(Published in The Tribune , India)
I was on a flight back from London to Delhi a few years ago, on my way home to Chandigarh. Not one for idle chit chat on long flights, I settled in with my book and the excitement of going home for the holidays. (I was a postgraduate student at the time in the UK).
As our readiness for departure was announced and I was giving myself a mental fist-bump for being the proud owner of an empty seat next to me, an ample-bodied, turban-clad ‘paaji’ came and perched himself on the empty seat. With a sinking feeling, I silently prayed that my neighbor shared my fondness for a silent, peaceful journey.
Alas, no such luck. ‘Paaji’ presently introduced himself and that was the end of my reading. Dan Brown would just have to wait a little longer to reveal to me what buried secret Robert Langdon had just unearthed.
“Tussi Kithon?” he enquired after my home-town.
“Chandigarh”, I replied. “Tussi kithon?” I decided to humor him. After all, there was no escaping the Punjabi prowess of persistent small talk.
“Ludhiana. Oye, Chandigarh!” His face lit up and before I knew what was happening, he had called out to “Jassi and Pinky” seated at the front of the cabin, across from us, evidently forgetting that it was a public space. In a frenzied diarrhea of words, he relayed to the family that a fellow Punjabi had been found and the hoots of applause followed suit.
But I couldn’t help smiling. You can take a Punjabi out of Punjab but you can’t take Punjab out of a Punjabi. Even on a 7-hour long Virgin Atlantic flight from London. Under the mask of embarrassment, I was proud.
Some more animated chit chat ensued that revealed that the enormous Paaji family were residents of Canada and were on their way home for some “sarso da saag te makki di roti” time.
I suppose that was another thing we had in common. Punjabi food was irreplaceable.
By the time the captain announced our descent towards Delhi I had been showered with a generous helping of laddoos and an invitation to their house in Ludhiana. I thanked them profusely and proceeded to reciprocate their hospitable invitation. I felt like I was home already.
We talked some more and he asked me about my plans after my studies. I reluctantly conveyed my desire to get a job in London, though it was laced with a confusion of what it was I really wanted to do. He said everyone figures it out eventually and it would come to me too.
Paaji, in a revelatory mood, confided that Canada may have been home for many years but Ludhiana was where his heart was. As I reflected on this, I realized that we were no different in this – he and I.
I have been living away from home for many years too. I have met some wonderful people and been acquainted with myriad cultures and traditions but nowhere in the world can one match the hospitality of a Punjabi family.
If you are a fellow Punjabi, you qualify for a free laddoo and a heart-warming story. As I de-boarded and bid Paaji and his family adieu, he handed me a slip of paper.
“God bless you”, he whispered in Punjabi.
With a full heart and a lingering smile I walked away and glanced at the slip of paper.
In a penciled hand, Paaji had written his address in Ludhiana and at the bottom, three words:
“Sada Safal raho.” (May you be successful always.)