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The Sangat Flourishes in Cyber Space

by I.J. SINGH

 

 

One morning, just days ago, I posted a column on sikhchic.com, and with childlike anticipation logged on that very evening to see if I had touched a reader somewhere.

I was absolutely amazed.

There were six responses but each was from a different country; in order, they were United Kingdom, Malaysia, Canada, Kenya, United States and New Zealand.

Here I sit in the United States, the site operates from Canada; both are in the same time zone.  The other four are worlds apart.

All I could think was: What are these readers doing in the middle of the night somewhere on the other side of the world, reading my fulminations about the state of our existence?

It was pure ecstasy to feel the reach of this young, fledgling, barely five years old site, sikhchic.com.  It has an almost infinite and, more importantly, a growing expanse. We live in a flat world now.

I remember when I left India to come to New York in July 1960. I don’t think there were any direct flights from India to America then, perhaps a rare one beyond my imagination or reach.

So I took a route that, I know now, was absolutely the best vacation I ever had, nay, a young man’s dream passage. From Bombay, it took me 21 days to reach Liverpool via a first class ship. We stopped en route at Karachi, Aden, Port Said, Port Tufaiq, Gibraltar and one or two additional stops that were less memorable.

It was my first trip to Bombay, my first visit outside Indian borders and my first view of the sea. Luckily, I was among the few on the ship that never suffered sea-sickness; my iron stomach was never queasy.  I never missed a meal or the fun evenings.

The trip was a much needed, fantastic time out. It was slow immersion into the wider world outside Punjab and India - so many different people, so many strangers, so many languages and accents, so many different cultures, music and rules of behavior, and so many different cuisines. 

What could be better schooling for a new life in New York City, the Big Apple of the world - old and new? I loved the sea voyage. It was a much needed change from the unending and uninterrupted rigors of the Indian educational format.

And from Liverpool I took a train to London, finally flying via Amsterdam to the breathless pace of life in New York. It was my first flight anywhere.

Of course, there was no gurduara and little sangat in New York. (I encountered only three recognizable Sikhs in the city then.) I used to joke that the nearest gurduara was about 3000 miles away in California. 

And then a year and a half later I was in Oregon to pursue graduate school. And then I would joke that the gurduara was now considerably nearer - only about 700 miles away. In Oregon, there was no Sikh that I knew of before I got there and none after I left it. Occasionally a Sikh visitor would come or travel through and we would meet. Now Oregon, too, has a gurduara.

But I was only a couple of fast hours from Ashland, the home of the second oldest Shakespearean Festival in North America. And I did get to meet the legendry Bhagat Singh Thind in Oregon, a year or two before he died.

How wonderfully and how so fast things have changed.  It takes my breath away.

In 2001, I wrote an essay, The Sangat of Cyberspace. Sikh communities were not quite so large then. Gurduaras were quite a rarity, but never more than one in the same territory; they were a respectable distance from each other.

Most importantly, the computer revolution was still new and embryonic. Not everyone had a laptop, The iPhone, the iPod and the Blackberry didn’t exist. 

I had discovered computers for their word-processing comfort and had learned the rudiments of e-mailing, but not much more. I was discovering a new world. 

The art, technology, indeed the meaning of communication has now changed and how. A generation before mine didn’t trust the telephone for confidential information on the most sensitive matters of life and death. 

For the most meaningful and significant matters of navigating through the cunning passages of life one needed face to face communication; this was de rigueur. You had to look someone in the eye, watch the eyes narrow to slits at your sight, watch the shades and shadows flit across one’s face, feel the firmness and the warmth of the handshake, see the perspiration form when you had cornered someone, and enjoy a genuine smile of welcome, acceptance and liking. 

Computer connectivity robbed us of all that but gave us time, expanded our reach in time and space that I still can’t imagine. I have lived most of life in the pre-Google days but now the possibilities are endless.

Just a couple of years ago, chatting with a young Sikh at a party who was studying pre-law, I triumphantly challenged him to locate the citation from Shakespeare on the clarion call to “kill all the lawyers.” I thought I was being clever and my humor sophisticated. I had barely turned away in triumph when he nudged me to give me the right answer. Flabbergasted I asked him how he had achieved that miracle so fast; he happily showed me his cell phone and his competence with Google.  

Somewhat deflated, I was but also pleased at how the world was changing. Now I understand why our academic centers and universities worry so much about electronic cheating at exams.

