Survival of The FittestT. SHER SINGH
Friday, August 24, 2012
When my parents fled the fires of Partition and settled in an alien land a thousand miles away from their native Punjab, they underwent a culture shock.
I was born in their new homeland shortly thereafter, and remember their observations, as I grew up, on the things they continued to discover as different and strange in their new surroundings.
The one thing that puzzled my father year after year, decade after decade, was the annual toll the monsoons took across the length and breadth of the land.
It would pour endlessly for weeks on end, the rivers would swell and flood the villages on their banks, and thousands would drown.
Every year. Year after year. In the very same villages.
The newspapers would be full of tragic tales of families having lost their loved ones yet again. Once again deprived of all their worldly possessions, they would wait by the swollen banks, starved and diseased. Until some relief arrived to keep them alive.
Once the rains were done and the water receded, the villagers would head back to reclaim their villages, rebuild their huts and begin building new idols in preparation for the oncoming festival of Dussehra in honour of Durga and Kali, the twin Hindu deities of destruction and death.
It was a time when newspaper printing still involved a laborious process of type-setting, letter by letter, and then turning a story and accompanying images into wood-and-lead blocks, which were then used to print the newspaper.
My father would quip - right on cue, every year - that the newspaper editors never threw away those blocks; that they used the same ones over and over again, year after year, because the story never changed.
It was exactly the same tragedy, borne by the same people, in the same locations, every year. The details too were the same.
Why in heaven’s sake, he would complain, do these people not move to higher ground, and merely go back to their fields during the non-monsoon seasons to till the land? Why do they go back to live on the same plot of land? Why do they not learn?
That, I’m afraid, put succinctly, is the tragedy of India.
What my father saw six decades ago, what I saw during the two decades thereafter, what I saw in India on each occasion that I have gone back to the country for a visit, is still to be seen In India every year.
It is exactly how the newspaper stories unfolded this year too - the only difference is that the newspapers are now printed differently and the news industry has expanded into other media.
It’s not just the villagers.
Why don’t the authorities, the government agencies, the politicians, the community leaders, the religious pooh-baahs … why don’t any of them do anything to change things?
In contrast, I look at the saga of my parents.
In 1947, they found their homeland embroiled in an unprecedented and irreversible cataclysm. They were up and gone. Found a new home a thousand miles away -- an unfamiliar and certainly not a flourishing environment, but it was a safe one.
Against heavy odds, they rebuilt a life from scratch, reached the zenith in what they had sent out to achieve.
And then saw storm clouds on the horizon. They were getting darker and uglier every year.
So, they pulled up roots again, and were up and gone. This time around, they gave up entirely on the sad land and crossed the seas to find a country which would offer peace and security.
That has been the story of Sikhs, all Sikhs, for five centuries. Not the story of India or Indians, just Sikhs.
Sikhs are trail-blazers.
Indians follow … which means that they are always behind. Also, they remain perennially mediocre, at best … because if they have any creative energy, it is in imitation, not innovation. Let me give you one glaring example: they take great pride in Bombay’s fly-overs and New Delhi’s subway system. Right. Both of these cities got theirs a full century after other parts of the world got them. India hails it as progress and has declared itself world-class on the basis of such inch-steps forward .
Sikhs are nation builders and they do not suffer fools. They overcome adversity easily, but when they see it is repetitive and relentless, they find a solution. They are not afraid of conflict and triumph over it quite easily, but when they see it is meaningless and senseless, they seek alternatives.
This is exactly what Arnold Toynbee identified as a defining trait in Sikhs.
Toynbee was no ordinary man. He was one of the greatest historian-philosophers the world has known. Unlike most other historians, he did not write or record as a mouthpiece of any vested interest. And unlike most historians, his knowledge and research was not bookish, secondary or borrowed.
He is unique in the annals of history-writing in that he traveled around the world, on foot - twice! - through each land, personally observed the past of each civilization … and, equally importantly, its present. And, then, made intelligent and learned prognostications.
He traveled across the subcontinent several times, including Punjab. The land intrigued him because, inter alia, it was here that Alexander had discovered his limits, where the world-conquering Mongols reached their peak through the Mughals, where the British found wealth and confidence.
After decades of study and observation, he wrote a chapter on the twin cities of Lahore and Amritsar and wrapped it up with these words - and I quote him verbatim:
They are the burliest men on the face of the planet - tough and capable and slightly grim. If human life survives the present chapter of Man's history, the Sikhs, for sure, will still be on the map.
These words were written after the Partition of Punjab, only a few years later. At a time when Sikhs were not at their best; they were still reeling from the most serious setback they had experienced in modern times - a holocaust, a precipitous loss of their homeland, and an uncertain future in a land and amongst a sea of people which shared very few values with them.
I put more faith in Toynbee’s words than I do in those of any others … simply because his observations were informed ones. Independent, objective, free of vested interests or distracting agendas.
There’s nothing I have seen in my six decades of living which disproves Toynbee’s opinion.
In fact, if anything, I find the development of the Sikh community worldwide to date, in every way consistent with his analysis.
To see what I see, and what he saw, all we need to do is step back far enough to be able to see the forest, not just the trees.
More about this, off and on, in the next few days …
Conversation about this article
1: Harpal Singh (Sydney, Australia), August 25, 2012, 6:09 AM.
The mandate of a Sikh is captured in the saakhi of Guru Nanak in which he blesses the residents of one village - a bunch of ill-mannered, narrow-minded, selfish and mean-spirited people - to be "vasdey raho" (stay rooted here), and the apparent "curse" he bestowed on another village - of decent, giving, sharing, loving, hard-working people - to "ujjarrh jao" (lose your roots and scatter). We now seek the Guru's blessings in affording us the initiative, wisdom, ability and humility in being the flag bearers of Guru Nanak's mission the world over.