You're a Better Man than I am, Gunga Din!T. SHER SINGH
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
By the livin' Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
He’s a cousin and we don’t get along.
There are many reasons. I have mine. He has his.
But as long as I can remember, I have found him, well, to be honest, irritating.
I’m not the only one. It’s the same between him and his brothers and sisters, for example, or with most of his other relatives. His friends too.
Let there be no mistake: we all love him, Dearly. But are wary of him, always expecting trouble when he’s in the vicinity.
Let’s call him Sohan Singh.
He’s different from the rest of us, we tell ourselves, and shrug him off as an anomaly. We find many a reason and explanation for his behaviour, nay, his very character.
Many theories abound.
It is true: he dropped out of school very early, after the first few grades. He was intrigued by his Dad’s business and loved going to his store and hanging out there. He didn’t think much of his older siblings, all of whom were universally declared bright, social and lovable. He didn’t care. He just did his thing.
Follow his bliss he did. He never went back to school. Became a fixture in his Dad’s store quite early and, before long, was running the business … even while still in his teens. He was good at it and his Dad began to depend on him; it gave him the ability to concentrate on other ventures while Sohan managed the store.
I think it was at this point that our paths diverged, Sohan on one, and the rest of us on the other. Though we were all from families immersed in business, education was valued high and we were all given the best opportunities around. As we did better in school, we learnt to tolerate Sohan, to humour him, to ignore him, to avoid him, to be indifferent to him.
He reciprocated. He discovered early that he was good at life skills, and had street smarts. We, on the other hand, when it came to practicalities, were paragons of no-talent.
He became short with us, grumpy in our company, easily irritable. I could see it in his eyes: he had no time for fools.
As we grew older, our paths grew further apart. Sure, we were still family, but - from our perspective - we saw him labouring under the burden of not having had a formal education.
He was bright, no doubt, probably even the brightest of the lot. But he would make mistakes … and then make them all over again.
He made a lot of money too; he was very successful in every business venture he tackled. And then, he would lose it all. He would start anew, and be on top of the world before you saw him next, sailing along as if nothing had happened. And then, again … the whole cycle would repeat itself.
Through his trials and tribulations, he learnt not to think very highly of lawyers. So, he allowed me no airs. At family gatherings, he would be out to prove that he could out-argue anybody and everybody. He was loud. Easily baited. For a while, provided the entertainment, but then would turn sullen and resentful, prone to flare-ups.
Through time, we’ve learnt to be patient with him, avoid intense discussions on any issues, not challenge him, let his pronouncements go untouched.
Overall, we have become condescending towards Sohan. We watch him from a distance, shake our heads in bewilderment, and pat ourselves on the back: “There, for the grace of God …!”
As I have reduced my interaction with him through the years - we still meet in family gatherings or social events - I’ve begun to notice things I have paid little heed to in the past. It’s like standing still and suddenly noticing things. Like chewing a morsel slowly and tasting all its nuances. Like suspending instant judgment and seeing the opposite perspective.
The first thing I began to notice was that every time I went to the gurdwara -- every time! -- I would catch a glimpse of him, flitting back and forth in his usual hyper-energy, inside the langar kitchen. Through the weeks and months, a complete picture began to emerge from all these weekly vignettes I caught of him.
He was there every Sunday, every gurupurab, from amrit vela to late at night. He cut and sliced and washed, cooked and stirred, hauled and ladled, cleaned and wiped … and when they were short of sevadaars, stepped out and served.
Initially, we would throw witty remarks at him as he passed. Never to be out-done, he would hit back with a wittier repartee. We learnt to let him be.
At akhand paatths and kirtans at our respective homes, or those of our mutual friends, as in the gurdwaras, we’d never see him in the divan hall listening to paatth or kirtan or ardaas or the concluding hukam. You could hear him clanging away in the kitchen, working away to prepare the langar and the karrah parshad.
He would’ve taken over in the early hours, and he would instantly convey through osmosis that all was well, everything was in control.
