Mehar woke up with a start. She reluctantly opened her eyes and tried to remember where she was. Her head was heavy with sleep and her body seemed immovable. Then she saw a black digital alarm clock on her bedside table, right next to an unfamiliar lamp. It was showing 14:29 on Sunday March 14. Mehar slowly got up and looked around the hotel room. It was large comfortable room with big windows that were heavily curtained. She got off her bed and moved to the nearest window. Outside, there was that bright Florida sunlit view of the sea. Despite her (almost) twenty-four hours journey and jetlag, Mehar felt elated.
Mehar Gill was an IT consultant, working with a US MNC. She was working in their Bangalore office. Right now, she was deputed to work from a Client’s office in Florida, USA. This deputation was just for a couple of months. And, this hotel room was going to be her home for all that time.
It wasn’t her first trip to the States. She had travelled for work earlier too and most of the times, all by herself. From her previous trips, she knew the drill well. Get to the pre-booked hotel, sleep off the jet-lag, wake up, and find food, a phone and a grocery store, in that order exactly. Mehar started with the first task, food. She always packed some stuff like instant noodles, coffee etc. for her first meal after landing. She cooked in the small kitchenette provided in the room itself. While having her meal, she called the hotel front desk to arrange for a cab to take her to the nearest Walmart.
After thirty minutes, the front desk called to inform her that a cab is waiting. Mehar quickly picked up her purse, locked the room and skipped down the staircase to reach the front entrance. The cab was a standard yellow cab, with a driver who did not look too American. That was not unusual. The cab driver was middle aged, of medium height and build, and looked no different from cabbies back home. He almost seemed Indian. But Mehar kept her perception to herself. She said hello and got into the back seat. Cabbie acknowledged with a nod, got into driver’s seat and asked her where she wanted to go. Mehar said, “To the nearest Walmart please.” He took off without another word.
There was little conversation on the way. She got down at Walmart, asked the driver if he was willing to wait for her to return from her shopping. He said “Sure”. She entered the store. After some loitering and window shopping, she finally got herself a cheap phone, a sim card, some fruits, bread and other essential stuff. When she came out, the cabbie was nowhere to be seen. She looked around and found him waving his hand from the other side of huge parking lot. On the way back to hotel, Mehar decided to strike up a conversation. Only, she did not know what to say. The cab reached the hotel. She thanked the driver and asked him if he was available next morning to take her to her Client’s office. He said he will be available and wrote down his phone number on the back of the fare receipt.
Next day, the cab driver was on time. He was waiting for her outside her hotel’s front entrance. Before Mehar could say Good Morning, the cab driver said “Asalam Walekum”. This unexpected greeting caught her off-guard, but she was careful not to show it. As an employee of an MNC, Mehar was culturally oriented to greet people in the way they were most comfortable with. She herself was a Punjabi, born into a Sikh family residing in Punjab. With little hesitation, Mehar said a polite “walekum salam” and got into the back seat of the cab.
The cab driver was definitely friendlier today. After few minutes, in fluent Punjabi, he asked her where she belonged to. Mehar said her home is in Punjab. Silently, she wondered how he knew that she can understand Punjabi. The driver probably understood the puzzled note in her voice. He explained that the day before, on the way back from Walmart, Mehar had called up her family and spoke to them in Punjabi. She realized that he was right. In her hurry to talk to her parents, she had forgotten that he must be listening.
The cabbie’s name was Imran. He said he was from Punjab too. But, he had not been there for past thirteen years. He was married to a Mexican girl and had two kids. The cab driver wanted to talk more about Punjab. He asked, “Do they still have many incidents of kidnapping and extortion with people coming from abroad?” For Mehar, that was a strange question. Punjab is a state which is known for its prosperity and every household has someone or other settled in a foreign country. Who kidnaps NRIs in Punjab? And she told him so. She said she has not heard of anyone getting kidnapped in Punjab just because they happen to be settled abroad. That is an odd thing to say.
Imran told her, last time when he went to Punjab thirteen years ago, he was cautioned by his relatives. They said, he needs to be careful about such cases. Mehar was not sure, was he pulling her leg? So she kept quiet. After thinking for a couple of minutes, Imran asked another question, even stranger than the last one. He asked “Which Punjab are you from?” Mehar replied,”How many Punjab(s) are there? There is just one Punjab.” On hearing this, Imran laughed and said, “I am asking, are you from the India Punjab or the Pakistan Punjab?” That explained everything. The unusual greeting and Imran’s knowledge of a Punjab that Mehar knew nothing about.
This got her thinking. Mehar had never dealt with possibility of two Punjab(s). Her generation did not recognize, either the significance or impact, of division of Punjab in 1947. They were happy in their cocooned world of one Punjab. A place that allowed health, freedom and prosperity to all its inhabitants. Imran, on the other hand, was out of touch with his world. He was still living in the Punjab he left thirteen years ago, and never got to visit again. Mehar felt sorry for him.
Just then, her client’s office came into view. Her first day of work had begun. She thanked Imran and paid for the ride. He got down to open her door. When Mehar got out, Imran told her that he feels protective towards her, as an elder brother. He said, “In case you need any assistance at any time, while you are here, you just need to give me a call and I will be there.”
Mehar was touched by this gesture. She told Imran, “It does not matter if you are away from Punjab, Punjab is still in you. You have been touched by the waters of those five rivers and it shows. Please try and visit your motherland soon.”