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The Anniversary Compulsion:
A Modest Proposal





We are having a much needed breather between one mega-anniversary and the next.

This year’s is quite a bumper crop of commemorations, isn’t it?

The 30th Anniversary of the Indian Army’s invasion of The Darbar Sahib in Amritsar.

The Centennial of the Komagata Maru Tragedy.

And of the beginning of the First World War.

The 175th Anniversary of the death of Ranjit Singh, the great Emperor of Punjab.

In a few months, the 30th Anniversary of the 1984 Genocide of Sikhs.

I could list, and so can you, a dozen more in a jiffy.

Each stops us in our tracks to muse, even for a short while, on what happened once … and of how far we have come since.

Even within our personal lives there are significant milestones. My ‘baby sister’, Sartaj Kaur, turns 50 this year. Another sister, Sunder Kaur, turns 60. I too graduate this year … to 65.

And the list goes on.

Each Centennial and Anniversary brings its parades and protests, proclamations and exhibitions, and then they fade away, relegated once again to the pages of history.

Same with the personal markers. Cakes and gifts, parties and photo-ops, and then, back to the grind.

Is that it? Does it have to be that way?

If there’s no more, then it’s been a waste of time, my father used to say.

Sure, for children, the event itself is important. It marks a rite of passage, from infancy to the first birthday, from the first to the second, and so on. It introduces the little one to self-worth, making him or her prince/princess at least for a day each year. Teaching them that there’s more to aspire in life than the daily humdrum.

But once you are an adult, surely there’s got to be more we get out of these anniversaries than a party or a parade.

Do something you haven’t done before, something that will stay with you, add to your life, make it better … something you can build on. Otherwise, he said, you’ve wasted an opportunity.

The same goes for communities.

What good is it to jump and holler each year in June and November in memory of 1984, a little louder in the thirtieth year, maybe, if we haven’t moved ourselves forward significantly in the process?   
So, June came again this year, and is soon to be gone, relegated to history. Did we as a community do anything to truly honour the memory of those who gave their lives, or to protect and secure the future of our children from repetitions of the outrages?

These next few months before another November comes along is a good period for us to figure out what we can do, as a community and in our personal lives, to really, meaningfully commemorate what is so important in our history.

I am, however, a practical man.

I willingly leave the bigger things to better minds, and concentrate on the little things that I can accomplish personally.

No campaigns for ‘Peace on Earth’ for me, for example.

I try to pick and choose a personal challenge and set the goal of meeting it head-on.

Along those lines. here’s a modest proposal for those of you who are, like me, seeking for simple do-able things to tackle, projects that are within reach, require no mountain of effort, but will still transform our lives for the better … both personally and collectively.

Those of us who, for one reason or the other, have missed out on even the rudiments of Gurmukhi -- the Punjabi script -- can set the goal of learning it between now and November.

It’s actually easier than it sounds.

You can, I guarantee you, be well on your way, both reading and writing it, within SEVEN days, with the least amount of time dedicated to it.

All it requires is half-an-hour of concentrated attention every day … for SEVEN days.

That’s a total of 3 ½ hours.

This is not my invention. It was my father’s.

The Gurmukhi alphabet consists of 35 letters -- that is, seven clusters of five each.

Each day, you spend half-an-hour learning just five new letters.

On each successive day, you relegate 5-10 minutes of that half-an-hour to go back to the letters you’ve learnt to date and refresh.

You write each letter out and say it loudly each time as you do so.

Punjabi, the language itself, is a phonetic language, more so than any other one I know of. That is, you write it exactly the way it sounds. You speak it exactly the way it is spelled out in writing. No silent letters, like the ones that litter the French landscape. No half-letters and hybrids -- sanyukt akchhhars -- that cripple Hindi and Sanskrit. No hide-and-seek sounds that drive English learners up the wall.

By the end of the week, you’ll be able to read and write basic Punjabi words.

It takes another half-an-hour to pick up the vowels, which are separate from the paintee (Thirty-Five).

If you’re already Punjabi-speaking, but are merely learning to read and write, you’ll progress in leaps and bounds thereafter since you‘ll already have the vocabulary! If you are enjoying the process and choose to spend a few extra minutes each day, you’ll be reading and writing simple sentences within a week after that.

So, here’s a project which requires no money, no great investment in time, no committee approval, no consensus from your peers …

If you already know Punjabi but know someone near and dear to you who doesn’t -- child or adult -- do this with him or her. With you as the coach, you’ll do wonders.

This is how I learnt Punjabi. And this is how my daughter did.

The trajectory from this point on in ever steeper.

But more on this in future weeks -- I’ll be glad to share with you how both my daughter and I were taught at home in no time.

