The Old Guard and the Tailor
His turban gives him away.
He garbles into the speaker attached to his earplugs.
“What is this language you speak?”
“It’s Punjabi, Mam,” he replies quietly, eyes on the road.
“Ah, I didn’t know. I thought ‘twas Hindi.” This I had gleaned from his milk-chocolate skin and from reading that Hindi is the most spoken language in India.
My ignorance permeates the air-conditioned space. There is quiet in the taxi before he speaks again. My people are from Punjab, where a lot of Sikhs live, he tells me; our eyes locked through the rearview mirror. His silver beard reminds me of Santa.
Ravinder Singh is his name.
“I’m a writer,” I say redundantly, thinking that there is a story here to tell. The story of a Sikh man who is a taxi driver.
He nods and drives on.
His father, Sujeet, was a night shift security guard and a tailor. He straddled two jobs so that he could feed his growing family. He drifted in, at sixteen, on an English ship from Punjab, along with a cousin, to make better lives for themselves in Malaya. He started out as an apprentice cutting cloth from bales. His acumen for not wasting material marked him out. The clients were wealthy businessmen who wanted bespoke trouser suits. Their wives and mistresses came for made-to-measure dresses that moulded their slender bodies hand-in-glove. Sujeet learnt the trade, even learnt how to use the sewing machine to stitch hemlines and pleats. Then, with some savings and help from a friend who was a Chettier from Tamil Nadu, he set up shop in Market Street, making suits for the bankers and middle managers in the CBD.
At five in the evening, Sujeet pulls the shutters down and sets off for his next job. His wife, Sukindar, would have prepared a tiffin of rice and curry for his dinner, which she brought to him at noon along with lunch. Their moments together were often stolen. An hour here in the morning in the kitchen where she is preparing sweet chai and chapati before he sets off to open shop — a smile and pat on each other’s arm, for this was the best way they knew how to show affection, then 20 minutes there, in the curtained-off bedroom — when he was feeling loving and wanted to offer some spousal affection. The children came in succession — five sons and two daughters — before Ik Onkar stopped smiling down on them.
Sukindar Kaur was the most beautiful woman Sujeet had ever set eyes on at the temple. When the committee had suggested that he be introduced to the Sandhu family as a suitor to their daughter’s hand, he had declined humbly. Everyone in the temple knew Gurmit Sandhu Singh, the patriarch. The family was in the tailoring trade, like himself, but they were very reputable and linked to the political elite, whom they had served for over 50 years. They were far from wealthy but they had clout enough within the Sikh community. Sujeet, the newbie, knew of other young men who had set their hopes on marrying the alluring Sukindar.
The story is familiar to me. I had relatives who rubbed shoulders with the elite too, a long time ago.
“My great-grandfather was a court interpreter,” I counter, hoping to find some common ground in our immigrant stories.
“My father was the jagah at the Supreme Court,” he proffers. “He slept on a foldable rattan bed every night for 30 years, guarding the building.”
I feel a blush creeping up my neck. I don’t say that my grandfather was the Chief Justice.
When Ik Onkar was still smiling and blowing magic dust his way, a life-changing miracle happened. It was Sukindar who asked her parents to let her choose her own husband. This was unheard of in the community that arranged all their marriages. But the family, being open-minded, permitted their only daughter to choose. Sujeet and Sukindar married at the temple on an auspicious day. How Sujeet Singh loved his wife.
Women gossiped about the audacity of Sukindar and her parents’ lack of tradition. Men tutted at Gurmit’s lack of authority. The waves of murmurs crashed louder when Sukindar became sick. It was a punishment from the One and Only. Tradition cannot be defied and women cannot have autonomy.
Sujeet and Sukindar lived their lives traditionally as they were brought up to do. She taught her daughters to read as she did her sons. The family observed Holy Days and brought offerings to the temple, as would a typical Sikh family. Yet Ik Onkar could not be placated. By the time, Ravinder was fifteen, his mother was wasting away in the curtained-off section of their two bedroom flat. His brother, a year older, and he were left to care for her after school and daily chores. Their youngest sister was not yet two years old. Sujeet hardly came home, preferring the factory building that he guarded to the smell festering in their congested flat. Soon, the extended Sandhu family took over the care of the children, especially the girls, the last two of the brood. She could’ve gone with her aunts but Sukindar insisted on staying in their crowded apartment as her babies were taken away. Sujeet needed his meals cooked and clothes cleaned.
The growing tumour leaked out from her swollen left breast. The doctors, whom they could hardly afford, signed the death certificate even before the light in Sukindar’s eyes grew dim. No chemo, no cure. She continued to scrub the pans and wash his dhotis, for this is what tradition stipulates. On a storming day, Ravider found her emaciated form huddled over the kitchen sink. How Sukindar loved her husband. How Sukindar loved her family.
“And just like that, she was gone,” Ravinder finished off in a semi-whisper.
I wish I could tell him how the cancer is spreading inside me too.
Eva Wong Nava is a British Art Historian based in a nation-state not far from the Equator. She holds an M.A. in Art History and writes about modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art because she feels that the region she calls home has plenty of good quality art to offer the world. When not writing about art, she writes Flash Fiction, always using visual art as prompts. Her story, ‘Rice’, inspired by installation artist Nicola Anthony’s series of works, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2018. Eva is also an award-winning author of children’s fiction and is currently represented by Penguin Random House Southeast Asia, with forthcoming titles launching soon. Find her work at CarpeArte Journal, a platform she founded to publish flash fiction, essays and poems.
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Image: Per Mosseby CC2.0