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Sikh-Aussie Pooran Singh: Take Me Home

by MANPREET KAUR SINGH

 

 

Although incidents of violent attacks against Indians in Australia have saturated the media in recent times, history reveals a very different story with respect to the early immigrants - Sikhs - as  perfectly embodied in the case of Pooran Singh, who has managed to "remain" in Australia since 1899.

The family of Alice Guyett-Wood (the owners of Guyett's Funerals in Warrnambool), has preserved the last remains of Pooran Singh for 63 years now, in deference to his wish that his ashes be returned to Punjab. Even though no one has ever come to collect these ashes, they have been preserved for that final journey to Punjab, and have even been accorded the pride of place at the Warrnambool cemetery.

Pooran Singh left Bilga, Punjab, as a 30 year old, and landed on Australian shores in 1899. Like many other Punjabis at that time, he worked as a hawker, selling goods laden in his camel- or horse-cart, travelling from one country town to the other. Typically, he had left his family behind in Punjab and spent the remaining 47 years of his life in county Victoria.

He died on June 8, 1947 at Warrnambool & District Base Hospital, Victoria, aged 77 years.

His funeral was arranged by Guyetts Funerals, and perhaps Alice's grandfather presided over the service in Warrnambool. Pooran had left instructions that he desired to be cremated, not buried; therefore, his body was sent to Melbourne by train to the only crematorium at that time, which was in the eastern suburb of Springvale.

Records at Guyett's Funerals show that he was cremated on June 10, 1947 at 11.45am. Interestingly,  the records state his religion as "Hindoo" - [typically in British fashion, all from the sub-continent then werre referred to as "hindoo";  it was not an intentional insult] -  and that an amount of just over £53 was paid for the funeral service, which would have been roughly six month's salary for an average hawker in those days.

It must be noted that cremations were very rare back then; Pooran's cremation seems to be the only one recorded in the
year 1947 in Warrnambool.

Speaking to SBS Radio's Punjabi program, Alice Guyett-Wood recalls that just before her father Jack Guyett died in 1986, he told her, "We should have done something about Pooran's ashes. We should have sent them to India ..." There is no written instruction to convey this wish, but it has been passed down the generations of the Guyetts family.

When asked why they have still kept the ashes, even after six decades, Alice simply says "We didn't have the authority to dispose them off, so we just held them. In fact, I had thought that we may even go to India one day and fulfil Pooran's last wish."

You can hear the full interview with Alice Guyett-Wood on www.sbs.com.au/punjabi and see a photo gallery too.

In the meantime, Melbourne based historian Len Kenna and his research partner, Crystal Jordan, have found a copy of Pooran Singh's will, which shows that he had grown to be quite a wealthy man. When he died, his assets amounted to £2376.04, clearly a result of many years of diligent saving. The money was distributed according to Pooran's wishes by the executors of his will, with some money going to a few local residents of Warrnambool, who presumably took care of him in the last stages of his life.

But nearly £1,500 was sent to Punjab, with £ 360 apiece for each of his four nephews Gurbachan Singh, Chanan Singh, Milka Singh and Kartar Singh.

The will names them as the sons of Sultani Ram (of Upper Bhopa, Bilga), who was Pooran's brother.

Another aspect of this story worthy of being pointed out is, that the White Australia policy was officially enforced in Victoria in 1901, which excluded all non-whites from entering the country. According to Len Kenna, it is possible that many thousands of Punjabi hawkers were already living and working in Australia by then.

And according to Len, the hawkers were embraced by all sections of the local population here, especially the Punjabi hawkers. The children loved them since they played games with them and told them incredible stories. The women loved them because they brought exotic goods, in addition to items of daily need and showed them a great deal of respect. And the men loved them because they played good cricket!

The Australian countryside is dotted with memorials and remains of these men, even though they are almost forgotten in the annals of history. Sadly, a majority of the hawkers lived lonely, desolate lives, travelling long distances alone to sell their goods, seldom getting an opportunity to be with their compatriots, and almost never reuniting with their families back home.

As for the Pooran Singh's ashes, even though Alice got fairly emotional while talking about them, she is keen for them to make their final journey back to Punjab.

"After 63 years, I think it's about time that they were returned," she says. Although it is truly amazing that this Australian family has respected the last wishes of an Sikh-Aussie hawker who they didn't even know personally, it is clear that Pooran is an integral part of their family history.

Incredibly, even the trustees of the Warrnambool cemetery have extended this respect to Pooran Singh, who they regard "as their own". In the late 1980s, they decided to commemorate Pooran's presence in Warrnambool by installing a plaque at a memorial wall at the cemetery - his ashes are safely placed in a niche behind it.

And when Alice brought up the possibility that the ashes may soon be returned to Punjab, the trustees reportedly said, "We'll send the ashes back, but we'll still keep the plaque on the niche wall, because Pooran was here!"

