The music was right and the time to dance had come upon the men. All 14 of them and me– well-bearded men in nondescript black street jackets, turbans and dark eyes.
Like the English, London house-fronts stake a claim to privacy but belie it by their shared walls within. One way or another, we the neighbours were going to celebrate Rajan’s 21st birthday.
Nearly everything was in Punjabi EXCEPT the dancing. After they pumped enough rum, they cranked up the bhangra and rose to cram themselves into a 6 x 10 foot section of floor. Leave the long table in place, curry still potted on the gas burner at the end, neglect the rest of the narrow 27-foot room that Asher had specially rebuilt in his garage– a partially finished, decorous but decidedly undecorated, community hall in honour of his son.
My American brain groped to colonize reality– they could have cleared more space. They dragged me in, beckoned me, not one man, many. They grabbed my arm, not one man, two, and smiled. No choice—we were in it together.
When they were distracted by their own spinning, corporate roar, I’d escape for a minute, go off and watch the younger guys shooting pool at the back end, but they would come for me and pull me to the front. Once, I dragged my barely teenage son along to dance– proud of him as a dancer, another cherished son who would become a man by his own rites of passage. Mostly I was using him as a buffer and a witness, and he retreated after his insta-dance moment.
15 men raise their arms, intermittently hold hands and then pass around a gingerale-coloured liquid in a pitcher. They dance, pouring it down each other’s throats— not mine, I resisted. The one who spent a year in San Francisco liked me, almost too much it seemed. Was he allured by our American commonalties, nearly none? Was he regressing to memories of his times at the Shell pump? Was mine the congeniality he afforded a good customer? Just trying to make me feel a part of it all? Mid-dance, I was unsure.
I thought Vetu was going to pass out. Jat builders-by-day they had hoisted Rajan onto Vetu’s shoulders. Like a piece of cornice, awkwardly, proudly, he was the proud work of their common hands. Vetu started whirling him around up near the fluorescent light. Rajan, tall and shy, had to lean forward and duck to avoid the ceiling. Vetu’s face got red and he blinked as if he couldn’t see. He was huffing and puffing, still dancing. Rajan, the good son, made the best of this, tolerating it, his hands raised and slowly bouncing to the music, balancing on unsteady, but bulky Uncle Vetu. By tradition, the honoured son, at 21, was elevated by the village men– just east of my America, just west of their Punjab, in our near-Heathrow, English-surfaced neighbourhood.
A few minutes later Vetu put Rajan down, dangling that lanky cornice stone from a crane (himself) that inadvertently jerked once. It was steadied and repositioned on the earth by the local hard hats.
In an instant Vetu regained his dancing legs and focused on me. We were in tandem doing some boogaloo-style move. I was no dancer and yet for a moment I was a dancer, on a parallel track with Vetu. We were Blues Brothers from North India, mirrors of a Bruno Mars from days gone by, twin Travoltas, one from Jalandhar the other from Philly, cruising in the same hot car along the Thames, windows down in the damp night air, blaring Punjabi reggae– the beat becoming rays in our minds, shooting out loose and jagged in our hands and feet.
It is a Punjabi custom, all this joy. I had been adjacent to it for four years, but this was immersion.
Twenty minutes after Vetu, I was eye-to-eye and motion-to-motion with the pink turban. He had nice eyes, dark, questioning, inviting the dance. Context, not caste, had thrown us together and he would make the best of it. Ours was a soft, intense duel, sparring towards singular twined-cord strength.
It was a close atmosphere.
I worried that I was not being a responsible dancer, and that they loved me more than I loved them. They were trying to get me drunk. I was trying to be culturally appropriate and finish the course. If I could just get my timing down to shout, yell at the right time, when the music rolled to the crescendo, in unison with them—“Hey!” or “Chak de phatte!” (pick up the floorboards).
Men of all sizes, vertical and moving—
On the perimeter was my neighbour’s big buddy from the village, “Mohai near Ludhiana, spelling is m–o–h–a–i.”
Kuldip, 25, bouncing loose and erratic, “our cousin” who had come to live with the family– tall, strong, competent, illegal, always helpful and friendly on damp London mornings, drunk on Saturday nights.
The 30-something I had seen around, always driving a large, late model vehicle: angular, bronzed, gelled, westernized in gesture, speech and dress, tonight moving like a 55-year-old white belt at an American wedding.
The 60ish soap actor from Hounslow and sometimes Bombay: “I can’t be the hero anymore. Usually they cast me as the detective or the uncle.”
Neighbour Asher stops and hugs me a second time this evening. Shouting over the din he tells me, both times same thing, that he is so happy because my wife has recently cared for his wife while he was in India: “Yeh, she did really, really good.” And then, emotional, overwhelmed by the moment, the music, his son’s ascension, his man eyes to my man eyes, certain of agreement . . . “He’s a good boy.”
His arm around me, he displayed me to his friends. It was display not words, solidarity not neighbourliness– not solidarity of purpose, but the camaraderie from an intimate crossing into a culture.
And for me– I was a man with these men.