I come from a long line of storytellers. Both of my grandmothers were illiterate, but they exemplified a tradition of oral storytelling by sharing stories that were passed down to them through their mothers and grandmothers. However, what captured my imagination as a child was how they spun ordinary events into magical tales. An annoying pimple would become the reincarnation of a lonely soul, and the heavy rains would signal the wedding of a hundred orphans. With their stories, they filled in gaps that science and human knowledge could not fill.
By the time I was twelve, I had lived on three continents – Asia, Europe and America, and had learned four languages – German, Punjabi, Hindi, and English. Regardless of the challenges of adapting to different cultures, I loved learning new things and seeing new places. It made me very observant. Those were the years, I existed as ears and eyes, soaking up the world around me, and writing felt like my superpower. I believed through the right combination of words, I could hypnotize anyone into seeing the magic that I saw.
Years later, I’d learn that the right combination of words can also break your heart. Words like “terrorist” and “go back to your own country” that were tossed our way in the post 9/11 world. My Sikh-American community became targets of xenophobia. While I served in the Army, a man verbally attacked my mom believing she was Muslim. During this time, writing became a means by which to save our lives. I wrote with an urgency to claim our right to exist here. Words became the first line of defense in a brutal war against racist ideologies.
But my days of using language as blunt force ended when I deployed to Iraq, and was put in charge of my unit’s monthly newsletter. This zine was a window into our life in a combat zone. Our loved ones back home relied on it to ease their fears and anxieties. So I wrote stories about our resilience. Words I often used – Operation Iraqi Freedom, mission success, honor, bravery and courage. Words I never used – casualties, killed, suicide, homesick, lost, loneliness.
Life has been one surreal journey: I’ve lived in the east and in the west; I’ve seen war and experienced peace; I’ve been around wealth and heartbreaking poverty. The one thing I’ve discovered is that no matter who you are or what your lot in life, everyone needs a good story. And the right combination of words might just break down barriers and open up new possibilities inside the human heart.