The search is on for the descendants of Pooran Singh, so that when the ashes return to India, the family can share the moment of his final homecoming. Wouldn't it be wonderful that the journey of Pooran Singh, one that he started in Punjab in the 19th century, and continued in Australia in the 20th century, reaches its culmination in Punjab in the 21st century?

But one thing is for sure, even if Pooran's last remains are sent back to Punjab, his memories will forever remain in the hearts and minds of many locals in Warrnambool ... and incredibly, some part of Pooran will continue to remain with us, right here in Australia.

 

[This is the edited version of an article which first appeared in the Hindustan Times.]

June 25, 2010

 

 

Conversation about this article

1: Devinder Pal Singh (Delhi, India), June 25, 2010, 8:21 AM.

This is a touching story. The spirit of humanity, often shadowed by the misdeeds of a few, revives itself through such unique acts of individuals who do not differentiate mankind by race or religion. May be the story would come full circle with Pooran Singh's ashes returning to his homeland, but this act of human respect transgressing social differences is laudable. Personally I believe Alice and Brian Guyett and their elders have exhibited a unique humility which is rare and must be cherished. I wish mankind had more of such wonderful human beings - enough of them and we would have heaven on earth.

2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 25, 2010, 12:30 PM.

What an odyssey to come home. Reminds me of the tuk, "Ha-o aa-i-aa dhoorehai chal kai mai takee ta-o sarnaa-ay-jeeo" [GGS:762.3] - "I have come so far, seeking the Protection of Your Sanctuary."

3: Carole  (Australia), June 26, 2010, 2:27 AM.

What a beautiful story. It brought me to tears. See, we have respect for Sikhs and other Indians - they are beautiful people.

4: Jaswinder Singh (Melbourne, Australia), June 27, 2010, 8:00 PM.

I salute Alice and Brian Guyett and their elders for their great human values.

5: Shin (Wolverhampton , U.K.), June 29, 2010, 12:54 PM.

Pooran Singh was my Grandad, Sultani Ram's brother. I am son of Chanan Singh, who was nephew of Pooran Singh ji. It must be said what wonderful human beings there are in Warrnambool, especially Alice and Brian Guyett. The greater family of Pooran will forever be in their debt!

6: Paul Singh (Sydney, Australia), June 30, 2010, 6:57 PM.

I wish there are more rounds of this and other heartwarming stories like this, as this is what the true Aussie spirit is about, or else the proponents of hate (divide & rule) would finally succeed in achieving their goals to suit their ends. I am an immigrant from India and have been living in OZ for the last 30 years. I yet have to come across one racist individual. It could very well be tomorrow that one crosses my path, but every society has ignorants and idiots. The bias created by the media and politicians has much to answer for incidents that bring shame to the Aussie spirit, which is so beautifully preserved by the like of Alice and Brian Guyett through the generations.

7: Santokh Singh (Sydney, Australia), July 07, 2010, 3:20 PM.

Great! Dear Manpreet jio: I read your very informative and interesting article. It is written in so simple English, even I understood it easily. If nobody is able to send Pooran Singh's Asthian (ashes) to Punjab, then I would like to talk to you about it.

8: Jagjit Kaur (Melbourne, Australia), July 09, 2010, 5:16 AM.

This is an amazing true story. I belong to a Sikh family myself and although I had no relationship with Pooran Singh or this funeral company in Warrnambool owned by Alice and Brian, I would like to thank them for their act of humanity and being so concerned. I am very proud of being in such a great country where people like Alice and Brian exist. May God bless you. Thank you with all my heart.

9: Sumit (Adelaide, Australia), July 23, 2010, 6:52 AM.

Pooran Singh paid 57 pounds to the funeral company and in those days it was a mini fortune. The company still couldn't send the ashes to India for 60 years!? I bet the funeral company is reaping all this free publicity now and it won't hurt their business. And before all you bleeding hearts call me cynical, mean, etc., think again ... who benefits the most here ... the funeral company! And if they were so compassionate, etc., why didn't they send the ashes to India when they charged Singh a fortune and obviously knew he had no kin who would come to Australia to collect his ashes. This was 1947, people just didn't hop on a plane for a 14-hour flight, it would take weeks to reach Australia from Punjab.

10: Baljinder Singh (Sydney, Australia), September 11, 2010, 11:28 PM.

Pooran Singh is safe now for good, where he wanted to be. A beautiful end to a hectic life on the other side of the world.

11: Ravneet Kaur (Melbourne, Australia), September 28, 2010, 6:55 PM.

Again, so well written. It is amazing how Pooran Singh is actually a part of Australian heritage, but Australians, including Sikhs living in Australia didn't even know about him! There is a 4-part video on YouTube that shows what happened on the day. Just type in "pooran singh gday". It is definitely worth a watch!

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