishan was a disowned child, brought up by his kind abut aloof maternal uncle and aunt. The Panjab he grew up in evokes nostalgia for its composite culture: agrarian and in this region on the river Satluj the crop is water melons, a Muslim teacher Master Imtiaz Ali who guides Kishan, introduces him to English and other language novels in translation, his deep and aching love for Roop who belongs to a class above his, his enduring friendship with the wrestler Jaspal, the Hindu pawn shop owner who extends loan on faith, and his own only desire to study hard and bag a government job. Tragedy strikes when Roop is married off to someone else, the river Satluj floods and the fields are ravaged, and disease kills his aunt and Jaspal's father. After the deluge, along with Jaspal, he decides to seek his fortunes in the United States. Dhir is at her best here perhaps aided by unconscious memory and experience but also because even a century later remnants of such a Panjab exist.
TRA showcases similarities between Panjabi and Mexican cultures in terms of marriages and rituals of religion – Sikh and Catholic; the similarities between Panjab and California, including five rivers; the relationship between people and their lands and how sometimes new lands echo the sense of belonging of native lands.
Early in Sophia's story she is listening to her grandmother Paula talk about her past: how she and Sophia's grandfather Jacin left Spain to come to Mexico, Mexico gained independence, Sophia's two uncles joined the army and died fighting in the Mexican-American war 1948. Jacin stops playing the Banjo, her father Antonio takes over the confectionary business to support the family. The narration is once removed for being reported but gives the sense that Dhir has done her homework well. By the time we move to Sophia’s fifteenth birthday, the narration is more settled. We learn of Sophia introducing chocolate to her father's store. How the business becomes a huge hit, Sophia gets married to a government official, moves from south to north Mexico, bears two sons and a daughter Isabel. All seems well when man made tragedy strikes: her parents are killed in riots, her husband and sons die in a rebel attack. Suddenly her whole world crashes and she is forced to flee her home with Isabel to find her destiny in the United States.
In the United States, Kishan and Jaspal start from ground zero but within familiar Panjabi networks, performing labour in farms. Through hard work and diligence they gradually progress to own a farm. Sophia and Isabel, through their own refugee networks, reach this farm to perform labour. Telling more than that would be sneaking out a story best served when read. Dhir’s characters go through highs and the lows, encounter the kindness of strangers, the chicanery and exploitation of those who are supposed to be friends or relatives. TRA showcases similarities between Panjabi and Mexican cultures in terms of marriages and rituals of religion – Sikh and Catholic; the similarities between Panjab and California, including five rivers; the relationship between people and their lands and how sometimes new lands echo the sense of belonging of native lands.
In some parts, the book does read like it is oriented towards a film script which might be a good thing for anyone wanting to make a film but robs the reader of details and texture.
Publisher: Om Books International. Pages: 287.
Dhir has a fantastic story with all its pieces in place but I wonder why she restrained herself from telling a fuller story. After the early chapters, I found Kishan and Jaspal's journey to United States and their being at the immigration camp a bit thinly detailed. This is when we know Kishan is familiar with English language and this could have been used to great advantage. Especially when the ships and the camps are mixed nationalities where English is the language of power. The novel also gives a sense that most of the troubles the protagonists face are solved rather easily through luck or happenstance, like in movies. In fact, in some parts, the book does read like it is oriented towards a film script which might be a good thing for anyone wanting to make a film but robs the reader of details and texture.
What I found most commendable about TRA is that through her choice of characters and milieu Dhir has created a metaphor for migrants and migration not only in their times but which rings true even today when the United States contemplates a wall on the Mexican border and the Sikh Diaspora struggles with issues of identity. Though the genre is historical romance, it resounds as contemporary and timely. It is a success of the book. It is also a tragic commentary on the unending misery of the world that creates extreme circumstances which uproot migrants and force them to become refugees, like unfolding right now in Syria, Myanmar and Venezuela. Yet, for Panjab, its Diaspora, and also for Mexico, Dhir is a new voice on the horizon.
Amandeep Sandhu is working on a non-fiction on Panjab.
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