Electronic communications and virtual meetings now add to my pleasure as life never could before. Sometimes I taste grief that I never imagined - when I get into verbal jousting with people all around the globe, mostly those that I have never met. They are friends, nevertheless.

But then some days are different - when my daughter and now her daughter who is not even in school yet shows me a trick or two on a computer or a cell phone, that escapes me.

I never know if it is a man or a woman, young or old, rich or poor, genuinely curious or merely superficial that engages with my writings. What does his body language say? Is he talking with a sneer and an expression of disdain? Where is he located? Is he shading his words because of the political realities of the system he is in? I shouldn’t really use the word “he”-  for I know not that either. 

Much lies outside the range of my knowledge, conjecture or imagination. Cyberspace is endless, as are its promises and possibilities, while our lives are short. Thank you, my readers from around the world; you make my day.

A lot of living can be packed in one single generation. 

 

ijsingh99@gmail.com

August 29, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Lakhvir Singh Khalsa (Nairobi, Kenya), August 29, 2011, 10:57 AM.

The internet was the single-most responsible medium that helped me reform from a clean-shaven to an observant Sikh and now in full Khalsa roop as well. It continues to be a major resource to untapped Sikhi treasures as I endeavour to become a better Sikh in line with gurbani and gurmat, and safe from all those marauders in mere Sikh form that are out to snatch away even the little Sikhi we may have in us.

2: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), August 29, 2011, 11:17 AM.

Nice observation that we are up in the early hours of the morning here in U.K., sharing comments on sikhchic.com and, yes, technology is awesome. If your journey was so great way back in 1960, then think what we can do today! Here in UK we can call a Taxi, go to an airport and be at any gurdwara on Planet Earth (including Darbar Sahib) within 24 hours! And all achieved with the help of a computer.

3: I. Singh (Chelmsford, MA, U.S.A.), August 29, 2011, 12:16 PM.

Three pioneers of Sikhi cyberspace come to mind that may deserve some exposure in more detail when Sikh history of late 20th and 21st century is written in earnest. First is "KhalsaNet" by Jasbir Singh of Maboli fame. Second is sikhs.org by my good friend Sandeep Singh currently of the SikhMuseum.com fame. And of course sikhnet.com by Gurmastuk Singh of New Mexico. Some of my younger Sikh activist colleagues have actually shared that we as Sikhs are way behind the curve in effective use of cyberspace and development of programs online. So although Dr. I.J. Singh's piece shows the leaps of progress we have made, we have a long way to go.

4: Tarsem Singh Ubhi (Newport Pagnell, United Kingdom), August 29, 2011, 1:47 PM.

Yes, isn't the internet amazing? Here I am in mid-England responding with this comment. I love to learn from Sangat Singh's wealth of experience from the other side of the world - Malaysia. I reminisce about Nairobi, my birthplace, every time I read Lakhvir Singh's comments. It motivates me whenever I read about another Sikh reaching the pinnacle of his career, be it Rabinder Singh QC (UK), The Banga Tigers (India) or Bob Singh Dhillon (Canada). sikhchic.com and its daily articles are so invigorating that I feel compelled to log in at least once a day to devour all the new articles that are rolled out at such a rapid pace - difficult to believe that sikhchic.com is a one-man-band manifestation. It feels good to be part of the Cyber Sangat's triumphs and tribulations.

5: Gobinder Singh (U.S.A.), August 29, 2011, 4:01 PM.

Most of my learning and connection with Sikhi in the last decade has come from the web. Early pioneers like Sikhnet and now sikhchic.com are added to my daily list of sites to visit. I am still hoping that soon we take it to the next level and start some sort of annual meet at different locations every year where members and readers can actually meet each other face to face. It will be an excellent way of developing lasting bonds and share our knowledge and experiences!

6: Jesroshan Singh (Malaysia), August 29, 2011, 11:58 PM.

I have spoken to many Sikhs who bemoan that there are only 30 million Sikhs in the world. Furthermore, not all are Khalsa and excuses like that, etc., etc. But the spirit of Chardi Kala will never leave us. Now that God has given us computers and technology, let us Sikhs conquer the world.

7: Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, U.S.A.), August 30, 2011, 9:45 AM.

