A Little Work Left in Punjab

My memorable time in the Himalayan foothills had come to an end. I traveled back to Amritsar to reunite with my loved ones there, as well as to resume classes with Ustad Ji. It is still amazing to realize how at home I feel in this country, halfway around the world from where I was born.

Rupinder and I meeting at Darbar Sahib

From my seclusion in the mountains, life in Amritsar became much more social. From serendipitous meetings with friends at Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple), or going to the large wholesale vegetable market just outside the city gate, every day opened a different experience.

I never tire of going to the wholesale market. Between the massive assortment of fruits and vegetables, the cows and buffaloes wandering around and the general mayhem that is India, it is always an entertaining experience that also ends in a trunkful of tasty things to go home with.

Near the market, we came across a street vendor selling fresh roasted corn on the cob. Topped with nimbu juice and namak (lime juice and salt) it’s always a special treat.

The wholesale vegetable market (subji mundi)

It was wonderful to catch up and play with all the beautiful children who are my nieces, nephews and brothers. Mehtab is growing in to quite the little lady. Wahenoor astounds me with his ability to speak English with either a Punjabi or American accent as well as his enthusiasm for superheros.

Lohri Festival Day

All the illustrations for my book had been completed, and the task at hand was now to find an editor. By late December, the decision had been made. For a couple more months, I toiled away incorporating changes the editor had suggested.

One other piece of the puzzle was still waiting to be begun – I needed to create the painting that would become the front, back and spine of my book. There was also the dilemma of trying to locate an adequate shop to get the cover art and all the illustrations scanned into the high quality digital format required for publication. Two attempts to get the ink illustrations scanned by local shops in Amritsar had failed miserably.

Ustad Ji’s son-in-law, Harpreet Singh, mentioned a place in Chandigarh that would be able to do the work. A high-quality art supply store is also located in this major city. There would be access to the canvas needed as well as additional painting supplies. So, I packed my bags and took the four-hour journey to the capitol of Punjab to get the last leg of my work done.

On the way, I asked the cab driver to please stop at one of the roadside juice stands. One more thing I love about India.

Roadside fresh kinnow juice with a pinch of black salt – two glasses, please!

I settled into my hotel. It was across from a low income housing development as well as some higher end apartment buildings. Diagonally to the right was a farm, which I could see from my balcony. That farm was a saving grace!

Luckily, I was just five minutes walk from the fresh produce market so I had everything I needed within easy reach. The hotel let me use their kitchen in the basement. That was an adventure I will spare you except to say rats!

I made a quick trip into the city to pick up the canvas, then set up a painting station on the desk in my room.

The editor sent me information about trim sizes for books and the corresponding cover measurements. It took me about a week to study all the information and began the precise calculations, which I then transferred in pencil to my canvas.

Maping out my book cover

By the second week, I was adding in the basic structural elements and then had to wait for them to dry thoroughly before I could continue.

Blocking in the first elements

Oil paints dry slowly. To fill the mandatory waiting time in between phases, I decided to spend the off weeks by completing week-long silent meditation retreats in my room. I regularly walked to the farm next door to exercise on my breaks. There was a welcoming large tree that grew between the rows of wheat where I would sit and rest or meditate.

View while sitting under the meditation tree
Break time at the farm

As the wheat grew tall, I was quite hidden in my meditation spot. Two or three times, I accidentally surprised some of the farm workers who came across me.

Puzzled by the sight of a gori (white girl) in Punjabi clothes, sitting on the earth, they asked in Hindi or Punjabi, “What are you doing?”

“I am meditating.” I would explain, then follow that up with, “Is it okay?”

“Hanji (yes).” they replied, then continued on with their work.

One day a very old farmer that happened upon my mid-day meditation returned an hour or so later with a little stainless steel container of chai and handed it to me. It was one of the most touching gestures I have encountered in my India homeland.

Laborers in Zirakpur making low income housing. Yes, that is a woman carrying all those bricks.
Even weeds can be exquisitely beautiful

After about a month and a half, when the cover painting was finished and had dried enough to be handled. I traveled into Chandigarh again, this time with my four drawing pads of the inner illustrations and the painting rolled up in a bag. It was time to get all the work scanned!

I was able to make a short visit to Ustad Ji’s daughter Samia’s home and stay with them for a few days while completing the work at the photostat shop. That special time playing with her twins, Brahm Mauli and Bir Taj was a pure delight!

It was an exciting day to be at that printing shop. It had taken about two and a half years to complete all the illustrations. Many times the project had felt so overwhelming that I seriously doubted my ability to finish it. Yet here was this major milestone complete.

The staff at Grambell’s were so kind and encouraging about my work. They carefully scanned all 80+ pen and ink illustrations and put the cover painting through the large format scanner. I was so grateful to them for doing a fantastic job.

The final cover is scanned
Grambell’s staff who scanned all the images in my book

There was just a little time left in my hotel. One entirely different work now demanded attention. Soon I would be leaving India, so I had begun searching online to find a place to go once back in the states. I would be like a fresh immigrant, arriving with just my suitcases. No home, no job. Starting from scratch.

