Kids Corner


Life With Bhaaiyya ji:
My Father, Bhai Sunder Singh ji





I was not born yet.

My two elder sisters, Bhenji Amar and Bhenji Beant, were getting married within a week’s gap. The year I think was 1931 or 32. The marriage took place in our own double-storeyed building that had the business end on the ground floor facing Karkhana Bazar in Lyallpur (pre-Partition Punjab).

The two floors above were the residential quarters.

The façade prominently carried the names, “Bhai Jawaher Singh Sunder Singh.” It was a common practice to have the grandfather’s name in it. It was to be years later when it was to become “Bhai Sunder Singh & Sons“.

But fortunes were to change. It was the time of ‘The Great Crash’ of 1929 and the tremors were felt in India too. Overnight, we lost everything. The house was sold, and the creditors paid to the last paisa. My parents moved back to a little hamlet known as Dijkot some 16 miles from Lyallpur where we still had the ancestral home.

It was the only brick building in Dijkot then. It also had a room dedicated as a gurdwara for the small Sikh community there.

I was born in Dijkot in 1933 -- the first son. I had five elder sisters then.

I seem to have a hazy recollection of the place at the time I was about three years old. Just opposite our house used to be a one-roomed ‘katcha daak-khanna’ (post-office) manned by a Muslim Post Master who had taken a room in our house. The wife of the post master was naturally referred as ‘Masterani’. They had no children and they doted on me.

I am told that the post master would use his ‘mohr chhaap’ and stamp my face and body with black postal marks all over. One playful reason was: ‘nazar na lugg jayey’ - to ward off the evil eye!

My father then ran a sundry shop and I remember a particular bottle of syrup then sold known as ‘Fauladi Sharbat’ It was a rose-coloured syrup and had a picture of a wrestler showing his biceps. It was a popular drink then and considered an aid for body building.

Before long, things started to look up, and my father moved back to Lyallpur. The year must have been 1937, as my youngest sister was born there in 1938. By then the household complement was 6 sisters and we two brothers.

The two elder sisters had been married then. I have a recollection of Bhenji Maan’s marriage the next in line. The year was 1939. As the elder brother aged 6, I was to accompany her ‘doli’ but I didn’t know for what. Luckily she was married in Lyallpur itself and her ‘Sohra Ghar’ (home of the in-laws) was not too
far away.

There was something highly impressionable that happened on the eve of doli (bridal procession heading to her new home). When it arrived, the custom was for the mother-in-law to pour oil on the threshold as an auspicious welcome. I don’t think it happened quite that way.

The mother-in-law, known as ‘Bibi ji’, was a highly respected, saintly person. When the doli arrived, Bibi ji was having her daily satsang.

There were some 20 odd women sitting on the floor while Bibi ji sat on the bench and had a book in her hands that she was reading. When the new bride arrived, Bibi ji got up and put her hand on Bhenji Maan’s head and made her sit next to her and handed her the book and told Bhenji. “Lai, aree – ai parrh ke sunnaa saa-nu”  -  Here, girl, read this aloud for us!”

Later I was told that the book was Bhai Vir Singh’s ‘Guru Nanak Chamatkar’.

What a wonderful welcome for the new bride. On another occasion not long thereafter, Bibi ji pushed over the harmonium towards Bhenji and asked her to sing some shabads. Until then, Bhenji had never in her life touched the harmonium. But, with Bibi ji’s hand on her head, the fingers started to work on the keyboard in perfect harmony and shabads started to pour out. Overnight she had become a kirtania as a ‘gurparsad’ (the Guru’s Grace).

Years later, Bhenji was much sought after, sitting and singing Guru’s shabads with eyes closed and a picture of kirtan itself. After the Partition of Punjab, her family settled in West Patel Nagar, New Delhi.

I used to notice that a limousine with a driver would come occasionally to take her to the bungalow of Mrs. Oberoi, the wife of the famous hotelier, Mohan Singh Oberoi of “Oberoi Hotels” fame, to do kirtan for her group of satsangis.

My father had by then re-started his business in Lyallpur to re-build his life. I remember a phrase he often used when someone asked him how he was faring.

He would say “shukkar hai -- safaed poshi which din sukh day lung rahai hun” - “With His Grace, He is providing sustenance while keeping us in clean clothes!” 

In Lyallpur there used to be a framed document, which had text on it in Punjabi in gold print. It was called a ‘maan pattar’ - “an honour scroll”. I didn’t quite understand what it meant but was told that it was given to Bhaaiyya ji when he left for Dijkot, for his seva in the ‘Wadda Gurdwara’. Wish we had brought that heirloom with us when we fled at the time of partition.