It was a right time that our columnist I.J. Singh brought into the open what has been brooding in silence for some time. It is a historic new expansion of the Guru Panth through the medium of internet. New sangats, new exegists or new kathakars, new ways of giving birth to more educated religious leadership and entirely new ways of bringing world participation in the revolution that Gurmat might bring to the global village. As you can see, I am very thrilled with our Guru's solution of thus replacing obsolete, self-appointed guards of His Panth. Thank you I. Singh ji (#3) for recognizing some of the pioneers. I should add Dr. Kulbir Singh Thind who brought our eternal Guru Granth Sahib to the cyber sangat via the development of the gurbani-lipi font. Obviously, this will bring its own challenges and leaders of the various world religions have already begun to debate them in their own fora. I draw your attention to some publications as follows: "Authority in the Virtual Sangat, Sikhism, ritual and identity in the twenty-first century," Doris r. Jakobsh, online - Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the internet, 2.1 (2006); "Finding Religion in Second Life's Virtual Universe", By Shona Crabtree, Religion News Service, Saturday, June 16, 2007; "Religion Becoming Virtualized: Introduction to the special issue on religion in virtual worlds," Kerstin Radde-antweiler, online - Heidelberg Journal, 1.1 (2005); "Young People and the use of the Internet as Transitional Space", Mia lövheim.

8: Bibek Singh (Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A.), August 30, 2011, 2:48 PM.

Very nice article. Internet has certainly made this planet a flat world. Sky is the limit for scientific innovations. As far as internet is concerned, optical fibers are widely used in fiber-optic communications, which permits transmission over longer distances and at higher bandwidths (data rates) than other forms of communication. Fibers are used instead of metal wires because signals travel along them with less loss and are also immune to electromagnetic interference. Very few of us know that one of the founders of fiber optics was a Sikh - S. Narinder Singh Kapany. He was named as one of the seven 'Unsung Heroes' by Fortune magazine in their "Businessmen of the Century" issue in 1999.

9: Harpreet Singh (Delhi, India), August 31, 2011, 6:13 AM.

A few months ago, I read a big news item in 'Mail Today', a daily newspaper belonging to the 'India Today' group, that the Noble Prize given to a Korean scientist last year should have been awarded to S. Narinder Singh Kapany.

10: Aryeh Leib (Israel), August 31, 2011, 11:27 AM.

Had it not been for this "Cyber Sangat", I would never have known about you amazing people and your even more amazing ongoing relationship with Waheguru. It fills a very real place inside me that has desperately needed nurturing for longer than I can say, and that I am not getting from my own religion. Where this will all lead - I don't yet know. I am relying on the Guru to provide me with the answer, and I am profoundly grateful for the assistance and friendship I have discovered on this site. I always look forward to connecting with you, and I hope it lasts for many good years to come.

11: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), September 04, 2011, 1:18 PM.

When I saw the title, in all feigned humility I gasped: "How did they know I flourished in Cyber Space?" My Company Guthrie, the largest plantation group in the world, then had a land bank more than the size of Singapore during low tide. It was being vigorously threatened for a takeover bid, then famously known as the 'Dawn Raid', by a Malaysian Govt. backed group, 'Permodalan Nasional Bhd' or PNB for short. On the morning of September, 1981, I had a call from our Director of Operations, Brian Belsham: "Sangat, have you seen today's newspaper?" "No, Brian, I haven't seen today's newspaper, but I have seen tomorrow's." Brian knew I was a radio amateur and would always come up with something funny and bizarre. In the usual Planter's language: "How the hell is that?" "Brian, you know that I could tap into the wireless teleprinters of AFP and Reuter and my own teleprinter was presently spewing out tomorrow's news paper. I had then a Creed 54 - a surplus teleprinter adapted to copy news off the air. Usually by breakfast time around 10 am, I would check my radio shack for the latest dispatches. "Yes, indeed, we have lost the 150 years old company to PNB." The radio amateurs were always ahead of their time and we were always devising newer, exotic modes of transmission. Well before the Internet, we had means to transmit data on what was known as 'Store & Forward', meaning that we could put up a message on the low earth satellite and two hours later it would bring back the reply from another part of the world. By then we had newer electronic equipment to replace the bulky mechanical, giant-sized Creed 54 teleprinter. One day my good wife Upkar, also a licensed radio amateur, found the Creed machine missing and causally asked me: "Where is your teleprinter?" Said I: "Oh, I have lent it to another amateur." "Aren't you going to remind him?" I said: "No, because he might return it!" How fast times has changed, now I can get all the messages on my IPhone, though highly fraught with mortal danger, while driving.

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