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The Anniversary Compulsion:
A Modest Proposal
Part II





Last week, in the first piece in this series, I explored one of the ways I would choose to honour an anniversary truly important to me.

All of this was, of course, triggered by the frustration over seeing yet another anniversary sail by and witnessing very little done by us -- other than vacuous and bombastic slogans, which come easy to us all, a dime a dozen. And a baleful of “should”s and “shouldn’t”s.

At times like these -- and this should be apparent to all of you who read this column -- I hark back to things I heard my father mutter under his breath, opining on the ways of the world, or matters he elucidated on when I found his ruminations difficult to fathom.

I remember how he always reminded me that Sikhi was nothing if it wasn’t a life of discipline. It begins with personal discipline and ends with personal discipline, he used to say; the rest is mere filler.

We are like the military, he would add, and cite the maryada as our daily drill and uniform, the regimen we are to live up to, day in and day out. Thus, getting up at amrit vela, doing the nitnem, and always living by the golden rules (naam juppna … kirat karni … wund chhakna), he would say, was what kept us sharp and steady, ever-ready on our toes.

I remember when he and my mother returned from traveling around the world in 1971, having hopped from one country to another, more than 40 of them for over seven months, and we grilled them on which country he had liked best.

In a split second, he answered “Japan!” And my mother nodded in agreement.

There was little in that country and its people that hadn’t dazzled them.

Later, one day over dinner, he offered his theory on why the Japanese were so impressive in everything they did, in the most mundane of things, all the way to the most complicated and important ones.

“No matter where they are -- at home or at work or at play -- when they take off their shoes, they place them neatly in a row, in a designated place right outside each door. Never, not once during our stay there, was there a single instance when we saw a shoe or slipper out of place … in a nation of men, women and children who all remove their footwear several times a day, both at home and in public.“

That was it? We stared at him, puzzled by having reduced his massive passion for Japan to that one, single practice as an indicia of their high culture.

“Nothing will ever keep them down … and it’s all because they have discipline. Each one of them. Basic discipline is integral to them, as simple and seamless as breathing.“   

This idea of his would surface over and over again, as he would require us to do the same at home. My siblings and I bristled at the rule but quickly learnt to give in.

It then carried over to our weekly visits to the gurdwara, where we were encouraged to do volunteer time in shoe sewa, at least for a short period on each visit.

When we moved to Canada, however, it rankled him to no end when he would see shoes thrown haphazardly in the entrance to and the hallways of the gurdwaras. Even when there were elaborate pigeon-hole shelves lined up along the walls in the shoe areas to facilitate the visitors.

He was in the forefront of understanding the polity around Sikhs in a Hindu-majority India, and was very enlightened on the issues. He never shied away from tough questions and even tougher answers. But when someone would raise the slogan of Khalistan in his presence, he would scoff at them and scold them gently, not because he necessarily had any philosophical differences with them, but because he thought they were barking up the wrong tree.

“Khalistan? There are good reasons to support the idea, and equally good reasons to oppose it. But even if it could get a definite go-ahead, what’s the point? We won’t be able to keep it for long. Or benefit from it. Why? Because we have lost our discipline. And without it, nothing good is sustainable!”

They would look at him, puzzled. He would lead them to the shoe-receptacle area, and point to the mess.

“This is why! If this is how we deal with the little and easy things in life, even at the gurdwara which we hold so dear, we might as well not waste time on any high-falutin’ ideas.“

They would scratch their heads, still missing the connection.

“Without basic discipline, we are nothing. What looks trivial, immediately falls by the wayside. Then slowly, very very slowly, the more important things crumble, and then the real big things … and we always wonder why we keep on falling short as a community.

“It begins with shoes. If we think it’s too little a thing to deserve an extra few seconds to do it right, it creates a culture of carelessness. The next thing you know, other ’little’ things fall by the wayside. We’ll forget the importance of doing shoe sewa, and its significance. Then, it’ll be langar sewa.

“Who knows what will follow? Getting sloppy with the beard? The dastaar? Skipping the daily ishnaan? Dropping the ’Singh’ and ’Kaur’ from our names? After all, it appears to be such a minor thing. Then, how about speaking Punjabi at home? Or coming to the gurdwara. Giving daswandh? Caste references, at first used frivolously, and then maybe even attaching the term to our gurdwaras?

