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Across The River Styx

by GURU KAUR
Photography by NICK FLEMING

 

It was intense. The heat was intense.  The humidity was intense.  The whole experience was intense. 

This was summer in Punjab.  As the days had melted into months, the monsoon had come, delivering ephemeral relief with its never-ending American-style "power shower" intensity.  Those days after the rain had washed over were bright and clear, with intense blue skies and laughing farmers offering prayers. 

The gold on the Harmandar Sahib sometimes seemed so intense that it could only be gazed at by reflection in the sarovar water.  At others times, it was limpid and dripping. 

The marble either was awash like an English promenade at high tide, or searing hot like a Cretan beach at the height of a summer holiday.  Very quickly, I had learnt to skip around the black marble markings. Their intensity brought water to what seemed near boiling point. 

Effectively, I was a prisoner here in the Golden Temple complex, probably the only Westerner in Punjab at a time of heightened security.  The West, not too happy with India and Pakistan, as they were getting hot under the collar about nuclear weapons, was intensifying its pressure, which was causing a backlash against any gora and gori, and putting foreigners at risk of being kidnapped. 

It was pretty pointless at the time to explain that I was neither a politician nor an American.  I was all too aware of the risks of being here.  There was no option except to learn to trust the Divine and keep my common sense and wits about me.

Occasionally, I forayed on a bicycle rickshaw into the bazaar to pick up some fruit for the day, and to re-supply my stock of Jeyes fluid, with which I swabbed down my room each day.  Every few days, I put on my shoes to walk a couple of blocks to the drycleaners who cleaned my bana.  "Dry" was hardly the operative word; it just came back less wet than when I had worn it. 

Each day, I checked in at the Clock Tower bazaar with a shopkeeper whom I knew was officially keeping an eye on me, just in case.  In the evenings, I sat like clockwork in the same spot of the parkarma for Rehraas; any absence would have sent out warning bells.  I was in a gilded cage of ecstasy. 

I began to notice that there were Sikhs who were somehow different from the rest.  Many were old, with ageless eyes of service; others were youthful, big and strong.  All carried themselves with intent stillness, as their blue dresses and beehive turbans swayed nonchalantly.  There was a reverence around them. 

Finally, I found out that they were Nihang Singhs.  Better still, there was a mela at Goindwal coming up, where many Nihangs would set up their own camp. 

I wanted so deeply to go and experience it.   The only issue to overcome was that it was in the Outside World and, therefore, totally forbidden.  I started to plan for D-day. 

The day before the mela, I approached a man who spoke English (a rarity in Punjab) and whom I had learned to trust, asking him only to arrange a car for me.  He looked at me in horror.  Then he realized that his coming with me was a better alternative to my going alone. 

He arranged the car with a driver whom he trusted implicitly.  He, more than anyone, understood the risks we were taking.  The area outside Amritsar had been very volatile and the situation was escalating.  He also understood what was at stake.  As far as we knew then, no Westerner had ever lived with and photographed the Nihangs. 

Nick Fleming, my husband, who was in Europe at the time, would need some photographs to inspire him to take up that challenge. 

D-day. I finished my morning routine in the Durbar Sahib, ate my breakfast, told the sevadar I was skipping lunch and would eat later, just before Rehraas, as usual.  Casually, I walked out of the Nivas and turned left, not right, heart racing, towards the car. 

There it was, as planned.  I got in the back and bent down so that I could not be seen as it drove off.  I'd love to say that it sped off, but honestly, a dramatic exit just wasn't possible: we simply meandered through the back streets towards the main road.  I sat up and composed myself just in time before the military checkpoints where, after considerable persuading and telling us of the dangers, they let our car through. 

We were free!

As we picked up speed down the main road, the open windows created a welcome breeze. I felt liberated. 

It looked as though time was standing still. 

In the fields, the oxen walked sullenly along (do they ever smile?) and the farmers hung around by the roadside to pass the time of day.  It was hard to imagine that I was actually in a landscape of heightened security not far from the Pakistani border. 

I remembered how, on the train up from Delhi, I had longed to be out in the landscape.  As I had gazed out of the open carriage doorway to get fresh air and watch the rosy dawn bathe the flat fields in lush light, I had been briefly able to forget that every train and every carriage was armed with at least a couple of weapon-clad military personnel.  All our bags had been thoroughly searched before leaving the station. 

