Crisis of Faith: T. SHER SINGH
Part II - Amrit Singh
Thursday, September 6, 2012
He called me out of the blue. He followed sikhchic.com everyday, he said, and wanted to come and visit us in Mount Forest.
Amrit Singh - not his real name; I’ve changed it to protect his privacy - arrived one Saturday morning early in the summer.
A smart Sardar, immaculately dressed. A spread of gray in his neatly dressed beard betrayed his age. He began by calling me “Uncle”. I pointed to his beard and reciprocated by calling him “Uncle”. We quickly settled for “Amrit” and “Sher”.
He was from south of the border. A successful businessman, he’d done well with a label-manufacturing company which he and his wife ran. Three children, two boys and a girl. The eldest, married and settled with a thriving practice as an architect. The other two making their way through professional schools, one heading into law, the other interested in theatre.
He had a good head on his shoulders. Spoke impeccable English. Had once dabbled in journalism. I encouraged him to start writing for sikhchic.com. He said he would consider it.
When we finally settled down with a cup of tea, he turned confessional. Told me he was deeply troubled by what he had seen in India during his last few trips to visit family. Complained about the politicians, the hijacking of our institutions, the absence of leadership, the straying from Sikh values …
Is there a future, he asked.
I listened, but said little. There was little to say, because I agreed with much of what he had to say. I shared many of his concerns. But I’m learning to not get drawn into such discussions anymore because I need to protect my head space. I’m jealous of my peace of mind, which I need uncluttered in order to be able to write and edit.
He carries on. I listen. He begins to run out of steam.
And then, quietly, ever so casually, drops a bombshell.
I’m having a crisis of faith, he said. I don’t know where Sikhi is going anymore. I get no peace when I go to the gurdwara. I don’t want to go to Punjab anymore. I don’t even know if I feel Sikh anymore.
He’s got my attention. I cringe. I think of Michael Corleone in Godfather III: “Just when I thought I was out ... they pull me back in.”
“What about your father, your grandfather?“ I ask him.
“What do you mean?” he asks, looking puzzled.
He had told me earlier about his father’s role in the Punjabi Suba struggle in the 1960s. And how his grandfather had marched off to Guru ka Bagh in the 1920s, and come home on a stretcher, beaten and bloodied.
“Where do they fit in, into your new wasteland, where you see no joy?” I asked him.
“Well, looks like there’s nothing left for me to build on. They did so much, and look at what my generation has done … it has destroyed things, brick by brick. As if tearing down everything is the goal. Is there a future? Is there something I can pass on to my children? Look at the gurdwara, for heaven’s sake. There’s nothing there for me.”
“Do mean your father, your grandfather, or their generations have failed in any way, then?”
“No, no. Not them. I mean these jathedars, these chaudhries in the gurdwaras, these caste-ridden imbeciles that have taken over and left nothing standing in Sikhi!”
I am still trying to stay out of this mess that he has woven in front of my very eyes. I say nothing. He’s quiet for a bit too. Then, he stands up and starts pacing back and forth.
“I’m not even sure if there’s a God any more. What’re we doing, all of us, with our lives? I’m a good Sikh, I think. I work hard. I do my nitnem. At least, I used to. I don’t anymore. I go to the gurdwara every Sunday. Have taken my kids there all their lives. I lead an honest life. I harm no one. I hate no one. All this, and yet, all I see around me is a wasteland.”
Again, he goes silent for a while. I don’t say anything. I’m not sure I have much to say. True, I too have struggled with all the goings on in the world, but I also believe that each one of us has to find our own solutions. What has worked for me will not necessarily work for others: I am wary of the dangers of telling him what to do, especially when I am not sure either.
“I haven’t been to the gurdwara for a while now. My wife goes. I know my children go. I don’t. There’s been a disconnect. I’m afraid we as a community have been let down. Badly.”
He sits down, exhausted.
We sit in silence. I can feel him staring at me, as if daring me to say something, anything.
Finally, I succumb to his glare.
“Have you done any seva in the gurdwara?”
“Sure I have,” he says. “Langar. Whenever I can. I’ve taught my kids to help serve and clean up, at least for a while, every Sunday ...”
“No,” I interrupt him, “not langar. In management. In running the gurdwara.”
“No, never. Do I need to? Is it necessary?”
“No it isn’t. But, if you want to criticize the running of gurdwaras, you need to understand exactly what goes on there. You seem to be sure things have gone wrong but you don’t really know why. And you don’t seem to want to know why. And you tell me you yourself have never jumped into the fray to fix things, to make them right.”
He shrugged his shoulders, ever so slightly.
“Yet you want the right to criticize, but don’t want to get your own hands dirty. You want others to fix things for you. And if they fail, it’s all their fault, not yours!”
He surprises me, he nods his head. I decide to push the envelope a bit further.
“You tell me of the extraordinary things your father and your grandfather did … things that help us stand tall today. Well, here’s an exercise for you. Why don’t you sit down with a piece of paper - not now, later, when you’re on your own, and I don’t need to know what you put on it, no one does; it’s solely for your own eyes - and jot down all the things you have done to build the community, to make things better. Don’t list what you’ve done for yourself or your children, or all the ways in which you’ve lived like a good Sikh. Instead, list the things you’ve done which match what your father did … and what your grandfather did.”
I know I have his attention.
“A community - ours as well as all others - is nothing but a sum of its parts. You and I are its parts. What we do ultimately gives the community its shape and character. What we don’t do also gives the community its shape and character.
“You and I are amongst the most privileged not only in the world, but also within our affluent and successful community. We enjoy immense gifts and blessings, so much so that each one of us has the capacity to single-handedly change things. Noticeably. Demonstrably. With immediate, measurable results.
“Hence, each one of us also has the potential of being a weak link. If we don’t do our share, we become one of the community’s ‘weakest links‘.
“So, I don’t think it is Sikhi’s fault as to where we are today. Sikhi is as glorious as ever. Nor is it God’s. Nor is it T-H-E-I-R fault, whoever that ‘they’ is.
“If things have gone wrong, we have a choice. We have an option. We can do our bit to fix them. Or not. But there’s no point ranting and raving over it, especially if we have taken the latter route. If we beat ourselves into a lather, all we do is make ourselves sick … and find ourselves blaming others.”
I didn’t know if he was going to jump up and hit me or hug me. He just sat there.
I knew it was time to wrap up.
“One final thing, before we head off for lunch. If you choose to jump into the fray, there’s a caveat. The first ten years must be devoted to being quiet. To serving … not leading. We must first be sikhs before we become sardars.”
Continued … tomorrow.
Conversation about this article
1: S. Bhogal (United Kingdom), September 06, 2012, 11:50 AM.
Wise advice. I am glad you left it to him to look inside himself, then take action/ decide.
2: Simran (United States), September 06, 2012, 5:38 PM.
What a wonderful piece! I am anxious to read more. It is true that we have a tendency to sit and dwell on the bad happenings at our gurdwaras, yet don't have the courage to stand up and take some action.