Harpreet's Tiffin CarrierSANDEEP SINGH BRAR
I hate funerals.
Usually, I avoid them and attend the gurdwara service after the funeral.
But last week I made the decision to attend my friend, Harpreet Singh Dhariwal’s funeral because I was leaving for the United States to attend a business conference and would not be able to attend the gurdwara service as I normally would.
I’m glad I went.
What I saw, what I heard and what I learned will be lessons and memories that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Just as emotional as the joyous memories I still have of my other intense intersection in Harpreet’s life had been decades earlier when I had photographed his wedding in order to showcase and explain a Sikh wedding on Sikhs.org back in the 1990’s.
A wedding and a funeral! How ironic that I would be the closest to my friend Harpreet at these two antithetic milestones in his life.
Where did the years in between Harpreet’s wedding and his funeral go?
They passed by so fast and I took them for granted, and now I regret that I never got a chance to say and do all the things that I wanted to share with my friend. I think back to the time he invited me to bring my kids over in the winter time to play in the snow because he said there was this great hill for tobogganing
behind his house.
Or that time that I bumped into Harpreet and his lovely wife Rani and their cute kids at the gurdwara one day seven years ago. I lined them all up against a wall and took a photograph of the family. I loved how it turned out and said to myself, ‘Harpreet is going to love this picture! I’m going to print and frame it and give it to him as a surprise present’.
These are just fragments of thoughts now, they will never be memories and experiences. Why did I take my time with Harpreet for granted, thinking I would have all the time in the world to do things with him?
Attending his funeral, it became clear to me that Harpreet had never taken any of his time or relationships for granted. He had lived his life with an intensity and passion as if he knew that every minute counted.
When I was a young child in Kenya and when we would go on safari, or when we would go on family picnics in the 1970’s in Canada, one of the most important items we took along was the family tiffin carrier.
A unique invention of the Raj, it is now making somewhat of a comeback. It is composed of round, deep steel trays, all stacked up, one on top of the other, and the entire contraption is held together with a steel band and handle. My mother or grandmother would fill each compartment of the tiffin carrier with delicious foods, daal in one compartment, saag in another, aaloo mutter sabzi in another, chicken curry in another, dahi in another, rotis in another.
Each compartment would be completely sealed from the other, stacked on top of each other and acting like lids as well.
At meal time on the safari or picnic, each tiffin compartment would be unstacked and laid out for a fresh and delicious meal. Each item would be fresh and warm, having kept its food sealed off from the other.
Harpreet’s life, as it was revealed by various speakers at his funeral, reminded me of our family tiffin carrier. Here was a man who had tightly compartmentalized his life and made sure that his attention to one aspect of his life did not mean that another part of his life suffered.
Just as in the tiffin, the saag does not mix with the curry chicken and each stayed fresh, so was Harpreet’s life.
Watching the slide show of family pictures of Harpreet playing on a screen, as I sat in one corner of the funeral chapel while the soft voice of his father, Sardar Sudarshan Singh, recited Sukhmani Sahib in the background, I saw the life of a devoted father and husband flash before me.
His three young children, Amrit Singh (12), Sahib Singh (10) and Teg Singh (9) and his lovely wife Rani (Ranjit Kaur) never suffered from lack of attention due to Harpreet’s many involvements. He was always there for them and even though he is gone, they will have a lifetime of memories of quality time that they spent with him.
Harpreet understood the serious obligations of what it meant to be a father and a husband and as the slides on the screen flashed scenes of Harpreet camping with his family or playing with his children, we were all reminded of the quality of the man as a devoted father and husband.
Another set of trays from the tiffin carrier of Harpreet’s life were revealed when Staff Superintendent Richard Stubbings from the Toronto Police Force spoke about Harpreet’s key involvement in establishing a major annual basketball tournament sponsored by the police for youth. I have seldom seen a policeman cry, but as Superintendent Stubbing struggled at parts of his tribute to Harpreet, I could see that they had not only been colleagues, but friends as well. In his efforts to neatly compartmentalize his life, Harpreet shunned any accolades for his work.
Superintendent Stubbings mentioned that he had once approached Harpreet because the police department wanted to publicly honour him for his outstanding community work. Harpreet told the Superintendent, “Absolutely not, and if you hold such a ceremony, I won’t be attending!“
Such was the mark of the man, that the only accolades that he needed was the inner satisfaction in knowing that he was working to make the world a better place; he did not need others to tell him, or felt the need to tell other people, “Look what a great job I’m doing”.
How rare to come across someone who thinks like that in this day and age when everything is about self-promotion.
Before Staff Superintendent Subbings had spoken, another member of the Police Force, Rev Walter Kelly, spoke of Harpreet’s work as a Police Chaplain. How here was a Christian minister who had been exposed to the beauty of Sikhism and been profoundly impacted through hours of philosophical discussions with his fellow Police Chaplain and friend, Harpreet Singh.
Remarkably, here was Harpreet working as a Police Chaplain and working with Superintendent Stubbings on the youth basketball tournament -- both of the same police force! -- yet Harpreet never told Stubbing that he was also serving as a Police Chaplain.
Harpreet did not see any point in boasting about his work with one branch of the police to the other branch of the police.