But, here we were, finally driving carefree. 

We turned off the main road ... and entered heaven: the "bread basket" of India, verdant from the rains and radiant from loving hands-on farming.  The straight road ahead seemed to go on forever, flanked by Elysian fields.  Only ...

I didn't see what lay ahead.  The car slowed down a little and the driver straightened his spine.  Then he turned to my companion; their clipped conversation beyond my basic Punjabi was enough to alert me.  I squinted through the windscreen, focusing ahead on the never-ending road.   There was a check-point on the horizon. Quite unexpected. 

The long inhale of warm air sent a chill through my body.  It spread a calm where seconds became frozen frames in slow-mo: the swaying tree, the billowing grass, the solitary screech of an egret. 

Nothing in Punjab is simple.  Nor was this checkpoint.  There were men very agitated all around it.  I felt our car take a collective intake of breath as we each composed ourselves, calmly winding up the windows and checking the doors to see if they were locked.  My eyes remained focused ahead on the checkpoint looming ever larger and larger in the windscreen, until we were flagged down and the car ground to a most reluctant halt. 

The main man outside, whose flowing black beard and darting eyes pierced the glass, yelled at us to open the windows.  No one moved.  The fervent crowd outside joined in the frenzy.  He banged on the window hard.  I looked ahead.  "Down, down!" he cried. 

Either we open the window or he'll break it, I thought.  Dignity seemed the better option.  Slowly, I wound down the window as my eyes closed. 

Suddenly something cold was against my body, its sharp contrast jolting my eyes open. 

What I saw in my hands was manna from heaven. 

The windows on either side of the front of the car were now open, too. 

The smell was intoxicating. 

We were being force-fed.  Here was a langar, a free kitchen set up by the roadside to feed those on the way to the mela.  Never has that indigestible black dahl with fiery chillies tasted so divine.  Somehow, all those years of having to finish what had been put on my plate came through trumps. 

As the hullabaloo died down, I could hear "Satnam, Satnam, Satnam Ji" being chanted in the background.  In returning the thali, my pale-skinned hands were visible to the ringleader.  The devotion in his eyes carried tears, as they welled up: I'm not sure who was more surprised by the scene, he or I. 

The car began to rev up for the off.  Not before a handful of dripping parshad was exchanged for a glance of relief.  We had crossed the river Styx from scared to sacred. 

 

Guru Kaur is a corporate consultant, writer, clothing designer and an expert on the integration of professional and personal ambitions. She lives in London with her husband, the photographer Nick Fleming, and their puppy Millie.  Download FREE podcasts of the latest preview calls for Guru Kaur's forthcoming Be the Woman You were Born to Be... Teleseminar Course at http://www.gurukaur.com/

To view a video, The Nihang Singhs of Punjab, featuring a selection of Nick Fleming's photos and an interview of him about Nihang history, Nihang life and his experience living with and photographing them, click on http://www.punjabheritage.org/editorials--reviews/capturing-the-nihangs---an-interview-with-photographer-nick-fleming-220087.html

 

Conversation about this article

1: K. Singh (India), December 17, 2007, 5:27 PM.

Dear Guru Kaur ji, In short, I must say that the experience you had was a most touching one. True, our religious and cultural festivals have great depth and meaning behind them. Unfortunately, people here are quickly getting more "westernized" and losing their essence and core. Thank you for capturing this one incident so well.

2: Sarjit Singh Khalsa (England), December 18, 2007, 12:14 AM.

My dear brothers and sisters, we are a great race but since we lost our Khalsa Raj, a lot of traitors have crawled into the community who are not Sikhs, because they think they can get away with it ...

3: Jagdeep Singh (London, England), December 18, 2007, 5:45 PM.

Sarjit Singh, the description of people as 'traitors' and the paranoid assertion of them sneaking into the community, and even declaring that they are not 'Sikhs' displays a cult-like, conspiracy theorizing, narrow mentality that can only lead to persecution and intolerance and a hatred of diversity and difference.

4: Nirvair Singh (Cupertino, U.S.A.), December 19, 2007, 9:26 AM.

Dear Guru Kaur, you experienced the indomitable spirit of Sikhi in its purest form on that day. Despite enduring extreme hardships and persecution of the last few decades, it is still alive and well in the countryside. Thanks for sharing your feelings.

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