For some years I had wondered what it would be like to live in New England. Why not try that out now? I came across a room to rent in rural Connecticut that was within my budget and looked like fertile ground for an artist and lover of nature.

It felt surreal and bizarre to be filling out rental applications for the new room and walking down to the local photostat shop to get the paperwork scanned for emailing. Sitting in the tiny Indian shop, I couldn’t help but think of the two juxtaposed realities I was on the brink of. Everything felt unstable and a bit scary.

Butay Wala in Zirakpur

While completing my errands, I walked around to explore the neighborhood a bit more. One thing I love about India is how they sell garden plants from bicycle carts. No need to go to a plant nursery, just wait until you see him cycling down your street.

There were about a dozen children living with their families in one of the low income housing developments near the hotel. I wanted to do something fun for them. I walked to a small grocery store down the street and bought an assortment of popsicles. When I got back to the housing unit, I asked some of the older children to bring out the younger ones and handed out the treats. Their smiles were golden.

I took time to complete one last week long meditation retreat. Sitting 8-10 hours in meditation for 5-10 days is never easy. While a non-practitioner may look on it as a grand waste of time, I think that anyone who has ever meditated will attest that what happens in just one retreat can change your whole life, your perspectives, how you relate to yourself and the world, not to mention nurturing an open heart and compassion for all beings.

Farm walk after my last meditation retreat

I savored my time knowing that soon I would be returning to the USA. One of my delights was photographing the things that speak so vividly of the colorful and diverse beauty that is Mother India.

Traditional India, a celebration of culture

I met many new locals during this time. They would inquire how I came to be in India and what I was doing there. It was more unusual to them because our conversations were in Punjabi or Hindi.

When I would mention that soon I would have to leave India, they looked melancholy and their reply was always, “But when will you be coming back?” It struck me deeply, because I realized that they felt that somehow I belonged there too.

I replied truthfully that I had no idea when destiny might bring me back.

Mediating on the farm

The weeks had flown by, and the wheat at the farm had grown tall, and gone from green to golden. One last sit under my meditation tree. Then, it was back to Amritsar for one final month with Ustad Ji.

While riding in the cab towards Amritsar, I looked out and saw a camel on the edge of a jungle area, craning its head up to munch leaves on a tree overhead. India frequently delights you with such random vignettes that are so uncanny and memorable.

Khalsa College organic mooli (daikon)
Fresh jackfruit (kathal) at the subji mundi in Putlighar, Amritsar, Punjab

While at the Putlighar subji market, we picked up some fresh kathal (jackfruit), which makes a delicious, savory subji. They keep a special board and knife just for the jackfruit which oozes a natural, sticky latex.

I set up a painting station on Ustad Ji’s balcony to create two small oil paintings for him.

Indian semal trees, I wanted them to feel like dreamscapes

There was one thing I really wished to experience before leaving India. I wanted to ride on an elephant. In my three years in India, I have only seen elephants in Amritsar a handful of times – its fairly rare.

A few days before my departure, Ustad Ji heard some bells outside and called out, “Amanjot! The elephant is coming!” Sure enough, there it was, coming right down the street. Ustad Ji yelled from the balcony for them to stop and we went down.

I have never gotten on an elephant before or seen it done. I had an idea that the elephant would crouch down to make it easy. Nope. Turns out the method was for the elephant to bend its back leg to make a sort of step. Then I had to grab onto the ropes and hike up the back of the elephant’s body. It was a bit scary and I wasn’t sure I could do it. It also felt weird to be climbing on this huge, amazing creature.

Before I knew it, I was on the top and the elephant began walking. What can I say? There is just a pure, simple joy in being in contact with such an intelligent and massive living being.

My friend, Gurmilap was also in India at the time and she and I happened to have flights leaving Amritsar on the same day, but at different times and on different airlines.

To our delight, we realized we were going to be at the Doha Qatar airport at the same time and miraculously, we met up. Just long enough for a picture and quick meal before heading off to our respective gates.

I was sad to leave India, but somehow meeting so serendipitously with my friend in the airport made it feel a lot more tolerable.

Meeting Gurmilap by chance in the Doha Qatar airport

I arrived in Massachusetts after my flight. Although I had tried to arrange all the details beforehand, life likes to throw us curve balls. I ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere for two days without transportation and no food. I was jetlagged, rather depressed and very unsure of the future. But there I was. Nothing to do but keep putting one foot in front of the other…My time in India was over and life in New England was beginning.

Stay tuned for the next updates on my book and soon a sneak peek reveal of the cover!

Jet lagged
New England new beginnings

Comments

5 responses to “A Little Work Left in Punjab”

  1. Rupinder kaur and wahenoor singh Avatar
    Rupinder kaur and wahenoor singh

    It’s beautiful. Wahenoor loved it ❤️❤️❤️

    1. Ahhh I am so glad! Please give him my love. Hope to see you both soon 🤗♥️

  2. Polly Avatar
    Polly

    So incredibly beautiful and inspirational. Thank you for sharing.
    Love from mother ❤❤❤

    1. So happy you enjoyed reading it! 💐🌺💐

  3. jerry father Avatar
    jerry father

    What a beautiful journey to share in words and images. Delightful with every step. Loved the serendipitous elephant ride. The universe provides!

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