At gurpurabs, during the Vaisakhi parades - the ones where 80,000 souls and more show up in a collective show of strength - we would catch a glimpse of him over the heads of the multitude. He was would be in the back of a truck - his company truck! He was in the business of making and wholesaling food products - handing out food packets to the sangat as it marched by.
I have seen him with two fully-loaded trucks, laden wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with food from his factory, being emptied by him and his good wife and lovely children, one by one, person to person. Free. With smiles and utter humility.
There are no signs on the truck advertising his products. He has no need to advertise - his sales do not depend on branding, and all of his produce is picked up by retail chains, etc. The sevadaars wear no blazing t-shirts proclaiming the authors of the piety. No one has asked for these trucks. Sohan just brings them and parks them quietly before the parade begins, and sits there patiently, waiting for the jaloos.
And then there are weddings and funerals. If you are having either, and have the good fortune of having Sohan as a friend or relative, he’s there, uninvited, to take over the langar.
He is not his usual belligerent self when he’s doing seva. He turns quiet and focused … unless, of course, you turn up within his peripheral vision and say something smart-ass. He instantly cuts you down to size, without missing a single beat from the rhythm of whatever he’s doing … washing, cooking, cleaning …
He reminds me of my father, the seva bit, not the argumentative part. Dad would do the same thing on gurpurabs at the Takht Sahib in Patna, taking over the responsibility of feeding hundreds of thousands of pilgrims over the course of three or four days at a time. And then quietly go home to attend to his normal routine.
I don’t know what to make of Sohan. I don’t know what to make of our judgmentalism of him and his outlook on life.
Slowly, very slowly, I am beginning to understand him.
And to understand ourselves.
I am beginning to understand that education brings with it oodles of ego that in itself requires a learning -- or an unlearning, if you will. Sohan - free of our afflictions - sees through our pretensions, and has little time or patience with our ostentations.
I don’t think Sohan has ever read any of my writings, or ever visited sikhchic.com. If he has, he has pierced through the veil and concluded he has no time to waste on trivialities.
Sohan works harder than anyone else I know … he reminds me so much of my Mennonite friends. He’s not widely known as a sevadaar; he’s never promoted himself. Those in the family or in his close circle of friends will instantly know who he is. The rest will never have heard of him … simply because he never seeks recognition.
I don’t think he thinks too much of himself, or ever pats himself on the back for the community work he does. He just does it. He doesn't dwell on it. Or wallow in it. Or wear it like a shawl.
As far as I know, they’ve never given him a siropa, an award, a plaque. Thank God! Mighty good these baubles have done for us who do so little and holler so much. Let’s not give him any, either, in the future. Why plant the evil seed?
I am glad I have learnt to be quiet in Sohan’s presence now. I see so much more.
I must confess I feel small in his presence. Not because of anything he says. But because of what he does. I can see he has something I don’t have. It is worth more than all that I have, all of it put together. I don’t know what it is, but I envy him for it.
I know in my heart that he is a better man than I am.
In every which way.
Conversation about this article
1: Harjit Kaur (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), July 18, 2012, 10:40 AM.
I know him. I whole-heartedly endorse all that you have said. There's a lot of love in what you've written. Thank you.
2: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), July 18, 2012, 12:31 PM.
Not seeking recognition is the ultimate practice of humility; it is the end game in Sikhism.
3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 18, 2012, 7:05 PM.
I had a friend in primary school who wasn't too good at studies but could throw his spit farther than anyone else and was held in high esteem among his peers. On Waheguru's stage, not every one is a king or a queen. Each actor is assigned a part according to his or her talent. Some are allowed to just stand to look pretty. "ik nihaalee pai savnih ik upar rahan kharhay" [GGS:475.6] - "Some lie down and sleep on soft beds, while others remain watchful."
4: Simran Grewal (Dunedin, New Zealand), July 19, 2012, 5:32 AM.
A very well written piece. I am currently a University Student and our whole life we have grown up thinking that studies make us who we are and define our personalities. This article about Sohan Singh just made me think about it again. How do studies complete us as a person? Yes, it opens up our perspectives in many ways but just because you are a top scholar does not make you a good person or an intelligent one. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece. Thank you.