A letter to my brothers: our ancestors defied borders, and so must we

For my brothers, who know our family, but few of our stories.

Dear boys,

We are neither refugees nor their children. We are their grandchildren.

The first time I learned the proper noun, the verb ‘Partition’, I was five. Dad nestled a plate of sliced apples between us on the couch and allowed me to watch Gandhi. I remember the scene where a general of the Raj—I chose then, and continue now, to forget his name—locked hundreds of Punjabis in a stadium and ordered his men to open fire. The audio of that cinematic reproduction is still sampled on Bhangra songs across the world as a way to remember the violences of colonialism. Later, I read Freedom at Midnight, a novel about the last six months of the British Raj’s reign in the subcontinent. My mother remembers sobbing while reading the novel during her pregnancy.

I was six when Dad married his second wife, your mom. We went to our family’s farm in Uttarakhand so she could meet the Kangs before convoying across the country. The wedding ceremony was held in Chandigarh. Your mom wore a bright pink suit; it made her eyes look even more green. My suit was orange. Learning of the Sikh suspicion that the marriage was either doomed, or would be rescheduled for an entire year, if she dropped the scarf-like duputta while circling the Granth, the Sikh holy book, your mom held onto the length of cloth for dear life, knuckles white.

On our way to the wedding, dad explained that his father, our Dadaji, was 18 or 19 during Partition. He was in Lahore as trains crossed the invisible divide that slaughtered, displaced, and emplaced thousands of Muslims and Hindus. He was in the Punjab. He was home. Dadaji could not walk down the streets because there were too many bodies. Too many bodies holding infants who cried for milk, for tenderness, looking up at their loved ones’ lifeless faces.

He, along with several peers, started an orphanage outside of the city, past the invisible border, in the Republic of India. On the other side of the nation as it now stood, across a line drawn by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, an Englishman who had never set foot on Indian soil, there was jungle. A region of the northeastern state of Uttar Pradesh, now Uttarakhand, was forest. It was back-breaking labor valued so cheaply by the new government that anyone could have it; it was potential farm land for a child of the fields.

Dadaji made it so. He cleared dense underbrush, chopped down trees, killed panthers and boa constrictors in a place he had never seen. He began to build a house. A home. Days into his project, the local townsmen confronted him, proclaimed he had no right to be there, shotguns in hand. Dadaji pulled out his sword and demanded they leave. The dispute was finally settled by a wrestling match. When I was very young, I used to beg him to hike up his pant leg, giggling as he revealed the faded blue Hanuman tattoo on his thigh; he said it helped him win—an intimidation tactic. For most Sikhs, tattoos are anathema to the faith. Dadaji, in his boundless capacity for humor, went one step further and immortalized a Hindu god on his flesh.

Once the farm was viable, his mother found him a nice Sikh girl to marry. He would bring her from the Punjab to Uttar Pradesh—a merging of past and future, a fragile exchange of near history and possibility. At his funeral, Dadaji’s best friend, Uncle Sidhu, told me the story of their wedding: Uncle and his wife had no way to reach our grandparents, and showed up at each ceremony just as they’d left, debris of merriment strewn before them in one empty hall after another. I laughed through my tears.

Dadiji, our grandmother, kept rupees under lock and key in a cookie tin in a cupboard next to her bed. She would quietly hand them to her five children, who alternately drove each other up mango trees, skinned their backs on gravel, and lost fingers to tractor maintenance. I know dad has told you the story about the tiger.

Once, in a moment of weakness and willful subterfuge, our eldest aunt brought a cat home from boarding school. I have heard her pet’s progeny yowl from the sugarcane fields since I was two, their claws ticking across the house’s corrugated metal roof as they chase mice and other creatures better left to the night.

