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Above: Helen. Below: Jaswant Singh.


If I Were Not To Be With You …

BALDEV SINGH GREWAL. Translated from Punjabi by GURMEET KAUR




Translator’s Note:  The following is a narrative published in Sher-e-Punjab newspaper by its editor, Baldev Singh Grewal. It intrigued me, especially the project it describes. The article itself does not shed a lot of light on the background of the characters or provide details of the project, because it is but a rumination of the two days that Baldev Singh spent at the project. Therefore, I take the liberty of introducing the characters.

Helena Oikonomou is a German citizen, a successful painter, a business woman, and a philanthropist who came across Sikhs and Punjab through a Sikh-German family (Gyan Singh and his wife Jasbir Kaur). Since then she has traveled to Punjab, fallen in love with Guru Nanak and his Path and decided to give back in her own way. Her life of philanthropy and action has inspired a Punjabi writer Jaswant Singh Kanwal (who was also introduced to Helena via Gyan Singh and family, their mutual friends) to write a novel on Helena’s life.

*   *   *   *   *


That night we found ourselves at Helena’s guest house yet again. Soon we departed to Jalandhar to receive the famous Punjabi novelist, Jaswant Singh Kanwal. When I had received him at the Jalandhar bus station, I was struck by his remarkable disposition.

As soon as he sat down next to me in the car, he started to hum. He was fixated on one couplet that he chanted at least three times in a very short while. I do not completely remember the words in Urdu but I do remember the essence, and it was something like this –

I don't think a malady I have any
But if I were not to be with you
I don’t know if I could even live ...

Helena is not only Jaswant Singh's literary creation but, in real life, also his muse. She appears as a character in his novel, ‘Ik Helen Hor’ (One More Helen), the documentation of whose story led him to travel from Punjab to as far away as Greece, where Helena was born and brought up.

Over and over again, during our ride, I kept wondering if he was in such a blissful mood in anticipation of meeting Helena. When we finally reached Helena's guest house in Dholbaha (Hoshiarpur) by nightfall, the first thing he said was, “Friend, my heart feels like dancing …”

Seeing the noted novelist of the Punjabi language at the age of 96 in such joyous mood proved infectious for us. And in that euphoria, the party kicked off.

Sipping and savouring his drink, Jaswant Singh hummed yet again:

I don't think a malady I have any
But if I were not to be with you
I don’t know if I could even live ...

Contrary to what I had counted on, he didn't even look at Helena while reciting those lines. My friend Gyan Singh, who was present there, asked Jaswant Singh: “Bai, you seem to be completely exhilarated today.” 

“Gyan,” he replied, “Jaswant Kaur has held me captive even to this day. When I meet Helena, I am reminded of her and am haunted by memories of her.”

There is probably not a single lover of Punjabi literature who isn’t aware of the legendary love that Jaswant Singh Kanwal had for Jaswant Kaur Gill. But we kept quiet. At that moment it did not feel proper to indulge in that conversation and abase the nature of their relationship. None of us felt worthy of discussing the affair that meant the whole world to this epic writer.

All we could surmise was that, at this age, if even the essence of someone’s memories makes him so youthful and alive, what is the value in examining or analyzing that bond in worldly terms?

Jaswant Singh’s wife is no more and neither is Jaswant Kaur. But he is still a young man at heart, enraptured by memories.

Jaswant Singh was invited here for a special purpose. Earlier that morning, I had the privilege of planting a Pippal tree at the left side of the entrance gate leading to Helena’s project, ‘Balihaari Kudrat Vasya‘ - (a phrase from Guru Nanak’s poetry meaning: “O Nature, I offer thee all I have …“) - that encompasses 40 acres of land. 

The next morning, Jaswant Singh is to plant another Pippal tree on the right side of the gate.

Helena, who is a German native, is a long time follower of Guru Nanak and has dedicated this project to him. It is Helena's dream that the Nature in which Guru Nanak saw and felt God, should be preserved in its pristine beauty, at least at one place in Punjab, in the same state that Guru Nanak saw it with his own eyes.

