Keeping Up Appearances…Punjabi Style!

When you wake up on a Saturday morning to the sounds of the house-phone ringing every 10 minutes and the vacuum cleaner being dragged violently around the living room, you know it’s going to be one of those weekends. You know the ones I mean, those Saturdays/Sundays that come around every so often when a truckload of unfamiliar guests decide to pour through your front door because: A) they’re collecting Gurdwara donations, B) they’re distributing wedding invitations, C) they have a wedding in the vicinity of your area and need a place to crash.

Your mum’s adopted her hysterical tone of voice, shrieking at you and your siblings to get out of bed and help her clean the house now. And in that instance that you attempt to lift your head off of your pillow, but the smells of thorka and spices slap you so hard around the face that you fall back down, you know there’s gonna be trouble! Your dreams of a quiet weekend have officially been shattered.

So as I’m sure you’ve figured out, we had a plethora of guests over today. Some relatives from our pind (village) back in India, who now live a 3 hour drive away and who we see once or twice a year at the most. And during the course of their visit, I noticed a series of events that occur everytime that such far-distance relatives decide to come over.

So let’s begin!

Sat sri akals (hellos) and side hugs all around as the guests pull up in their private registration Mercedes with the sparkly Khanda swinging in the rear-view mirror; they always emerge from their cars looking exhausted. Why? Because they’ve probably been circling the block for the last half hour trying to locate the correct house, arguing amongst themselves all the while and shouting at the person driving that they need to slow down and definitely must’ve taken the wrong exit at the roundabout miles back! And so as they walk up to the front door donning their glitzy but uncomfortable Indian attire and frazzled expressions, it’s clear that their trauma can only be fixed with some steaming hot chaa (indian tea).

Once everyone’s come inside, removed their shoes and settled down on the sofas, you’ll proceed to go around the room offering plates of sweets: barfi, besan,  ladoo and jalebiya and savoury: matri, somoseh and pakoreh. However, there’ll always be that one person who refuses to have anything. Even after you’ve insisted twice (as your mum has trained you to do) and having assured them that you don’t have the plague, that’s when your parents will step in and tell them that they must have something after their long journey. That’ll usually do the trick, because out of fear of disrespecting their hosts the person will immediately relent, pick up the smallest piece of matri from the plate and proceed to nibble on that for the next hour. Sorted.

Now, over the course of the day you should prepare to be be humiliated and simultaneously bragged about on countless occasions by your parents. If you’re particularly unlucky they’ll regurgitate things that you unwittingly did/said that morning, adding their own little twists of events and a pinch of masala, as if you’re not even there. E.g “Sharan was soooo excited when she heard that you were coming, you should’ve seen her, she quickly cleaned her whole room and put on her new jumper that she just bought yesterday!”(ummm that’s not quite what happened, but thanks mum!).

And if like me, you’re the youngest in the house, you’ll know this situation all too well. After the guests have begun their conversations your dad tells you to take the 2 random kids, who have been sitting there with their heads down since arriving, saying no more than hunji (yes) when spoken to, into the kitchen to pick out some chocolates/ crisps. A clever ruse to allow the parents to talk freely in Punjabi about more important matters like their jameen (land) in India without having to provide an English translation for the kids. You’re then told to ‘play’ with them, even though being 22 years old you don’t have a clue how to ‘play’ anymore and even if you did, you definitely wouldn’t want to with these undercover demons! These kids shed their tame facades as soon as they’re out of sight of any ‘official’ adults, thinking that it’s fine to wreck your room, use your makeup like it’s communal face-paint and break into your phone to make prank calls to people you haven’t spoken to in months! So when they bat their eyelids and ask if they can play on your Wii, iPad and laptop, in the sweetest tones of voices that they can muster, they shouldn’t be surprised to know that all of these devices mysteriously broke today and no they cannot be fixed!

As the day progresses, you’ll find that the crowd will break into around 3 separate groups, consisting of the men, women and children and so multiple conversations will all be going on at the same time. Everyone’s speaking in high-pitched loud voices, intercepting one anothers’ points, cackling hysterically and not paying any notice to the fact that the neighbours can probably hear everything too! And then suddenly when out of nowhere one of those moments of silence comes around, when everyone eerily stops talking for no apparent reason, all attention is drawn to the TV. What is on the TV you ask? Why it’ll always be Sikh Channel or Sangat TV of course. And you can be sure that we’ll all be sitting there, eyes glazed over and fixated on live coverage of a pind in Jalandhar/Ludhiana or a Nagar Kirtan in Italy…fun times!

Shortly after this someone will suggest that it’s time for them to make a move; they have more houses to visit, they don’t want to get stuck in traffic, the kids have school tomorrow etc. And you’ll hear a line like ‘chal, chaliyeh fer?’ (shall we go then?) but do not believe them. Unless at least 2 of them are standing up, with shoes on… They’re not going anywhere. In fact that’s just their way of saying give us a reason to stay… Aka bring out the roti (food) which is when the real chaos starts!

Rotiyah, daahl, dehi, spoons flying all over the place. Your immediate family is always keeping an eye on the forever declining pile of rotiyah which must be re-stacked every 5 minutes, because Punjabis can eat! And the resulting mountainous pile of dishes that never seems to decline will be the bane of your existence that night. Sometimes an Auntie will pop into the kitchen and ask if you need any help, to which you must refuse, or your mum will kill you for getting a guest to do your chores!

Having received the seal of approval that you’ve satisfied your guests’ stomachs adequately, conversation will resume again briefly before they finally rise to put their shoes on. Everyone begins edging slowly towards the front door with conversation still in full-flow. And that’s when an Auntie or Uncle will take advantage of the moment and slide some pyaar (sweet money) into your hand when no one’s looking, because you’ve grown so much and they haven’t seen you in so long. If you return it back to them and say that you can’t take it they’ll shoot you one of those looks that makes you feel both sorry for insulting them and scared that they’ll slap you for your disobedience! So the best thing to do is to alert your parents so that they can be their desi selves and return the money, abandoning all social etiquette like true Punjabans! And this back and forth battle of ‘you take it, no you take it’ will usually precede their final exit.

Your dad will then begin his monologue of detailed directions on how the guests can take the quickest route home, (complete with arm motions and pointing gestures), even though they clearly have a satellite navigation system in the car! Having sat in their cars and buckled up their seat belts, your entire immediate family must then stand in the doorway, waving from the time that their engine starts until they gradually pull out of the driveway and are out of sight; big smiles plastered on everyones’ faces all the while 😀

Ah, the joys of keeping up appearances Punjabi style!

28 replies

  1. Oh, I just loved this!! So well written, so true to life and funny. Family gatherings and social visits seem to have some similarities all around the globe despite cultural differences. And how the young people have to suffer through them. I miss my family, yes, but not all the hoopla you describe here– I came from a Sicilian family.

  2. Greetings from a North Indian! This is such a brilliant and hilarious post. Reminds me of all the times when the guests came knocking at our doors. The times when you are expected to present yourself as the milapadi kudi who entertains the guests and mingles with kids half her age. Sigh.

  3. Yes – The Slo-Man is pretty sure that the PeevedPunjabi will one day find time to write about the 30-minute desi goodbyes, the minimum-2-refusals-before-acceptance rule and other finer points of desi semi-formal socialization etiquette.

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