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Images below: Curbside fans of Fauja Singh, as he jogs by. Photos by Pardeep Singh Nagra.

Our Heroes

A Learning Moment

by T. SHER SINGH

 

 

Sikhi is all about learning, a life-long activity which starts at birth and continues to the moment of death.

It’s a journey. The destination remains a mystery throughout.

Therefore, it’s all about the journey itself.

Which makes it so appropriate that this latest learning moment for me has been from one who journeys endlessly - literally, not just metaphorically - several miles a day.

Sure, like the rest of the world, I too am in awe of Fauja Singh’s physical prowess and his mental agility, especially in the face of a centenarian’s years. I marvel at the aplomb with which he handles the media, his savvy in a world full of minefields. I love his fashion sense and his zest for life, his sharp sense of humour, his ability to cut through inanities, his other-worldliness, his buddha-like detachment.

And yet, his eyes are always full of mischief. I have caught him wink at me slyly as I have walked by him, surrounded by adoring young men and women fawning over his fame and desperately hoping to catch the virus of his energy.

Sure, it’s all that. But there’s more.

It dawned on me the other day, watching him interact with the crowds that milled around him during his recent visit to Toronto, that there’s something more that I get from him.

It was a learning moment.

He reminded me of another Baba - Nanak the Teacher - who had a special way about him, as he strode across the continents.

What was unique about Nanak was the way he transformed those he met, even though he never lectured, never preached. He did not pontificate, nor did he issue edicts, make demands, spell out dogma, or dole out threats or deadlines or consequences.

His interface with the Hindus at Hardwar, or the Muslims in Mecca, reveal to us - if we care to look at his method - that he was a teacher nonpareil.

Those around him learnt without the formality of entering a teacher and pupil relationship, or a mentor and disciple role-play. Without joining a class, or paying a fee, or earning a degree.

The learning in the minds of the learners came through self-realization. It was a seamless and effortless process.

I see a bit of Nanak the Teacher in dear Fauja Singh, and in that I see the latter as a Sikh like few others I know.

I look around me and notice how Sikhs the world over have - like me - seen this vision of a gursikh in him and are gaga over his steadfastness in everything he does, be it spiritual or temporal in nature.

He has grabbed us like few others ever have - and I have sifted down a long list through my mind, of scholars and leaders, of the rich and the famous, young and old, back in Punjab or living in the diaspora.

Nobody has captured our imagination the way he has.

Yet, we haven’t dropped everything to follow him to the end of the earth. We haven’t voted him to office, or hailed him as a prophet. Or offered him a share of our wealth in order to buy his favours.

All we have done, while watching him, is to turn inwards and look at ourselves. And we have wondered, quietly or publicly, how we can emulate him - not by becoming his clones, but by improving ourselves at a private and personal level.

Some of us have hurried to change our diet.

Some of us have adopted a new regime of exercise.

Some of us have turned to examining our relationship with Sikhi.

Some of us have made secret resolutions and commitments to ourselves, hidden from even our near and loved ones, to change the way we live - not in giant steps, but in baby, slightly incremental steps.

Because we have somehow realized in these last few days, that there is more to living than meets the eye.

All of the above, strangely, has happened to each one of us separately - “every man is an island!” - not through mass rallies or televangelism or with the help of social media, but through the quite time we have spent, alone with ourselves, after having watched or read about what Fauja Singh does.

How did this simple, unassuming man achieve this, something that even a Billy Graham would give an arm and a leg to accomplish?

Well, here’s what Fauja Singh did NOT do:

He did not hire a PR firm, or an agent, or an advance media team.

He did not buy ads in newspapers, or 30-second spots on TV and radio.

He did not coin slogans, or emblazon a logo.

When asked, he has told us what he eats and drinks. But he doesn’t pester us with a campaign to promote vegetarianism.

He has joined no anti-smoking movement. Nor instigated projects to promote abstinence from alcohol or drugs.
 
No, he hasn’t created an aerobics DVD.

He has not started selling a 10-week programme on How to Prepare For a Marathon.

Or How to Live to 100.

There is no Red Book or Green Book available, citing his maxims.

There are no videos showing him doing his nitnem.

Haven’t heard him admonishing anyone for not doing paatth.

He doesn’t go around urging people to take Amrit.

No, he doesn’t ever run in a 17th century bana. That’s right, he hasn’t donned the blue.

In fact, he wears the latest in track shirts and pants, be they spandex or whatever. Or Armanis and Hugo Boss when he is not on the track.

Yes, he too was touched by India’s outrages against the Sikhs in 1984.

But he offers no armchair admonishments or solutions.

Yes, he feels Sikhs need to let the world know who they really are, what they really stand for.

But no, he doesn’t go around spewing advice.

All he does is … he simply does it!

He doesn’t wait for others to join him before he ventures out. Alone - he DOES it all.

He gets off his butt everyday and does what he does best, and does it as often as necessary. Whether someone is watching or not.

Because he knows that as long as he does what is right and what is best - not preach what is right, what is best - the rest will fall into place.

And the world will follow, as surely as the children hopped and skipped behind the Pied Piper of Hamelin all the way to the horizon. 

He never shies away from telling the truth or speaking his mind. But blunt though he can be at times, his words never hurt.    

Yes, all of this I have learnt this week.

And have learnt that you can do all the PR in the world, do conferences and seminars, publish booklets and make movies, preen and prance before cameras and microphones, stand behind high pulpits and preach until you are blue in the face … and people just won’t listen to you.

But.