[The inspiration came about during her visit to the gurdwaras in Sultanpur Lodhi where Guru Nanak meditated on the banks of River Bein. When the hot marble floors of the gurdwaras burnt her feet and she found no resting place in the form of shade from trees, the realization dawned on her that nothing around her looked anymore like in the times of Guru Nanak. It pained her not to feel the environment as Guru Nanak had felt at that place, especially because his life, his writings and his philosophy were so inspired by Nature.]

So she purchased this land near Dholbaha (District Hoshiarpur, Punjab) and started planting trees, trees native to Punjab, the ones that are disappearing by the day, Pippal, Bohrr … and the rest.

On the same land, she has made her home. She calls it “The Guest House”. Gyan Singh and his wife, Jasbir, who are her friends [from Germany, and accompany her on all her trips] attribute Helena’s project to my idea from sometime ago. Now, only a few years into the project, anyone who comes to this land can’t help being enchanted by its beauty, let alone Jaswant Singh who is totally intoxicated by it.

He asks me, “How did you choose this area, Bai?”

I have been in love with this land since my childhood. Even today, this land is untouched by the glamor of modernization, and that is the grace of it. Simplicity and honesty are still the adornments of the people of this land. My head bows in reverence of its rich heritage and values.

This land is ancient. It is an archaeological site that has ties to a prehistoric Punjabi civilization. Being here makes one feel that this is the place where the primal man started walking on his two feet and became the hunter-gatherer. Artifacts found in this land are a testament to the fact that both in the age of Acheulean (circa 1.6 million to 200,000 BP) and the Soanian (circa 500,000 to 125,000 BP), humans cohabited in this very place. Tools from the stone age, fossils and the remnants of the sewerage system from the Indus Valley civilization have been discovered here.

Legends have it that during the period of the epic ‘Mahabharata‘, when the Pandavs were in exile for thirteen years, they roamed this land that belonged to King Virat of Dasuha. The villages named Raghuval and Ramtatvali are reminiscence of that period.

This area occupied a special place in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Sikh Kingdom. The temple built here by Hindus with a grant from the Maharaja still stands submerged under the waters of the Dholbaha dam. The defence post belonging to the Sikh Empire atop the summit of the peak nearby still guards the foothills.

Helena says that this land has been a guest house for humanity from time immemorial.

“Generations have come and gone. And new ones have always appeared. Cultures flourished and then made room for new ones. In honor of them all, I have named this abode ‘The Guest House‘. Today, we gather here, tomorrow, some others will. They may not be related to us but they will be connected to us through our dreams.”

Besides this park, Helena has also procured another 500 acres of land a short distance from Dholbaha, where she intends to curate a sanctuary for herbs and plants from the Greater Punjab area and establish a research center focusing on their medicinal and food values.

Helena, Gyan Singh and Jasbir [Gyan Singh’s wife]  are in the process of establishing an international trust that will assure the use of this land and project for the purpose of serving future generations.

The next morning we all woke up to the chirps and songs of birds. As soon as we were ready we reached the front gate. Jaswant Singh planted the tree. Then he approached the tree I had planted earlier, admired both the trees from the roots to the sky, as if actually watching both the Pippals growing up before his very eyes.

“Baldev, will we return when this is all abundant and mature?”

“If we keep loving nature and Guru Nanak, we will return not once, but again and again …”

“Really?” Gyan Singh is now interested.

“Yes, of course. The only difference will be that our Pippals will have reached half way up to the sky and their branches will sway, embracing each other. The whole forty acres will be proliferated with green. Along with many others, we will be the visitors of dawn, to see the birds from all over the world perform a symphony. And then we will marvel at the glowing eastern lights, reflecting the image of Guru Nanak.”

I felt like I had said too much. Everybody was quiet. Perhaps everyone was ruminating about the future of ‘Balihaari Kudrat Vasya‘. After a while, Kanwal broke the silence –

I don't think a malady I have any
But if I were not to be with you
I don’t know if I could even live

And, again, contrary to my expectation, this time he looked at Helena and bowed his head in reverence.

December 17, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Manpreet  (Alpharetta, Georgia, USA), December 17, 2015, 3:32 PM.


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