It was I think in 1944 that my mother passed away after a prolonged illness. It was the time of World War II and there was a dearth of medicines. I saw my mother wasting away despite whatever medical help was available then. I was present when she breathed her last. Though we were all weighed down by grief, I noticed that two people did not cry or shed tears. It was my Bhaaiyya ji and my saintly aunt (my father’s sister) who kept doing paatth without any break.

I was 11 years old then.

My two elder sisters, Bhenjis Satwant and Pritam were soon to be married. My eldest sister Bhenji Amar moved from Kamalia to look after us. For all intents and purposes, she became the mother and was treated as such.

Soon enough, in 1947 it was the Partition, and time for another upheaval. We were once again to be uprooted. This time to an unknown destination where Waheguru’s ‘razaa’ (will) would take us.

The first task, of course, was to cross the Wagha Border. Thence, it was to be Ludhiana. That is where the train stopped.

Bhaaiyya ji rose like the phoenix to start all over again and rebuild the shattered life once again. All that was done without any rancour, without even a hint of a furrow to crease his forehead. It was chardi kalaa throughout!

We were allotted an evacuee property situated in Wait Ganj in Ludhiana. Our part of the house had 3 rooms. Bhaaiyya ji had just brought along the Guru Granth Sahib with him from Lyallpur, and nothing else but the clothes he had on his person.

Unfortunately there was no suitable place for the ‘parkash,’ so he used a small cupboard that had no doors to keep his sainchis (volumes). That is where he would stand morning and evening to do ardaas. If we happened to wander in at that time, naturally we were expected to stand behind him with folded hands. At that time a distinct over-powering feeling would come over me, the sense that the forces of the whole world were also standing behind him with folded hands at his bidding.

I would walk away with a feeling that no harm shall ever come to us.

That two-storeyed allotted house was occupied by four other Multani refugee families plus our two. It had a complement of eight daughters and three sons (kaakas) of varying ages between 3 - 14 years. At 14, I became the ‘wadda kaaka’. In Multani language, ‘kaaka’ is the elder brother. This appendage was to stick for a long time. The youngest ‘kaaka’ was about three and had a delightful stammer and was invariably dressed in a shirt which was a tad short and didn’t quite cover his wee wee. He was everybody‘s darling.

That was where I picked up the Multani/Saraiki dialect.

Bhaaiyya ji was respectfully considered by all as the ad hoc head of the entire household. This extended family was to last for quite a few years before we were to scatter. But, we continued to remain in touch with each other long thereafter, although by then we were spread out all over the world.

In the late 1950s we were once again the proud owners of our own home in Civil Lines, Ludhiana. In the meantime I had already found a job in Singapore / Malaysia.

In the early 1960’s my younger sister, brother and I were married. Since everyone was settled, we persuaded our respected Bhaaiyya ji to retire.

A few years later, we had the pleasure of having Bhaaiyya ji move to Malaysia, where I was, and he soon settled comfortably into his usual routine.

He would be up around 2 am reciting around shabads in his melodious voice. Do his nitnem, and almost weekly do a ‘sehaj paatth’.

One day when I had just returned from work I saw our daughter Vimal crawling towards an electric socket. To stop her in her tracks, I just shouted, “Vimal!” Bhaaiyya ji was sitting close by, oblivious of the reason why, and was busy reading his newspaper. He looked up and said: “mithat neevee naankaa gun chang-aa-ee tat” [GGS: 470.13} - “Sweetness and humility, O Nanak, are the essence of virtue and goodness”.

Having already distracted Vimal from her path, I started to laugh and he looked his usual stern self and asked why I found it mirthful. “Bhaiyya ji, what happened to sweetness during our time, when a 10-pounder slap would make my ears sing for a good 10 minutes?” 

Oye, rehan vi day, yar, hun - O, let bygones be bygones!“ he replied.

The ravages of time … and grandchildren … had indeed made him into a model of sweetness.

He had the car and driver at his disposal and would spend at least half day at the local gurdwara. He spent only one year with us as immigration would not allow any further extension to his visa. He then went on to stay with my younger brother who was then posted in Kanpur, India.

He remained quite healthy for some time, but unfortunately developed some urinary infection. On his own volition one day, he went to some roadside doctor who tried to drain his bladder … resulting in a prolapsing of the bladder and creating further complications. He had to be admitted in hospital and started to go downhill.

My sisters were informed and they all arrived in Kanpur to be at his bedside and started a relay of Sukhmani Sahib paatths. Whenever they asked him how he was, his reply would invariably be: “shukkar hai”. He remained in his usual ‘chardi kala’.