These two police representatives, and the others that followed, slowly revealed to us at the funeral each of the different compartments of tremendous work and accomplishments that had been part of the tiffin carrier of Harpreet’s life.
So many commitments, so much passion and intensity in doing the best that he could … whether it was helping kids, helping the community, helping his local school, working at the Department of Engineering at the University of Toronto, or being a father and a husband. Harpreet made sure that each compartment of his complex life received his utmost and total attention when it was needed.
But just like the tiffin carrier where the daal does not mix with the sabzi to make a mixed mess of confusing tastes, Harpreet ensured that his work at the University did not suffer because of his volunteer work and he ensured that his volunteer work did not suffer because of his family obligations and he made sure his children and Rani did not suffer because of his attention to work or community.
A very special and complex man and clearly the most humble person that I have ever known.
One of the most remarkable things that left an impression on me at the funeral was the sense of dignity and composure of Harpreet’s three children who were all there at the ceremony. I was amazed when the eldest, 12-year old Amrit Singh, spoke to us during the formal speeches as part of the tribute.
There was strength of conviction in his voice and I felt that I was in the presence of a man and not a boy, as young Amrit had now been forced to grow up overnight and assume the role of the family anchor, providing support for his mother Rani, his two younger brothers and his aging grandfather who had outlived his son.
At the funeral hall, as I arrived, I saw Amrit greeting and consoling various friends and family as they arrived. He and his two younger brothers were wearing suits with smartly tied turbans. Looking at Amrit, it looked to me as if Harpreet had tied his turban and told him,”Son, today I need you to be brave for your mother and your brothers and your grandfather”.
Looking at Harpreet in the casket with his eyes closed, and looking at Amrit standing next to him, I could sense the continuity between father and son.
Looking at young Amrit reminded me of my own childhood. I was the same age as Amrit, 12 years old, when my father died in a car accident in Kenya.
At the time I was living with my grandparents in Canada when the phone call came from Kenya that my father had died. I never got a chance to say goodbye to my father and I never got a chance to attend his funeral. It’s been almost 40 years now, but not having that precious chance has left a hole in my heart that has never healed.
Even today I still never answer the phone when it rings, fearful of the trauma of that fateful phone call years earlier. Not being able to attend my father’s funeral means that I never got that sense of closure that I could see between Harpreet and Amrit.
Harpreet had been hospitalized for some time as he had fought his cancer and he had been able to bravely prepare his family. Making the decision to allow the children to attend the funeral was a brave one and correct one, made by their mother, Rani.
I could see that at the funeral and in the years to come it will provide Amrit and his brothers a sense of peace and closure.
As for myself, I hope that one day I get a chance to stand on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya where I was born and where my father’s ashes were immersed, say ardaas, touch the water and finally say goodbye to my father.
I still hate funerals, but I’m glad that I went to Harpreet’s funeral. I learned more about life and what it means to live a life to its fullest, than I have in a very long time.
Thank you, Harpreet.
The author is the curator of SikhMuseum.com and the creator of the world’s first Sikh website, Sikhs.org.
October 4, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 04, 2012, 3:21 PM.
"dayh sajjan aseesarhee-aa ji-o hovai sahib si-o mayl" [GGS:12.14] - "My friends, give me your blessings that I may merge with my Lord and Master". Sandeep ji, what a lovely tribute for your friend, Harpreet - an awesome celebration indeed. Reminds me of Walt Whitman's poem: "He is not gone. He is just away, With cheery smile and the wave of the hand, He has wandered into an unknown land, And left us wondering how very fair that land, May be, since he tarries there."
2: Sarjit Kaur (Bethel Park, PA, USA), October 04, 2012, 4:10 PM.
Very inspiring, and relevant indeed. Thank-you. Gurbani reminds us that all action is Him. Which is why we connect to each other in pain, happiness, etc.
3: Dya Singh (Melbourne, Australia), October 04, 2012, 5:10 PM.
A very moving tribute. I read it because I have had three bereavements of those close to me, including my own sister, at the beginning of this year. Harpreet looks so young. There is a saying about the good dying young ... We share the loss with Sandeep and Harpreet's family. This note is just to pass on my heartfelt condolences. On a lighter note - I think for most of us - the daal always spills over into the saag - tiffin carrier or not!
4: Pashaura Singh (Riverside, California, USA), October 04, 2012, 11:12 PM.
This is a very inspiring account of a very special funeral, from a person who 'hates funerals'. Ranjit Kaur is a brave Sikh woman who prepared her sons to stand by their father's side and to say goodbye. One learns about the mystery of life only when one can handle death bravely. Harpreet Singh was such a person who understood the meaning of life and he enjoyed every moment of it. We can learn from his example. May Waheguru provide comfort to the whole family. My gratitude to Sandeep Singh for writing this wonderful piece.
5: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, USA), October 05, 2012, 8:00 PM.
This is yet again a wonderful tribute to this unknown man who gave so much from one hand without letting the other hand know about it. I loved the tiffin carrier analogy to describe Harpreet's life. Why are there so few souls like Harpreet in this world who want nothing, no self promotion for themselves, like Sandeep mentions above, and yet continue to enjoy giving to their communities and families? If I could learn one tenth of parenting, commitment and humility that Harpreet had, I would consider myself fortunate. Truly a man blessed with sehaj. Thank you, Sandeep ji, for this inspiring piece.