Lessons from rites of passage

Sudhansu Mohanty

My mind often goes back to the evening I returned home after cremating my father. Before offering the mukhagni, I had stood Janus-faced, a part recalling my happy days with him, and the other, in a state of daze. I had made my way back in a stupor.

As I was readying to take the customary bath to mark the ritualistic cleansing, our plumber Karuna who lived in the outhouse arrived. ‘I feel orphaned, Babu was so loving and caring,’ he said, tears in eyes.

It is only when a person is not around, gone forever that we recall their nuanced approach to life and Karunakar was no exception. ‘Please come and repair the tap whenever you are able to find time,’ the plumber recalled, ‘and every time I went, not only would he force me to accept money for the work done, but also sweets too.’

We grew up when grace was the prevailing meme. With elders, it was never upfront: ‘Bapa, the lunch has been laid out’ or ‘Sir had asked me to remind him of the book’. For us children, all household help were bhai or mausa — never by their names would my parents call them. Courtesy prevailed in social and familial interactions.

This extended even to the deprived. Courtesy was a given, never mind. The famine of 1967-68 threw up serial beggars. At home, it was usual to keep a few kilos of rice and dal aside for them. I recall an incident at Burla in western Orissa. The gate was far off from our house and a shrunken mendicant had trooped in, his rickety two-year-old child in arm.

Father saw him and sensed they needed more than just a morsel of rice and dal. A doctor, he realised they were malnourished and needed care. He asked our driver to put the car in the portico and made them occupy our garage. The duo was fed and put on treatment for a few weeks. They left after being restored to well-being.

The car braving the blazing sun in the portico, I advised father it would lose its sheen, after our driver’s prompting. A beatific smile gracing his face, he told me about the import of our social responsibility to look after the indigent. I was chastened. My ear to the ground now, I hear him say, ‘Patients are God’s children on a worldly visit.’

We had a farmhouse close to Cuttack. I often accompanied him. It would be a long day in the sun, rain and humid conditions. By evening, I longed to get back home. But he was far from done. He still had his most important assignment — examining gratis the group of poor tribals huddled around him — minutely, patiently, in the light of a flickering kerosene lamp, and distributing the medicines he carried with him, for free.

More than formal education, this has been the profoundest learning of life. Sadly, this samskara is seldom seen today.

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Books, like humans, age too

Jaspreet Singh

For God’s sake and for your benefit, please don’t tear pages’ and ‘Please don’t tear the pages, God is watching your deeds’. I found these messages scribbled on books at the Panjab University library. My joy knew no bounds when I found books that could help me in my assignment, but it was short-lived. As I went through old books, I was taken aback seeing their condition.

Another message caught my attention, ‘A book is a living thing, like a human being. It has a body, style and soul. Disfiguring a book is like disfiguring a body.’ Did anybody read this message? I think not. Books are companions on our journey through life and age with us. Some people keep their books close to their heart. I have a rare collection securely kept in my book rack. Every book has memories attached to it. Some were given on prize distribution functions. Some were given by spiritual masters. As people age, the pages of books also turn yellow, while some poor-quality paper is ruined by termite.

People don’t know how to read books in a library. They leave markers, which look like scars on a body. The ravages of time spare none. What will happen to my books? The question often comes to my mind. The priceless books, written by timeless authors, cannot brave natural and man-made atrocities. Their shelf life decreases, the sheen diminishes. Wrinkled pages, blended edges and faded ink are signs of decaying books. Humans go through similar changes — wrinkled face, grey hair, memory loss, weak vision and ill health. Old books, like aged humans, have a worth that can’t be measured in monetary or other forms. We need to preserve their teachings, because only teachings can be immemorial, and can be passed on from one generation to next.

You might have read a book again and again, and each time you must have found something diverse and varied to ponder upon. This is the power of books, they push you to go beyond what is, and persuade you to think. Some old books contain chits and paper notes that bring back memories. The date of publishing, the number of times it was issued and the number of times it was printed, tell us about its history. The history of the book adds to its biography. People were perhaps reading the same book when you were not even born. Thinking about this makes me feel good — this is real knowledge that our forefathers have gained, and we are getting the same information.

