Halloween is a hard holiday for me. As the festivities come and go, I’m ultimately reminded of the death of my grandma, who passed away a few years ago following a series of health complications in the early morning of Halloween.
Along with my mom and my dad, she was a constant presence in my household and her passing not only spurned a blanket of grief, but marked a new batch of cultural anxieties.
My earliest memory is of my grandma teaching me how to pray. In the bedroom we shared, my grandmother would tell me to repeat after her as she taught me different Sikh hymns to recite every night. In broken Punjabi, I whispered them back to her, more scared of upsetting her than upsetting God. Despite her small stature, she was a commanding presence; even the simplest instruction sounds harsh in Punjabi.
She remained this looming figure, so much so that it never occurred to me that she was going to die one day. She would wait up for both me and my older brother everyday, asking us why we were so late and constantly driving to do better. So when she suddenly passed away when I was 17 years old, I had no clue how to handle it.
Losing her meant more than just losing my doting grandmother, it meant losing the person who most connected me to my ethnic and cultural identity, the one person I could rely on to teach me about the history that shaped my family.
There’s a certain isolation in growing up in a diaspora. The amount of cultural knowledge lost through the process of immigration seems to keep growing the older and older I get.
I don’t have the same relationship with my cultural and ethnic identity as I did growing up. Paradoxically, I find myself more invested in it now that I’m the most isolated I’ve ever been from it.
Growing up, I always wanted to distance myself from my Punjabi identity and become what I deemed to be the right kind of Canadian, a desire that ultimately strained my relationship with my parents and grandma.
But as I grew up and unpacked why I felt that way, I started to realize what it is exactly that I gave up. So for me, belonging to the South Asian diaspora meant making peace with what I can feasibly take on and what I can’t from the culture that shaped my childhood home.
I don’t have the same relationship with my cultural and ethnic identity as I did growing up. Paradoxically, I find myself more invested in it now that I’m the most isolated I’ve ever been from it. At a university far from the Punjabi alcove I grew up in, I rarely speak my mother tongue, if at all.
My parents, who have both now spent 20 years in Canada, can’t ever imagine themselves going back to India for more than a few weeks at a time. My parents have adopted a new relationship with their identities, something I’ve been trying to do in the last few years.
I grew up under the assumption that there would always be time for me to learn more about my own identity and the history and traumas behind it. But now that I’m trying to build the identity, there’s always something I didn’t pick on, an insurmountable amount of knowledge that I could never absorb since I didn’t grow up in the region.
From the small traditions to the larger traumas, the knowledge exists at the fringes of my elders’ minds. Sometimes they will talk about it, but most of the time, they don’t.
My grandma lived in Punjab during the Partition of 1947, one of the most deeply affected areas during an extensively horrifying event. Despite this, I have no idea what happened to her during it. I have to wonder, did she carry that weight by herself all these years?
This kind of lapse in knowledge makes itself evident all the time, although they aren’t as dark. Once, while at a Ladies Sangeet — a traditional party for the bride’s family — I watched all of the older women sing songs for the bride. I turned to my cousin, who had only recently immigrated and asked her who would sing at my and my future children’s weddings. She said she would, but I realized that with my limited grasp of the language, I’d probably struggle to teach a child Punjabi in the first place. Would this ritual make sense to my future child? Would they want any of this? I’m not sure.
The difficult part of maintaining your cultural identity is that it’s not something you passively experience. I have to actively make sure I’m engaging with it all the time, but right now, that just means talking to my parents a lot and asking them lots of questions.
But my grandma’s death made me realize this technique is flawed. My parents aren’t going to always be there to explain the significance of every holiday, teach me how to make every dish and patiently help me practice my Punjabi. One day this is going to be up to me to maintain and pass on.
It’s undeniable that we carry the history of our family within us, whether we understand said history or not. More than anything I wish I had more time to make sense of all of the things that shaped my caretakers.
Existing within a diaspora means constantly creating and recreating yourself to mesh the multitude of cultures you’re exposed to growing up. I was almost done high school when my grandma died; I’m now three semesters away from being done my undergraduate. The more time passes, the more questions I have for her that I can never ask.
But that’s okay. The best thing I could do for her memory is to make sure that I practice the things she did pass on to me and try my best to learn more. She may have been my main link to my Punjabi identity, but she isn’t the only one.
Nowadays, I find myself wearing my grandma’s gold hoop earrings out and making all of my friends and coworkers try the Indian food I grew up eating. At night, I try to recall the exact syllables my grandma so painstakingly taught me all those years ago, and make sense of what they mean. My mom tells me stories from the years she spent living in a hostel when she was completing her master’s degree in Malipur and reminds me to read up on the significance of Sikh holidays.
These little things keep me grounded and in touch with the community that so lovingly raised me. At the end of the day, it’s only a snippet of what my cultural identity actually is, but I have to reckon with the fact that it will have to evolve into something unprecedented. It’s all I have for the time being, but it’s enough.