But if you do it yourself, quietly, without pomp and ceremony, they’ll drop everything and do anything - even run 26 miles to nowhere, seemingly for no worldly reason whatsoever! And then do it over and over again.

Why? Because they’ve seen you do it. And they can also see that what you do is inherently good, not because you say it is good.

There isn’t a soul in Sikhdom who doesn’t have an opinion on what has gone wrong with the world, or on what OTHERS should do to fix it.

Yet, I’ve yet to meet a man or woman who has given himself so selflessly, and done so much for all of us, so that our children will have a better tomorrow.

There isn’t a scholar, anyone with any number of degrees tailing him, who comes close to what this unlettered man has done.

There isn’t a saint or sufi, gurmukh or mahatma, anywhere in sight, no matter how much piety drips off him, whose blessings have rubbed off with so much grace over all of us.

There isn’t a man or woman of wealth - no matter how many millions or billions they wallow in - who has given us more than this simple farmer who has no income, no assets, no real estate, no retirement nest-egg.      

There is no dashing man or beauteous woman who has stood before a camera and make us look as good as this weather-beaten, time-hewn, unsophisticated peasant has done.

There is no orator, no wordsmith, no one with any degree of facility with language or image or profile, who has won over the media skeptics as freely as he has.

Yes, if you really look at it, this man who - in modern parlance - without doing “anything much”, without tearing around, without being a busy-body, without being a spokesman, a jathedar, a member of parliament, a minister, a senator, a congressman, anything! - while doing “nothing”, really … he has done more than any PR wiz can do or has done.

Single-handedly.
 
This is what Fauja Singh is all about.

This is what Sikhi is all about.

Living Life. Not talking about it.


October 24, 2011                                
 

Conversation about this article

1: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), October 24, 2011, 7:40 AM.

Loved reading this stunning tribute to our young man. No one could have said it better. I can imagine the childlike smile on his face when and if Harmander will translate this for him. Hope he does.

2: Kirpal Singh (Daytona Beach, Florida, U.S.A.), October 24, 2011, 9:29 AM.

Marvellous tribute to a unique Gursikh who is a great ambassador of Sikhism!

3: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 24, 2011, 10:28 AM.

What a wonderful and stunning tribute. A brilliantly readable sketch that cannot be improved upon. Thanks, Sher ji, for creating a unique celebration of a simple man who would have no equal for years to come that even a Nobel prize would fall short in doing justice to him.

4: Harmeet Kaur (London, United Kingdom), October 24, 2011, 10:30 AM.

Guinness World Book of Records has just announced that it won't recognize Fauja Singh's new record because he doesn't have a birth certificate. His British passport confirms his birthdate, but Guinness will not accept it. Indian government officials have said they have no records from 1911 because they weren't kept on the subcontinent at that time. However, World Masters Athletics - a prestigious world body which records world rankings in track and field - has accepted Fauja Singh's new records. Well, that's all one needs.

5: Saul Goldberg (New York, U.S.A.), October 24, 2011, 10:46 AM.

Christmas is around the corner and will be upon us in a few weeks. They better produce a birth certificate first, because I've heard the date is all cooked up!

6: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia), October 24, 2011, 10:48 AM.

May I nominate the Guinness World Book of Records as the "World's Dimmest Lights"? Why don't they do a carbon-dating on Fauja Singh?

7: Lakhjit Kaur (New Hampshire, U.S.A.), October 24, 2011, 11:12 AM.

There is so much food for thought in this piece; much more than just a tribute to Fauja Singh. It needs to be read over and over again. If we take each line and try and fully understand what it says, it will help us become better persons - just as the author says he has. Simply love the way you write, the way your argument unfolds, layer by slow layer ...

8: Mehtab Kaur (Birmingham, United Kingdom), October 24, 2011, 3:11 PM.

Have you read the other story on this very page - HISTORY SECTION: "The Curse of The Kohinoor Continues To Haunt The Brits"? Just as the story illustrates, a good portion of the country is made up of bastards - no, I'm not using bad language, I mean literally! Most, if not all of the so-called British nobility have grown and flourished on false birth-certificates. And now, when a superman like Fauja Singh comes along, they won't even trust the British Passport authorities who have long ago attested Fauja Singh's birth-date! So, now we cannot trust our passport office, or does this merely apply to non-pink people? These bastards are such poor losers, aren't they. (Again, I'm not being abusive. I am using the word literally, according to the King's English and the Oxford Dictionary.)

9: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), October 24, 2011, 6:39 PM.

Forget the records! Fauja Singh is in himself a Record! Humans half his age cannot run half a marathon! He shows that in every sphere of human endeavour, Sikhs - Singhs & Kaurs - are always NUMERO UNO!

10: Ravinder Singh (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), October 24, 2011, 7:02 PM.

Never mind the Guinness Book of Records. Thanks, Sher, for a beautiful piece. This should be compulsory reading for all Sikhs.

11: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), October 24, 2011, 11:05 PM.

Great article. S.Fauja Singh ji is probably going to run another ten years or so! He is still tough and I know this from his close relatives in east London. He should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize! I am 62 and he makes me feel young. And inspires the world.

12: Parmjit Singh (Canada), October 25, 2011, 11:36 AM.

Beautifully written piece. Thank you! You can't help but love the following which ties in so nicely to the tribute: " 'Fauja is actually oblivious to the Guinness Book of World Records,' said trainer Harmander Singh, no relation. 'He wasn't aware of them (at the time of the Oct. 16 race). And he's still not aware of them." [Toronto Star, Oct. 24, 2011].

13: Ujjal Satnaam  (India), September 30, 2012, 4:50 AM.

Fauja Singh ... a legend.

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