It is our responsibility to pass on the knowledge in the form of these wonderful books in libraries. Share photocopied versions with avid readers and value them. These books are treasure troves, sometimes donated by learned men and women who left their wisdom and kindness in the form of these books. I am sad to witness the torn pages, but am happy to read the messages of safekeeping. We can delay the ageing process of books and humans, only if timely care is taken, and if duties and responsibilities are remembered.

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A debt of Rs 50 remains unpaid

JBS Nanda

The tale of my alma mater, Government College, Ludhiana, in which I studied from 1960-66, remains incomplete if I do not touch upon the splendid personality of my canteen contractor, popularly called ‘Santa Singh canteenwala’. The canteen was the only place in the adjoining area, known for its delicious sweets, which fulfilled mainly the needs of the students and employees. Moreover, refreshments for the NCC cadets was served from the canteen. For most people residing in the Civil Lines area, it remained the place of choice for relishing the sweets.

I was a shy, unassuming and ordinary student. I would cherish visiting the canteen for its delicious rasgulla, rasmalai, samosa, barfi, jalebi, etc. Burger, pizza, hot dogs, noodles etc, were unheard of at that time.

Santa Singh was tall, well-built and well-dressed, always donning a salwar-kameez in the West Punjab style and a white turban. He was firm in his conversation but soft in his dealings. He spoke Multani and was ever eager to help his workers in any crisis.

He belonged to that generation which had sad memories of Pakistan. It was said he had lost his young son in the riots. After the Partition, Government College, Lahore, shifted to Ludhiana. Santa Singh, the canteen contractor in Lahore, shifted too. He would become emotional whenever he spoke about Lahore and the students of the college, including Khushwant Singh, actor Balraj Sahni and the brothers — Chetan Anand and Dev Anand — who made a name for themselves in the film world.

At that time, Government College was known for its literary and artistic activities. The memories of Sahir Ludhianvi, an alumnus of the college, who was later expelled, were fresh in the minds of the people associated with the college. Participants in seminars, debates and youth festivals would assemble in the canteen after the function. Santa Singh would also join in, if he found that the poets gathered there were well-versed in Urdu.

There was a rule then — in order to get the roll number for the university exams, it was necessary to get a clearance from Santa Singh. When I approached him, he refused to accept the amount of Rs 50 in spite of my insistence. He hugged me, saying, ‘You are just like my son. You are leaving the college. When you return as a lecturer, pay me the amount.’

After many years, I got a government job as a lecturer, and subsequently, was transferred to my alma mater. After signing the joining report, I virtually ran to the canteen to meet him, have a cup of tea and pay the Rs 50 I owed him. I was wonder-struck — the whole structure had changed. On enquiring, the new contractor told me that he had died a few years ago in an accident.

My eyes welled up. I could not stand a minute longer. Without tea, I returned home, the debt I owed him, now a lifelong treasure.

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Gandhi and the final trigger

Harbhajan Singh

Why was Mahatma Gandhi, who propagated ahimsa, responsible for India attaining Independence, and revered by most Indians and the world, assassinated?

Punjab and Bengal, two Muslim-majority provinces with sizeable Hindu and Sikh population, were bifurcated on the eve of our Independence. Punjab had 44%-47% non-Muslim minorities. The pre- and post-Independence violence was so vicious that it amounted to ‘ethnic cleansing’. According to Sir Evan Jenkins, the last British Governor of Punjab, some 5,000 fatalities had taken place till August 4, 1947, in the state. From August 15 to December 31, 1947, those figures shot up between 5 lakh and 8 lakh.

As per a study by Ishtiaq Ahmed, titled, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, in March 1947, Muslims started large-scale violence, mainly against Sikhs, but also against Hindus, in the Muslim-majority districts of northern Punjab (Jhelum, Rawalpindi, etc). Yet at the end of that year, more Muslims had been killed in East Punjab than Hindus and Sikhs together in West Punjab. I was 15 years old, living in Lahore, when the Partition took place. My father, a gazetted officer in undivided Punjab, opted to stay on in Pakistan as our lands were in the area likely to be awarded to Pakistan. He was posted to Mianwali towards the end of July 1947. When he realised that living in Pakistan Punjab would be unwise, based on atrocities being committed on Hindus and Sikhs, he changed his mind. When horror stories of inhuman atrocities came to be known, these were retaliated in kind in East Punjab. People on both sides went berserk. Thousands of Hindus and Sikhs became refugees, lost everything and reached Delhi. Communal riots started there too.