But what I set out to say is, there’s no point aspiring for big things -- transforming entire communities and participating in world-shaking events -- if the little things have fallen by the wayside. The little-things are the foundations, without which big things cannot be built … or cannot stay up for long.

Do this little thing and you’ll realize it’s a big thing you’ve done in memory of 1984.

More, in the next few days!

June 27, 2015          

Conversation about this article

1: Dr Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 27, 2014, 10:57 AM.

What you have referred to as milestones are in fact days or times, periods or moments of significance designed to help us reflect, ponder, reminisce, analyze, understand occurrences ... to remember the historical veneer of such instances, as it is common knowledge that if you forget your history, it is bound to repeat itself. Individuals who don't take a pause to reflect and introspect do so at their own peril of forgetting their past/history and having to grapple with everything that follows such omission.

2: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 27, 2014, 1:04 PM.

Punjabi is a lovely versatile language. Up to this day, if I need to record correct pronunciation of any word in any language, I write in down in Punjabi. I never learnt it formally. It just came with the milk.

3: Rup Singh (Canada), June 27, 2014, 5:47 PM.

Wonderful suggestion because once the language goes, everything else follows. Gurbani is in many languages and dialects and the Gurus invented the Gurmukhi alphabet and because, as pointed out in the article, it is phonetic, Guru Granth Sahib could only have been written well in Gurmukhi.

4: Harpal Singh (Sydney, Australia), June 28, 2014, 12:56 AM.

What a wonderful proposal it is ... it's like suggesting someone to make sure they have their passport on them before going to the airport for an international flight. Reading gurbani is the starting point of a Sikh's journey and reaching the next post is to start comprehending what one reads. Neither of these early milestones can be reached without being able to read and understand Gurmukhi. Sher has put forth an earnest proposal for each one of those wanting to embark on the Sikhi train.

5: Harminder Singh (Jalandhar, Punjab), June 28, 2014, 7:03 AM.

This is a wonderful suggestion and it will go a long way in preserving our culture and strengthen our unity.

6: Kulvinder Jit Kaur (Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada), June 29, 2014, 6:11 PM.

Your proposal has a lot of weight! Indeed learning Punjabi is an asset and I can vouch for the technique proposed by the author. I have used it myself. Punjabi is my first language but I did not get a chance to learn to read and write it. I grew up outside Punjab and therefore learned English and Hindi at school. It never occurred to my parents to teach me the alphabet either, probably because I spoke the language fluently. When my father was transferred to Bombay, Balraj Sahni was a frequent visitor and during one of his visits he asked me who my favourite author was. I named an English author. He asked again who my Punjabi favorite author was, to which my reply was: "I can't read Punjabi." He looked at me and related a story from his own life where the conversation went the same way as ours and the questioner was Rabindra Nath Tagore who told him that he should be ashamed of not writing in his mother tongue. This prompted Balraj Sahni to start writing in Punjabi. I was told by him that by his next visit he would like to see me well-conversant with the Punjabi alphabet. With the help of a Punjabi qaida (primer) I learned the Punjabi alphabet in one week and by the second week was reading in Punjabi. He used to bring the latest publication of a periodical called 'Preet Larri' for my mother to read and those were my first readings. I read fluently but unfortunately never had the need to write often in Punjabi, so the writing needs some work. From now until November is sufficient time for me to accomplish that! When my children were still in elementary school I taught them the Punjabi alphabet and to read simple Punjabi books (Grade 1 and 2 level) In Niagara Falls we did not have the provision of Punjabi classes (there was no Gurudwara) and not enough Punjabi families to form a class. So I gathered 5 other children from Sikh families and taught them too. My mother could not believe it that of all the people "I" was teaching Punjabi. It was my own method, as I was self taught, but the result was good as all the children could read Punjabi after the Summer vacation.

7: Raj (Canada), June 29, 2014, 11:49 PM.

Our mother made sure that we attended a Khalsa school whenever the choice was available. And, I am ever thankful to her for her wisdom. With my schooling in Punjab, in India and then in Canada, I have command over four languages. With the life experiences I have, I can conclude that without gurbani, there's no Sikhi; and without Punjabi, there's no understanding of gurbani. When you read gurbani, the shabads that hit you, you would've never heard of them in gurdwaras. Your personal reading, understanding and contemplation of gurbani makes you a Sikh. I owe it all to my mom.

8: Harman Singh (California, USA), June 30, 2014, 11:10 AM.

Thank you for this inspiration. I am going to make this happen by November.

9: R Singh (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), July 01, 2014, 1:42 AM.

'Punjabi Primer' by Dr Gurbakhsh Singh is a good book to learn how to read and write Punjabi.

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A Modest Proposal"

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