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Above: detail from photo by Charles Meacham. Below: second from bottom - photo by Debra Solomon. Third from bottom - detail from painting by S. Kirpal Singh. Thumbnail - detail from photo by Anurag Yadava.

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Heroes Among Men

by HARVIND KAUR

 

This essay is born of some time I spent in  the Village Tallewal in Panjab, a small, removed place in District Sangrur. The closest city is Barnala and the village is nestled to the side, off the Barnala-Moga Road. I had the great fortune of living in Panjab for two years in the late 1990's. It was a priceless experience for me and inspired me to write a series of essays.

 

Inside, the fire is raging under the hot metal plate. Outside, the sun is blazing over the endless green fields sown with rice.  The temperature easily reaches 45°C everyday.

Like clockwork, they walk from their respective homes to work in this communal kitchen. Each one takes her place next to the fire. There is no complaining, only a resolve to do what needs to be done. 

Everyday, they come here. They are stronger than the men I know back home.  I don't know why they love me and humour my mysterious ways.  They encourage my attempts to keep pace with their toughened bodies.  I knead the dough for the rotis and am quickly exhausted, but for them, it is a minor task in a long, work-filled day. Even though I am weak compared to them, they embrace me, my ideas and my desire to know them.

When the rains finally arrive, they fall endlessly and the streets are flooded. I see these women trudge through the mud to make it to the gurdwara to fulfill their obligation of selfless service. They will prepare meals for close to a hundred people.

Some of these sevadaars are young, but most are older and grandmothers.  Their bodies are hardened with the burden of their many children and the tough work of each woman in this village.  They carry the hardships of their families gracefully, bearing the pains their children suffer and the maladies their husbands bring home.  They are responsible for holding the family together in an environment that is slowly eroding their sense of identity.

I see a steadfast strength in these women. It is silent. They do not talk about the sacrifices they will willingly make for their family or community. It is visible in their entire being. I see it in their eyes. These eyes are not shaded by any grandiose misconceptions. They are eyes that have lived a harsh reality.

When I see them walk with heavy bundles on their heads or working alongside the men in the fields, I know that they are the center of progress in the village. Watching them work reminds me of the brave women I have heard about that exist in Sikh history. Those stories are from before my time. 

In them, I see the leadership of one woman who told forty men to go back to the battlefield. She stood up to the husbands, brothers and sons in her village, during an archaic time when women weren't allowed to follow the spiritual path. There was no popular women's movement to stand behind her. However, she knew she had the Truth at her side. The Truth she learned and lived from Guru Nanak. Instead of embracing the weary men and consoling them after battle, she got on a steed and led them back to the battlefield, so that Truth could be victorious.

She is Mai Bhago.  Her story is just one of many that have gone unsung, but yet live in the collective Sikh memory.

When a woman twice my age sits to turn the heavy grinding stone (chakki) to make wheat flour, I see in her the same bravery of those mothers who, in the eighteenth century, endlessly sat at the grinding stone while their children were being hacked to death. The limbs were strung into garlands to be thrown around their necks. The warm blood dripped over the same breasts that had fed the same babes only moments earlier.

What was their fault? It seems quite simple: they refused to renounce their faith.

These women of the village do not expect more than what they have. They know they come from mothers who willingly drenched themselves in the blood of innocents. They accept God's divine plan for them.  This shows a remarkable strength in their faith and in doing what they know is right. Someone on the outside might confuse their silence and reverent ways with submissiveness. They would be wrong. In their faith, feminism is understood differently. They are already equals.

All that needs to be done is to act equal.

Conversation about this article

1: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), September 13, 2007, 3:53 PM.

Harvind - an excellent and sensitive portrait of Punjabi Sikh culture - one of quiet courage, and a lesson for us all.

2: Pritam Singh Grewal (Canada), September 13, 2007, 7:31 PM.

What a genuine tribute to the selfless seva being ungrudgingly rendered by the Gurus' devotee bibis! Their glorious history of sacrifices made to uphold sikhi-siddaq is unique. Despite all this, why are females being eliminated with foeticidal cruelty? Who will take their place to enrich our faith and culture in the future?

3: Briijnder Kaur Khurana (New Delhi, India), September 13, 2007, 10:09 PM.

The article captures some powerful feelings. We have so much to learn from these women, especially those of us who are born and brought up in metro cities which are full of amenities and luxuries. But these are the women who are our real heroes, because in villages, if the men are busy with their tractors, the women are equally involved in the hard work out in the fields. Sometimes I feel that they are truly blessed by our Gurus because they work away silently, without asking anything from the Almighty, and are content with what they have ... whereas we, in the cities, are constantly tearing around for more and more.

4: Devinder Pal Singh (New Delhi, India), September 14, 2007, 6:41 AM.

I am simply overwhelmed by the simplicity with which the author has brought the legacy of Sikhi's seva bhav to the fore. Women have in them Almighty's blessings and a unique strength. As a kid first, and now as a man in his prime of youth, I have often witnessed this seva bhav in them. Without considering social status, or class and creed, they unite and easily out-perform men in seva ... in fulfilling the daily routine of the gurdwara, for example. In all humility, I bow to their strength because they reach out, far beyond the call of duty, in making the gurughar a welcome place for all: the needy, rich, poor, landlords, landless, etc. As long as this practice prevails, we have no fear, for Sikhi shall forever remain nourished by the will and determination of Singhnis.

5: Harinder (Pune, India), September 15, 2007, 4:02 AM.

And we are killing future generations of these very heroes ... while they're still in the womb. I fail to understand the tragedy which is thus engulfing Punjab and India.

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