Gandhi could not bear these happenings and went on a fast. He made speeches during his daily prayer meetings against the riots and killings. However, he seemed more critical of Hindus, especially Sikhs, than Muslims. Even as a child, I clearly remember this aspect. This created resentment among a section of the non-Muslim population.

My father was in the civil supplies department and posted at Ferozepur. He had to ensure that adequate foodgrains were made available to refugee camps in which Hindus and Sikhs had taken shelter, and Muslims awaiting evacuation to Pakistan were accommodated. He was provided a duly requisitioned bus of the Malwa Bus Service. (This service used to run buses to Lahore from Ferozepur and nearby towns every day before Partition.)

On January 30, 1948, he took me along while visiting Muktsar. As we alighted from the bus, his assistant posted there told him that ‘Mahatmaji had been killed’.

Our first thought was that hopefully, the assassin was not a Sikh. We were relieved to know that he was not.

While many studies have been undertaken and books written on Gandhi’s assassination — and the RSS blamed — the fact mentioned above may have been the final trigger.

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The jogger with the flute

Arvinder Kaur

I had been wondering where he lived till one day I saw him jogging towards the garden as I waited for the signal to turn green. Yes, he comes from the same area where I live. While I drive to the Fragrance Garden, he comes running along the pavement. Once in the garden, he goes on steadily jogging, his breath almost loud as he crosses. Though he does not talk to anyone, people seem to know him because he is almost a regular feature for the evening walkers.

His energy levels are exceptional, his voice louder and his speech a little incoherent for he often seems to be saying something to the breeze. Young girls and children who are new to the park get scared when he grunts and growls but soon they realise that he is harmless and go about their games. Too tall and grown up for them, he often watches them wistfully and then looks towards the setting sun. As if suddenly reminded of the chore at hand, he begins his jog all over again.

He seems to be listening while children ask their mothers about him. ‘Mama, why does he make such scary noises?’ ‘Why doesn’t he talk?’ ‘How come he can run so much and we get tired soon?’ ‘Why does he wear the same T-shirt every day?’ He listens and smiles to himself but does not volunteer to solve the riddle for them and goes on with his routine.

He never disturbs anyone but makes loud noises as if he is calling out to someone who has not heard him till now. And then, suddenly relaxed, he abandons himself to the breeze, though still audibly inhaling and exhaling. On some days, he brings a flute along which he keeps on a branch on the frangipani tree. As dusk gathers, he starts playing the flute. A lilting tune begins to fill the grey dusk, mesmerising everyone. The children, who were scared of him a while ago, stand around him, captivated. When he plays a melody of yesteryear, seniors marvel at his skill, some of them looking towards their ageing companions and smiling. On the days he does not get his flute, he just whistles and suddenly the place begins to overflow with the melodies of a Dev Anand or Raj Kapoor film.

And then for many days the flute was not heard. On enquiry, we came to know that the melodious whistle fell silent when a speeding car hit him as he was jogging along the road. The track where he ran in the garden each day has a winding path that his footsteps had made. The place where he stood each day is bald of grass. The gardeners are waiting for it to grow back in the coming monsoon. Only the dusk is silent and the sunsets are paler for the one who had a silent conversation with them does not come anymore. The gusts of the breeze, too, waft past as if looking for someone. His flute that he forgot to take home on the last day still rests on the frangipani, awaiting its owner and the touch of those lips that are now cold.

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A motorcycle for mom

Simran Sidhu

I was introduced to the word ‘dowry’ even before I could spell it. I think it was one of the first few words I learnt, not at school, but at home. I knew that this five-letter word was the reason why my parents quarrelled, why my granny refused to give milk to my mother, why mom washed clothes in winter with ice-cold water, and why she often sobbed silently in the bathroom. But a four-year-old me didn’t know what the fuss about dowry was.

