Written by Nandini Sethi
On a hot summer’s day, in the middle of spring, I sat freezing in the backseat of my father’s car. The air conditioning made the temperature inside almost glacial, and I didn’t know what day, month, or season it was anymore. All I knew was that we had been on the road for far too long, and my back was starting to click.
Roadtrips were not necessarily ‘my thing,’ but we were on a journey with “scenic routes”, so I did my best to stretch my legs in the cramped space and enjoy the views of the barren land outside.
The music playing on the stereo system was getting monotonous, the drive was getting bumpier, and the views were of nothing but state-of-the-art highways that basically encompassed monotonous, endless roads. Safe to say, I was bored out of my mind.
My eyes were drooping, and I felt myself slowly succumbing to sleep when a sudden jolt snapped me out of my drooling reverie; my father had taken a sharp left, a divergence from the main highway. Confused, I raised my voice, “are you sure this is the way?” The map clearly indicated so, so neither of us questioned it further.
Ten minutes later, it became clear that this wasn’t the route we were supposed to take; instead of modern roads, we were on a broken-down path, surrounded by local markets and bungalows on either side. The path was teeming with life, dotted with the imperfections of humanity – chaos, laughter, disorder, and there was nothing more I craved more at that moment.
To break the cluster of city life came large fields overflowing with sunflowers in bloom, lush grass is pristine green; the momentum of the fields, once again, interrupted by the disarray of people and town life. It was only then, in that car, absorbing the idiosyncrasies of the countryside did it hit me – I was in Punjab. The land of my ancestors. Unbeknownst to me which little town I was in and what narrow road we were driving through, I basked in the glory of my land for the first time.
But my thoughts, my trance, was interrupted by a loud knock on the window. Facing eye-to-eye with a stranger in a turban, I flinched at his expressionless demeanor. Out of nowhere, he broke into the warmest smile I had ever seen and asked to bring down the car’s window.
“Good morning! Here you are,” he said, handing me the tallest glass I had ever seen. Still a little flabbergasted, I took a peek into the contents of the container to get a whiff of one of my favorite drinks – sugarcane juice. Freshly squeezed and served chilled.
There was a language barrier, so I couldn’t completely comprehend what he was saying to me. Whatever way I could manage, I asked him why he was serving us like this in the middle of the road. But all I gathered from his explanation were the words hot, serve, please.
Thanking him profusely for the drink, my father and I continued along our journey, still in awe at this route we had come across, beauty in every scenery.
Once again, a tall turbaned man with a proud mustache came to stand in the middle of the road, carrying a tray full of sugarcane juice, backed by a whole army of men and women. Looking to the side, I saw an entire tent buzzing with life and music; people from the community were working the machine to pump out as much juice from the sugarcane as possible. I was mesmerized but still a little confused.
We refused the drink, but they wouldn’t budge. They demanded we at least have a sip before they would clear the roads. Maybe it was the kindness in his expression or the sternness in his voice, but we obliged.
Every two kilometers, we were being stopped and served the widest assortment of local delicacies – from rasmalai to thandai, lassi to kheer. It was at one of these pit stops that we learned that this event is known as the ‘Chabeel’ in Punjab, an act of community service where all the people in a village gather to provide drivers and pedestrians with refreshments and coolants on a sweltering day.
To say we were awe-struck would be an understatement. It was a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon, and instead of staying cooped up in their homes, the locals were out at midday to help and serve others on an unforgiving morning such as this.
Once we reached our hotel, complete with luxury embellishments and top-end facilities, I craved the imperfect taste of the kheer on the road, wondering what the Patiala-clad men and women must be doing at that point. It was fascinating to think that there were so many little customs out there, unique to every district, every tribe in the country, and we aren’t even aware of these traditions.
Isn’t it sad to think that there is so much of the world to cover, so much life to live, that even 80 years of our existence couldn’t cover it?
Isn’t it inspiring to think that there is so much out there to be done; we just have to get out there and do it?
The thought of endless possibilities frightens and excites me at the same time. Over a posh dinner somewhere in Chandigarh, my father and I didn’t need to exchange words to know what we were both thinking – we needed to hurry up!
The rest of the whole world was waiting for us.
(Picture credits: Pexels)