My baba became a religious man late in life. It happened after he had unexpected visions of the child Guru Nanak; developed early onset diabetes and had an unplanned psychotic break that landed him in a straitjacket in his early 40s. In the aftermath, he befriended a Namdhari priest who would change his life. He stopped eating meat, abandoned alcohol, revised his Sikh teachings and started wearing all white. In exchange for ten percent of my grandfather’s annual income, the holy man gave him something indisputable: the direct word of God. He was the first to prophesy my baba’s untimely death. “You don’t have very much time to live,” he boldly predicted. “The diabetes will not let you live past sixty.”
The humbled priest returned on the banks of the Grand River, in Southern Ontario, with teary eyes to spread my grandfather’s ashes in the fall. It was seven years after he had predicted my baba would pass away. Holy men are full of empty promises. He assured my dad that the quiet spot along the river was perfect. “It is beautiful,” he said with conviction, “better than the polluted rivers in India.” My grandfather’s brothers stood wearily alongside. They had vied unsuccessfully for control over the ashes. They wanted to immerse my baba’s cremains in cleaner, holier water somewhere back home in Punjab. “It is illegal to put cremains in the river here anyway,” one of the younger brothers said in a threatening tone, “we have to take him back to India.” I have chalked it up to Brahmanical fears about crossing the black waters of the Indian ocean; fears that the migrant will not reincarnate when he is cut off from the regenerating waters of the Ganges; fears that my grandfather would never come back. But for my grandfather, water was water. And so we insisted on immersing his ashes in the Grand River so that he would be re-born not too far, somewhere down that winding river.
At the time, I was abstractly told that reincarnation is the belief that living beings return in different physical bodies and forms after biological death. Only recently have I realized how reincarnation functions practically as different type of reproduction. It is a mechanism that binds you to all living things, to overlapping ecologies. By compelling you to consider that death and re-birth are spatially bound together, it places responsibility for the surrounding worlds in your hands. The decision to immerse my grandfather’s ashes on Turtle Island – to facilitate his re-birth here – gives a new texture to the permanence of my family’s settlement on a land that has been stolen and brutalized. It compels me to re-calibrate my energies toward the world around me, to the deep time cycles of the Grand River.
The Grand River is now a broken, young man. His diabetic veins run thick with artificial sweeteners. Nestlé is harvesting his blood for Pure Life. The Authority has tied his tubes, again and again. Industrial agriculturalists have hooked up IV lines to his arms. The settler colonial state took full-custody long ago and discarded the adoption papers with haste. When a Canadian Research Chair found out that he was harbouring intersex children, the Research Team quickly aborted the infertile accidents. They covered up his femininity – those betraying qualities – with willful ignorance. Sometimes I fear that he is destined for a straitjacket and the word of God.
I have heard that the river is known by another name: O:se Kenhionhata:tie (Willow River). I don’t know much about that old river yet, but I sense her presence whenever I sit with her in silence. Mohawk scholar Deborah Doxtator assures us that the world never ends, that “nothing is lost or disappears,” even after the apocalypse arrives. It is only during the night, in the deadening silence that she opens up about what happened. It feels like at any moment, the Kaavan (crow) and Koel (cuckoo) from my beloved Punjabi folktales will finally look across the river and see the Beaver and Muskrat standing on the other side. Together they will fill in the details. They will instruct me in Kanien'kéha and in Punjabi and in Gayogo̱hó:nǫ and in English about the ways of rivers, about environmental health and justice and about the particularities of O:se Kenhionhata:tie; from its deep history and to its insurgent present. I only hope that I will understand all my broken family histories.
With a heavy heart, I have come to realize that the story of my baba’s life is utterly unremarkable. It is yet another account of the dreams, failures and ungrounded affirmations of a lost, broken man. But his prophetic death was a gift to me. It taught me the meaning of reincarnation and inadvertently bound me to that diabetic river. And now I prepare to dance for the monsoon, to prophesy the resurrection of O:se Kenhionhata:tie. My body whirrs to the tune of the advancing rains.
She will awaken when the next flood comes.
This essay was originally published as a part of Public Volumes, curated by Noa Bronstein at the Small Arms Inspection Building.