One day, I sneaked inside the bathroom, sat beside my crying mom and asked her, ‘What’s dowry?’ She whispered, ‘Dowry means things like furniture, a motorcycle etc.’ Hearing that, I got up, took her hand in mine and said, ‘Mom, come let’s go and bring a motorcycle.’ She told me that we couldn’t do it because she didn’t have money to buy one.

Later that year, when my schoolteacher asked me what my aim in life was, I told her that I wanted to buy a motorcycle for my mom. She smiled. And my classmates laughed. I quietly stood there, amidst the peals of laughter, thinking that if a motorcycle could solve my mother’s problem, I’ll surely buy one for her when I got older.

Meanwhile, without a motorcycle, my mom’s life continued to be the same, full of tears and scolding. As the bitterness grew, my grandparents moved out of our shared house to live with their new daughter-in-law who had brought dowry. I felt thankful that at least dad had stayed back with us. But soon I realised that although he was here, his heart had moved out along with his parents.

Thirteen years later, when mom had saved money by teaching tirelessly, she bought furniture — a sofa set and a dining table. I looked at her as she tied sacred red threads to the feet of the sofa with tears in eyes. She explained, ‘This is my dowry.’ But even furniture couldn’t make our home my grandparents’ too. Suddenly, I remembered the motorcycle. Well, it was still missing from my mom’s dowry. Maybe they would love us after she bought a motorcycle too. After some more years of tireless teaching, instead of a motorcycle, she managed to buy a car on loan. But even a car couldn’t make my grandparents and my dad love us.

I still remember those unshed tears in mom’s eyes waiting to fall down on that bathroom floor. I remember the years my mom and I spent struggling to be good enough, to gain the affection of my grandparents and dad. But somewhere in this tearful journey of life, mom and I realised that our love for each other was enough.

But I still wait for the beautiful distant day, when a little girl won’t have to ask her mother sitting on the cold floor of a bathroom, ‘What’s dowry?’ And her first aim in life won’t be to buy a motorcycle, for her mom.

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Celebrate with 550 hospitals, schools

Gursharan Singh

I live in Ludhiana, and on many occasions have visited the Christian Medical College & Hospital (CMC&H) for treatment of self or attending to a relative or friend. One thought always comes to mind, what made Edith Mary Brown come here and alleviate the miseries of people by establishing a hospital — over 125 years ago! CMC&H has remained a premier medical institution, not only in Punjab, but also the entire North. No doctor is allowed private practice, and only the committed ones serve the institution.

Though there has been a landmark progress in the development of infrastructure, in the form of buildings and equipment, not a single brick was added to the church building, which continues to serve the purpose well.

As we celebrate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, immaculate planning and arrangements are being made for nagar kirtan, langar, shabad kirtan, etc. Quintals of flowers will be used during various ceremonies, apart from impressive decorations involving huge expenditure. All political parties, and also religious bodies, are set to take credit for various events, including the opening of the Kartarpur corridor. There is nothing wrong in doing so, but somewhere we seem to have forgotten the real message of the Guru.

Guru Nanak preached simplicity and laid emphasis on observing honesty in whatever one does. He was not in favour of any ostentatious show. He worked for the poor and underprivileged. He was all for education, which he thought would help one to be of some use to others (vidya veechari tan parupkari). Can our leaders, both political and religious, think of doing something more meaningful for humankind? Can we think of opening 550 hospitals, 550 schools and colleges, and an equal number of de-addiction centres to save our youth and guide them to live a purposeful life? Akal Takht is the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs, and any verdict issued from there is binding on the Sikh community. It should issue certain diktats to take society out of perennial social evils.

Punjabis, including Sikhs, are known to organise lavish parties on weddings, where liquor flows like water and non-vegetarian food is served. It has become a status symbol. There are some who can afford this lavish and avoidable expenditure; many more are compelled to do it under pressure, as a face-saving exercise. It is not uncommon that sometimes they may have to part with a precious piece of agricultural land or take substantial loans. Subsequently, this financial burden emerges as a major reason for farm suicides.

A message from Akal Takht to ban lavish parties, serving of liquor and non-vegetarian food, and to restrict the number of baratis to, say, 20, may save many lives. Will it not be the best way to celebrate the Guru’s birth anniversary?

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