"Next comes carelessness in language ... in how one speaks, in how one writes. Do we settle for the minimal Punjabi we picked up at home, or do we strive to learn more, to improve it, year after year?

"And how about writing? Do we treat grammar and punctuation as mere suggestions and barrel along with whatever we can dole out with the least amount of effort? Do we care if others understand us ... or misunderstand us? As importantly, do we perfect our use of the language that governs our surrounding environment, or do we plod along with cluttered thoughts and scattered speech?

"Do we put the bare minimum effort in whatever we do, that allows us to just get by? If that's true, it isn't Sikhi and it isn't something worth bragging about! What’s the point of having a Khalistan which is meant to make us all a better people, if the very foundations will have long crumbled and disappeared?”

I often think of his words and have come to realize that there is a world of wisdom in them.

So, here’s another great project that I would set for ourselves as individuals to honour the memory of those who gave their all in 1984.

Not an earth-shaking endeavour. No, it won’t involve marching for world peace or saving the environment.

But how about if we begin to do shoe sewa in our local gurdwara. Each one of us. For a few minutes on each visit.

Begin with doing away the self-help system and replace it with us receiving the shoes and putting them away. And helping to retrieve them and hand them over to the owners as they leave.

It’ll be good for the general ambience in the gurdwara.

It’ll teach us humility, and cleanse our soul.

It’ll help build community.

Again, it’s so easy. It costs nothing. It requires no committee, no budget, no funding, no government grants, no licenses, no planning, no strategy. No sacrifice. Not even unity.
Who knows, it might even lead to bigger things. 


July 5, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Gobinder Singh (USA), July 05, 2014, 1:23 PM.

I attended the remembrance march in San Francisco last month with my kids for the 30th anniversary of June 1984 and the Shaheedi Gurpurab. Although there was a pretty good turnout, something kept bothering me. There was a lot of time spent on slogans against India, pictures and signage about the brutality. But hardly anything about the Sikhs, Sikhi and what we represent. I think that was a great opportunity lost in shouting slogans. The visitors and locals who would have loved to know a little more about Sikhs shrugged it as yet another Indian problems brought to American shores. We could have used that opportunity to also showcase our culture and beliefs. A kirtan with stringed instruments on a float, another one with our early history and pioneer Sikhs from the West Coast, a presentation on the contribution of Sikhs in North America, and of course their struggles. Why waste time and resources shouting against India? Commemoration and remembrance marches are a great idea but they should serve as a point of introspection and reflection of where we are ...

2: Nishkam Seva (USA), July 05, 2014, 2:43 PM.

I love this article. Please add me to your mailing list as I often distribute these to the local sangat.

3: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 05, 2014, 8:03 PM.

I must have been around five years old. Near to our house in Douglas Pura, Lyallpur, was a one-room gurdwara known as Bhai Sant Ram's Gurdwara. My greatest pleasure at that time was to stand in the cubicle that held the pigeon-holed shoe-rack to put shoes and issue a ticket. When it came to retrieving the shoes I had a problem. I couldn't figure out if the number was for the upper or lower shoe rack and often delivered the wrong pair of shoes. I was soon relieved from this onerous duty. I was to remain only on the receiving end. A great importance is attached to this shoe seva. Nearly in every gurdwara you would see a devout person picking up a pair, cleaning it and touchit to his forehead and neatly placing it in a 'Japanese-style' row. Therein lay the problem. You don't recognize your now cleaned pair lying in a different location. There was yet another problem: quite often someone had to visit the toilet and chose the first pair in sight that fitted him/her. After the conclusion of business, he'd leave the pair at a different location. Just imagine the resulting chaos at the end of the service. The answer of course is to use the pigeon-holed rack ... so long as you remembered if the ticket referred to the upper or the lower rack.

4: H. Kaur (Canada), July 08, 2014, 5:03 AM.

If the lineups at the Delhi airport are anything to go by, very few Indians must be disciplined.

5: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, USA), July 08, 2014, 12:02 PM.

Good article. One of the saddest incidents you failed to mention in this article is about the fighting in front of the Guru with swords at the Akal Takht on the 1984 anniversary day. A lot of my non-Sikh American friends asked me what is going on in The Golden Temple.

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A Modest Proposal
Part II"

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