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Notes from a medical interpreter: An India-Pakistan reunion that never happened

Some reunions are not meant to be, at least not physically.

By Shahin Sebastian

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, two boys were born on either side of the not-yet demarcated border in the undivided India. One was born to a Muslim family in Amritsar, the other to a Hindu family in a village near Lahore.

The India-Pakistan Partition in 1947 saw their families crisscrossing, over a violent and bloodied line. Neither family ventured too deep into the mainland, one settling in Lahore and the other in Amritsar.

Despite not acquiring much education and working small jobs, both of them married and fathered 7 children each. Like many survivors of the horrendous tragedy, both men exhibited fortitude and diligence towards work and family.

Eventually, fate brought these men to the distant shores of the United States, and coincidentally both of them settled barely 10 miles from each other. Starting an American life from scratch, at a time, when one should have ideally retired, proved tough. Each worked multiple jobs, putting in endless hours, just to stay afloat.

Incidentally, I met them through work. Both were limited English proficient (LEP), one speaking only Urdu and the other only Punjabi. I helped as much as possible, connecting them to various social services, assisting in stitching together income with support, a $50 here, a $100 there to stay independently of their children.

Both lived in clean, manicured surroundings, water and electricity 24/7. Even at the age of mid 70s and early 80s, they were still working, with zero monetary obligations from their children. Both of them called me “daughter.” Only with these two, I helped after hours too, giving rides, running errands, exchanging holiday greetings and gifts…

Maybe I was compensating for not having my own parents here — reasoning maybe the Universe would send some similar folks to my aging parents, back home.

Many a time, I tried to get these two to meet. A sort of Indo-Pak reunion. But a set of four seniors meant, someone was either sick, travelling, working or absent. There were too many moving parts to this puzzle. Two years went by, I would update them about the other. They were happy to learn of each other’s progress, commiserating about each other’s ailments and issues.

One month ago one of them was diagnosed with cancer and two weeks ago he was gone. Just like that. The rushed days in the hospital, at the funeral, the ice-coldness of his wrist, then back at work, updating all departments, withdrawing applications, the widow emptying the house, donating all of her kitchen ware to the other senior’s house, is all a blur now.

Some saved voice messages from the senior, I forwarded to his grieving children. They met me as a long lost sister. We had heard of each other this past decade, never ever crossing paths. Such is life.

The reunion didn’t happen. One house has been deleted from my route. No more calls from the senior, warning me to drive carefully in the snow and ice. No more delicious bharwa baingan and masala gobhi in boxes for me. No photo of the smiling seniors, reliving their memories from a lost land. Some reunions are not meant to be, at least not physically.

Foot note: Montgomery County, MD, is one of the most diverse communities in the nation. Asian Americans account for some 13% of the residents. Approximately 74% of Asian Americans are foreign born and some 84% speak another language apart from English. 37% of Asian Americans speak English “less than well.” Contrary to the popular perception of Asian Americans being a “model minority,” some sections of the community are extremely underserved and vulnerable, including Seniors aged 65 and older, 11% of whom are living in extreme poverty. The Patient Navigator Program (PNP) of the Asian American Health Initiative of the DHHS Montgomery County, aims to provide linguistic and culturally appropriate services to improve equitable access to all county services.

(Shahin Sebastian has 20 years of medical interpreting and translating experience in Russian, Hindi and English. After hours, she also finds immense fulfillment in volunteering with the Asian Indians for Community Service, which aims to reduce health disparities among Asian Americans.)