by Pardeep Singh Kaleka and Robin Gaby Fisher
My family story begins in the rural village of Dogal, about thirty miles southwest of the glittering city of Patiala in the Punjab region of India. Dogal was a poor farming community, but our family was better off than most of the people there because my grandfather owned twenty-seven acres of farmland and leased most of it to other farmers in the village.
My father was the seventh of nine children and the only one who didn’t leave home to study in the city. He stayed on the farm with his parents. His siblings became doctors and professors but Dad, a deeply religious man, discovered that he could cultivate his spirituality by working the land, which made him a natural to take over the family operation after my grandfather retired.
Farming was in his blood. It was hard work, but working hard is one of the fundamental principles of Sikhism. The family grew fields of sugarcane, wheat, cotton, and mustard, depending on the season. Dad worked alongside the farm- hands and led by example, working the hardest. The men did the heavy work, tilling the soil, planting the crops, and digging irrigation canals to bring water from the river. The women worked in the fields, harvesting the crops. “Work is worship” is a favorite saying my father used throughout his life.
My mother was also raised in a farming community, but many hours away from Dogal, in Uttar Pradesh, near the Nepal border. Her family started out with several acres of jungle that her father bought cheap, and they toiled for over two years to make it plantable. Once it was ready, they harvested sugarcane, wheat, and corn and used buffalo to plow the fields. With no irrigation system, getting water to the crops was left to “God’s will.” As the crops and the family flourished, they were able to move from a hay hut to a proper farmhouse built of brick and mortar.
Mom’s role in the family was helping her mother with the household chores. She was ten years old and expected to cook, clean, and care for her younger siblings in addition to her studies. Whatever spare moments she could steal, she taught herself stitching, sewing, and knitting, and she was skilled enough to make clothes for the family. She got as far as the sixth grade when her mother became sick, and Mom had to leave school to take on more of the responsibilities at home.
Mom’s was a cloistered world and one in which she lived until her parents arranged for her to marry. She had just turned twenty when she was shown a picture of my father and told that he had been chosen as her future husband. The arrangement was made by a bachola, someone who brought two people together based on the quality of their families. In their case, the bachola was a distant relative on Mom’s side who was also familiar with Dad’s family. By the time Mom knew anything about it, a dowry had been offered and accepted by Dad’s family, and wedding arrangements were in the works. Asking questions would have been to go against custom, so there was no choice for Mom but to go along.
The wedding was set for December 30 of that year, 1974. My father and his family took the seventeen-hour train ride from Patalia to Uttar Pradesh to formalize the arrangements. A day of pre-wedding festivities followed, beginning with the offering of the ring, a traditional ceremony attended only by the groom and male relatives from both families at which gifts are also exchanged. While the men partied, Mom’s family hosted a bridal ritual called a Sangeet, where the women gathered to sing and dance to traditional folk music and draw henna art, the symbol of a couple’s love, on each other’s hands. The bride and groom saw each other for the first time at their wedding ceremony.
It was only after my father’s death, during late-night conversations with Mom, that I learned the intimate details of my parents’ early life together and the difficulties they faced coming to America. How could I tell the story of the man I am today without telling their story? I asked questions and Mom was generous with details. I think those talks helped us both: Mom, by sharing some of the most poignant moments of her life, and me, because it made me realize how much she and Dad endured together and how what began as an “arrangement” grew into a partnership based on mutual love and respect.
Mom said she had mixed feelings about the marriage because it meant leaving everything she had ever known. The actual term for the transition into an arranged marriage is Dulli, and Mom described it as a time of great anxiety. The only way she got through it was her faith in God and trust in the judgment of the bachola. Before she married my father, she had never been separated from her family or gone away from home. Yet three hours after the wedding ceremony, she was on a train, with a new family, headed to a faraway place she didn’t know, with a husband who was a complete stranger. Indeed, the first conversation my parents ever had was on that train ride. Dad asked Mom if she was okay. She responded that she had a headache. It was a somber time in her life, but we both laughed at the memory. Dad got her an aspirin and a cup of tea. He seemed nice enough. But love? She had never loved. She was too young and too inexperienced to even know what love should feel like. People didn’t “fall” in love, she always said. They grew to love each other.