My favorite memories of Dadiji are in her kitchen. During an early visit, I remember us sharing a rope cot she had dragged into the sun; leaning over a large tin bowl, she sliced open pea pods with her thumb, wiggling her thumbnail beneath each seed and loosening it with a speed so casual, I knew it would easy. Dadiji flicked her thick grey braid over a shoulder and adjusted her shawl as she nodded for me to try, a forgiving smile already lighting her eyes. At four years old, I learned the labor of food, stripping one pod to ten of hers. Later, she gave me a stool and let me lean over the pot as she made matar paneer. Every time I see her spice tin on the kitchen counter, I can smell her.

We have lost both of our grandparents and with them, their stories of Partition. Dadiji never learned English, but would hold me in her lap as I began to read, smiling as I traced my fingers across each new word. Dadaji claimed that I taught him the language because I never stopped talking. He read two newspapers every morning, in Urdu and Punjabi, spoke Hindi and, when I was young, English.

Every morning after he lost Dadiji, Dadaji would wake up at five a.m. to watch the morning prayer broadcast from the Harmindar Sahib, the Golden Temple; he and the rest of our family witnessed it as it was burnt, raided, desecrated, in the 1980s by Indira Gandhi’s regime. Our eldest uncle was beaten and jailed in Chandigarh in 1984 after her assassination; we are lucky that most Sikhs have “uncles” in the military, or we would have lost him. We lost so many others.


Boys, we are the children of a Punjabi Sikh born of Partition in a state his parents never claimed. He came to this country to take his Ph.D., married not one, but two Minnesotans, and has loved us fiercely ever since. We are privileged. We are also the sons and daughter of a lineage that refuses borders and boundaries, that honors but never fears death. We are the living ghost of our peoples’ diaspora in a nation that, now more than ever, wishes we would just disappear.

In 1918, U.S. Army Sargent Bhagat Singh Thind applied for citizenship: he was denied three times because only free white men could be Americans. In November, a Sikh American had his beard ripped off, then his turban. Months earlier, a Sikh man was shot in California after dropping his daughter off at school. A young boy was beaten on his school bus for wearing a turban. I received an email from the Sikh Coalition with a bullet-pointed list of ways to remain safe during the alarming rise in hate crimes following Donald Trump’s election.

I went to the Smithsonian’s ‘Beyond Bollywood’ exhibit when it opened in D.C. My partner saw Balbir Singh Sodhi’s powder blue turban first; scanning a poem Sodhi’s daughter wrote after her father’s assassination, a poem I committed to memory four days after 9/11. She asked me if I was ready. I still cannot answer that question.

You and I, we are Americans with PIO cards—can own land in two nations, cross manmade borders easily, speak a dominant language and could have learned at least two more had we tried. When we re-enter this country, we stand in the ‘citizen’ line, wait for dad as he is subjected to questioning in the much longer one. We have watched as Sardars are forced to remove their turbans at security. Have withstood regular ‘random’ searches of our luggage.

I am a mixed, light-skinned Sikh who, four months after Dadaji’s death and a week after the Oak Creek Massacre, tattooed the Khanda on her spine—a bucking of tradition after his Hanuman. I run my fingers over its blades to remind me of our family in its extensive diaspora; to remind me where my homes lie. The places we can always go home to.

I tell you these stories not to scare you, but to remind you that we come from a long line of fighters who have been given so much to fight against. On Wednesday, President Trump issued two executive orders that will prohibit hundreds of thousands of refugees from seeking asylum in the U.S. because of their faith. He will build a border wall against Mexican migration ‘as soon as possible’ and with it, a series of detention centers where officers have unmitigated power. I urge you to always remember where we came from, because every day someone we share community with is at risk. No, we are not Muslim or Central American, nor are we refugees: we are their kin. We know in our bones that while fear and the borders so many build from its fiery kiln are terrifying, they cannot stop us if we remember this one basic truth: death will always come, but like so many before us, we will fight together until it takes us.

My heart,

Your sister.


Cover photo: last glimpse of Pakistan, by Owen Lin under CC license.

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