BY KATHRYN MYRA SPENCER (MARSDEN)
MY Book “PALDI: Two Cultures, One Heart”, was inspired by a small village called Paldi, situated several miles from Lake Cowichan, Vancouver Island, BC, where I grew up. A mill was built there by Mayo Singh Manhas in the early 20th century, and as workers immigrated to Canada from India, China and Japan a settlement was established. It is probably Canada’s earliest example of several ethnic groups living and working together harmoniously as one large family. Cultural differences enriched the village, giving it a unique blend of traditions, food and language. It was home to all, but as time passed, the mill closed, and nearly all the families moved away.
When I was a young child, however, it was a thriving village of about 1,000 inhabitants. I was often taken to Paldi by my father for a Sunday drive, and I was mesmerized by the old wooden houses, the general store and the sight of women in colourful Punjabi suits and men wearing turbans. Scents of exotic spices wafted from open doors, and I felt as though I’d entered a magical world, unlike anything I’d experienced previously.
The elementary school in Paldi only went up to grade five, and then the children were bussed to my school in Lake Cowichan. Every class had its share of Paldi kids, and I was fascinated by the clothing, accents and quiet demureness of the girls with their long braided hair. I became close friends with two of the girls, and when I was about 15, I attended the wedding of young Sikh woman who was a friend of my family. It was an enchanting ceremony in the Gurdwara, and later a sumptuous meal served outside, where we sat on the grass under a sunny sky.
AS a young adult I travelled to India for the first time as a spiritual seeker, and have made many trips since. During my career as a clinical counselor I worked in Surrey, BC, where there is a large South Asian population. Many of my colleagues and co-workers had Indian roots, and I came to learn about their culture, their struggles and their warm and closely-knit community. I felt privileged to work among people whom I found to be so welcoming to me, and who often invited me to their celebrations and weddings. Although I was an outsider looking in, I confess that I had a passion for India and things India.
One day in 2007, I found out that there was another village named Paldi, in Punjab, India, and that the two were directly linked. Mayo Singh Manhas and a friend Nagina Singh, were the first two inhabitants of Paldi, India, to emigrate to North America. After some years in the USA, Mayo Singh started his mill on Vancouver Island, and the village grew around it. Originally it was simply called “Mayo”, but in 1936 it was changed to “Paldi” in honour of Mayo’s Singh’s home village.
When I learned of this connection between the two Paldis, I felt tingles rush up my spine, and suddenly my mind was flooded with ideas. Over the next 1 ½ years these ideas were woven together to create PALDI: Two Cultures, One Heart.
A considerable part of the story occurs in Paldi, Punjab, and it was a great challenge to get any information about the village. In early 2007 there was almost nothing on the internet. All that I could find was a two-line entry about a Paldi in Gujarat; I couldn’t even locate it on a map. I decided to see if any of the Mayo family still lived in the Duncan area, and was delighted to find that Rajindi (son of Mayo Singh) and his wife Joan still lived in their home outside the remains of the village. Joan, Rajindi and their son Robin were immensely helpful and, as Robin and his wife had recently visited Paldi, Punjab, I was able to see a few photos of the village. I tried as best I could to memorize what I saw, and to create from them the setting for the India part of my book.
I had sought permission from a Punjabi author to use one of her poems, and we had started up a correspondence. Nirupama invited me to speak at the Chandigarh Press Club in 2010, and again in 2012 to speak at Dikshant International School. This second time she took me on one of the most thrilling adventures of my life, to the village of Paldi, Hoshiarpur District, Punjab. It was a long drive, and after a couple of hours the highway narrowed to a small road that ran through countryside and small villages. From time to time, Niru would say, “it should be about 20 minutes now” and then 10 minutes, then 5 … and suddenly I saw the striking pink entrance gate with its sky blue words “Nagina Singh, Mayo Singh Memorial Gate, Paldi.” My heart seemed to expand, and just as we were about to enter, I said “Please, let me get out of the car, I must walk into the village”.
It was a moment of great joy, wonder, and reverence for me, to finally see this village that I had written about, virtually from my imagination, for so many months. As I stepped onto the narrow dirt road, an elderly gentleman on a bicycle passed me, and soon I was gazing, wonder-struck, at beautiful ancient buildings made of brick and mortar, some well kept, a few almost in ruins. There was colour everywhere, rich and deep, and there were finely crafted arches, domes, balconies and courtyards. My eyes kept being drawn upwards to decorative panels: stylized floral motifs, abstract designs, and some exquisite scenes of Guru Nanak Dev Ji sitting with his disciples.
The driver parked the car, and he and Niru joined me in a walk through the streets of this peaceful, timeless place. We walked past wooden doors and shutters painted in glorious blue, an old wagon with wooden spoked wheels, a faded yellow house that was slowly crumbling into the surrounding shrubs, trees and soil. There were also modern buildings in the Punjabi Baroque style, but I was not so interested in them. Around a corner we saw two tiny general stores, one with a couple of boys at the counter, buying sweets. As I was absorbing every detail surrounding me, Niru was asking how to find the home of Mayo Singh.
THE gate from the street opened up into a large courtyard with a guava tree in the centre. The home bordered three sides of the courtyard, each very different. On one, a very steep narrow staircase led to an upper level, another was lined with arches on the ground floor, and an enclosed balcony above. A row of wooden doors and shuttered window, each different, but all painted the same vivid blue, was recessed from the outer wall. Nearby was a charpoy, upon which Niru invited me to recline! Up on the roof some boys flew kites, and a little flock of birds chirped from the guava tree; otherwise there was absolute peace. In many ways this seemed like a homecoming to me – so familiar, and yet I’d never seen it before.
As we walked back to the entrance, there were several enchanting occurrences, little happenings that seemed to have been staged just for us.
High up on a rooftop a massive monkey appeared, leapt onto a brick wall below, swung along it, disappearing over a ledge. She was followed by a tiny frolicking baby. I was fortunate to be able to catch it all with my camera. Next we heard a bell ring, and a rush of uniformed children burst out from a gate, which we realized was the school. They were followed by their teacher, and we congregated together for a few moments. Prior to this we’d seen almost no one, and suddenly the village came alive. As we were saying goodbye to the teacher, someone approached us, and introduced an elderly lady to Niru. She was a relative of Mayo Singh, and lived half the year in Paldi, the other half in Vancouver.
Every sight, every sound, and every encounter that I had in Paldi seemed to be suffused with love, light and beauty. As we exited through the memorial gate, I noticed an inscription on the back, which spoke deeply to my heart. It was Mayo Singh’s message to his village and to the world: “Love Mankind.”
PALDI: Two Cultures, One Heart is available in print format at Createspace.com and Amazon.com. An e-book version is available at Amazon in most countries.
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