Seventeen Coffees To Go: T. SHER SINGH
Friday, October 5, 2012
This story goes back a quarter of a century.
It was a mid-winter evening and we had gathered, for the seventh time on this eight-week/ once a week course for our 7 to 10 pm class.
Hew McLeod was in town and had graciously agreed to conduct this course at the University of Toronto. Over 55 of us - a good mix of Sikhs and non-Sikhs - had signed up to learn more about the Sikh Faith from the scholar from New Zealand.
The world outside felt - literally - like the inside of a freezer. Therefore, understandably, only about half of those enrolled were present on this particular night. Who in his sane mind would venture into the bone-chilling air on such a night? ... except, of course, for the keeners.
But nothing would have kept me away. Neither a storm nor a blizzard. Not even an earthquake.
Much as I enjoyed Prof. McLeod's insights and the intense debates many of us had with him during the classes, I was a bit distracted from time to time. And it wasn't his fault.
In the very first week, my attention had been riveted by a woman at the other end of the room. Serene. Cascading hair. An intelligent face. Attractive. Eyes alive and attentive. Comfortable and relaxed. Oblivious of the rest of the class.
She quietly slipped away into the night after the class was over, without saying a word to anyone.
The following week I found her presence all the more distracting. Her hair was up in a bun this time, and I often found myself staring at the nape of her neck from across half-a-dozen desks. I knew I was mesmerized by the sight of her, and had to force my attention away every few moments, so that I could keep track of the lecture.
The professor had suggested we keep to our usual seats for the duration of the course, so that he could learn to match names with faces. So here I was, with miles separating us, and yet unable to unglue myself from the sight of her.
She spoke out in class a few times in the next few weeks. Already smitten, I fell in love with her voice. But she spoke to nobody other than the professor. No one seemed to know her. She came and she went alone.
Never a ladies' man, I was too shy to cross the room and talk to her during a break. She seemed aloof. I didn't know what I would say. And there was no one I could see who could somehow make an introduction - remember, I was brought up in the British education system and I still carried the weight of formality with me.
So I fretted over it for weeks. From week to week.
The second-last week came along. Here I was, knowing no more about her. An introvert that I was, I remained frozen and incapable of cracking the impasse. Another class, I soon realized, and she'd be gone and I'd be left thinking of her forever, without a clue.
I simply had to do something. As the minutes ticked away towards the coffee break, I feverishly conceived a plan. For one who was shy as I was, it was loaded with minefields. But knowing that it had to be now or never, I forged ahead with newfound fervour. I simply had to talk to her.
The moment the 15-minute break was declared, I popped up and announced to the class that coffee and tea would be brought in for everybody. On the house. Who wanted some?
I picked up a sheet of paper and a pen and went from person to person, jotting down "Coffee or tea?" "Black, cream or milk?" "And your name?"
As soon as I got hers, I bounded out of the class as nimble-footed as a teenager. Left a few people behind wondering why I had missed their orders.
As I hit the cold wave outside, I confronted a new problem. Smack in the middle of a campus, where do you find a coffee shop? [Those were the primitively spartan days before Canadians discovered the brilliant idea of sprouting a coffee and donut shop on every corner of every street of every village, town and city in the country!]
I hailed a passing cab and was saved by his expert knowledge of the city. He flew me to an oasis of coffee and donuts, and patiently waited outside.
I emerged aeons later, a razzled and racked wreck. "On the house, eh? Mr. Singh?" I muttered to myself. I barely managed to scrape together enough bills and coins from my wallet, and enough for the cabbie to spare.
And, believe me, it is not easy grappling with seventeen permutations and combinations of coffee, tea, milk, cream and sugar. There and then, I could have argued a convincing case against individuality!
But I was a happy soul, as the cab transported me back to the classroom.
I delivered her her tea. She smiled. I remember nothing else.
We exchanged a few words, then and in the next class.
She left during the break, and did not return.
That's it. Gone!
But it didn't matter. I knew who she was, and she me. She remained in my thoughts every day for a year and more.
I tried hard, far and wide, to track her down. Even had a few friends try and scout around to find out more about her. I thought I was being discreet by using convoluted excuses, but they simply rolled their eyes as I would turn away, convinced - I'm sure - that I'd lost a few marbles.
No luck, though.
And then, one summer day, I walked into a restaurant for lunch. And there she was at a corner table, all by herself.
We had lunch together. Exchanged numbers. Got together the next day. And the next. And the next ...
And all my dreams came true.
Re-published on October 5, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Harinder (Bangalore, India), February 14, 2010, 1:06 PM.
Dear Sher: Bold men who really love get what they want. They don't pine for it.
2: Parmjit Singh (Canada), February 14, 2010, 1:10 PM.
Younger diaspora Sikhs take great pride in their current successes. However we don't value enough those who put the pillars in place long ago with their Sikh identity and humble existences. Their daily struggle and courage is largely an untold story. I wish more diaspora Sikhs would share simple stories of decades past. Simple, beautiful, honest and courageous existences - the story always comes from the heart. Thank you for sharing!
3: Bal Singh (London, United Kingdom), February 14, 2010, 3:10 PM.
They call that stalking, in this neck of the woods ... Just kidding.
4: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), February 15, 2010, 4:58 PM.
Love the story. Playful, joyful, soulful ... moments like these make life a wonderful thing. Imagine being without memories that bring a smile to a drab day! Thank you for sharing.
5: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), February 18, 2010, 10:04 PM.
Beautiful. Brought back memories of my own - and I thought I was the only crazy one!
6: Roma Rajpal (U.S.A.), February 19, 2010, 12:31 AM.
Wow! What a beautiful story! So touching and so very romantic! Love it! Things do change and life goes on, but, I wonder, do you have any regrets, do you miss her, and do you wish you were still together?
7: T.Sher Singh (Guelph, Ontario, Canada), February 19, 2010, 9:03 AM.
Dear Roma ji: I'm glad you liked the piece. Being in love is a blessing and a gift, and I have had more than my fair share of blessings in my life, albeit undeservedly. How could I have regrets? Invariably, pain, heartbreak and personal failures accompany such highs, but they do not take anything away from the joy. I am once again blessed with such a gift and could not ask for more.
8: Ravinder Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), February 19, 2010, 9:50 AM.
Sher ji: I find that one has to be a little "crazy" but "alive" to fall in love, to submit fully to another person. The capacity to have such a feeling is indeed a blessing. Here is an anecdote from the life of Ramana Mahrishi that I heard, true or not, I don't know, but I found it beautiful. Ramana Maharishi was once approached by an acolyte who wanted the secret to God realization. Ramana asked him if he had ever been in love with a woman. The astonished "chela" retorted that he had did not have time for such "frivolous" stuff; that he was there to talk about serious matters. The story goes that Ramana, much disheartened, said, "if you have not known what it means to be in love, I cannot possibly tell you about God realization."
9: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 05, 2012, 1:46 PM.
Ravinder ji, you may want to add the following from the great savant, Bhai Vir Singh: this is what he said in his book "Gurmukh Sikhiya", page 108. "The one who has not married could be a 'yogi', a 'tapisiyia', practising austerity, but could never be a 'rasiyia' - a tender fulfilled aesthetic." Anyone who has not tasted false love will not know what true love is. Sher ji, you were on the right track too. An unmarried man is incomplete but, when he is married, he is truly finished.
10: Rosalia (Baltimore, Maryland, USA), October 05, 2012, 4:03 PM.
And then? What next? One always wakes up from a dream.
11: Parvinder Singh (Mohali, Punjab), October 05, 2012, 11:13 PM.
It's a cute story, man, an inspirational one for me.