On 31 March, 1971 when the Sukhmani paatth reached the closing lines of the concluding 24th ashtpadi, he folded his hands and said: “hun challeya” - “Now, it’s time to go!’ And the next instant he was gone home.

sooraj kiran milay jal kaa jal hoo-aa raam” [GGS:846.17] - “The rays of light merge into the sun, and water merges with water”.

It was the end of an era.

chal chal ga-ee-aa pankhee-aan jinhee vasaa-ay tal / fareeda sar bhari-aa bhee chalsee thakay kaval ikal” [GGS:1381.8] - “The birds which lived in the pools have flown away and left. Farid, the over-flowing pool shall also pass away, and only the lotus flowers shall remain”.

My greatest regret was that I did not sit at his feet long enough to have his touch of gurbani. My only heartfelt plea now is for those who have parents alive today, please do not miss the opportunity to serve them while they are alive. Once they are gone this opportunity will never return.


May 4, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Manpreet Singh (Hyderabad, India), May 04, 2013, 8:48 AM.

Beautiful piece ... brought tears to my eyes!

2: A D Singh (Gurgaon, India), May 04, 2013, 9:39 AM.

A true tribute coming straight from the heart. Humility and chardi kalaa were his ways of life, instilled in all his children ... and, may I add, they flow on.

3: Dr. H. K. Virik  (Kuala Lumpuur, Malaysia), May 04, 2013, 9:56 AM.

A most touching tribute that has awakened every emotional chord in my aged cortex. Waheguru has truly blessed you in so many ways.

4: Simran Gupta (Kolkata, India), May 05, 2013, 4:45 AM.

So beautifully described ... how many times you had to relocate but took it with such grace. Waheguru is always with us. I remember Bhaaiyya ji staying with us in Malaysia but I was very young then. Thanks for sharing this very emotional piece, Papa.

5: Jaideep Singh (Sydney, Australia), May 05, 2013, 7:40 AM.

What an amazing tribute! Just as I'm listening to one of my favourite shabads: "koi aan milaavei mera pritam pyara", and reading about dearest Bhaaiyya ji, it fills my heart with all sorts of emotions. What an amazing soul and, as you always say, uncle ji, that there is Waheguru simran being passed on to us by our ancestors, it's in our DNA. Makes me realize how blessed I'm to be born with this heritage and all the love and guidance Waheguru is giving. Dear Bhaaiyya ji lived his life in Waheguru's hukam ("jae sukh daehi te tujhehi aradhhee dukh bhee tujhai dhhiaee", and here we get stressed with the slightest of 'worldly issues'! Thank you, uncle ji, for sharing this.

6: Jagdeep Kaur  (New Zealand ), May 05, 2013, 3:33 PM.

Once again, thank you very much, uncle ji, for your touching thoughts as the article couldn't have come at a better time. I needed to read something like that. Please keep sharing your thoughts with us. Much appreciated :)

7: Harminder Singh (Jalandhar, Punjab), May 05, 2013, 11:45 PM.

Thanks for a beautiful and touching article.

8: I J SINGH (Chandigarh, Punjab), May 06, 2013, 3:16 AM.

My friendship with Sangat started with the Partition when we happened to join the same school and class in April 1948. I have therefore first hand knowledge of 'Bhaiaayya ji', a picture of an ideal gursikh both in deed and word. I was with Sangat in Malaysia recently on his 80th birthday, and saw the same photograph of Bhaiaayya Ji on his office table. What a delightful week we spent together. His plea to look after one's 'parents while alive', I suspect, may have a hidden agenda ... "gursikhaan ki har dhoorh deh ham paapee bhee gat paanhi" [GGS:1424.8] - O Lord, please bless me with the dust from the feet of gursikhs so that a sinner like me may also be saved". We are already in that category! Jokes apart, Bhaiaayya ji had such a profound knowledge of gurbani that we indeed failed to sit at his feet and imbibe the deeper meanings and now live with that regret when it is too late.

9: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), May 07, 2013, 4:10 PM.

Sangat ji, I am thankful for your describing Bhaaiyya ji and the families raised around him. Such were the elders in our families of Pothohari Sikhs who guided our daily life in those days. There are many such stories treasured in the form of memory-snaps in our community. They should be told before we lose our nuggets as these make us realize what made the Sikh community tick and who is responsible to propagate the traditions and values that were the backbone of Sikhi jeevan. Someday I will tell my mother's story also and stories of other families of Haripur Hazara. This note is to take a lead from Sangat ji and beg others to write, please. Once there are enough stories of the Sikh elders, we may request our editor to start a regular column to accommodate them but first we must commit that we will share these inspiring jeevanees with others, particularly our new generations.

10: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpuur, Malaysia), May 07, 2013, 7:15 PM.

Grateful for Bhai Harbans Lal ji's comment and suggestion to record and document the lives of our elders. In this case may I suggest to the readership to read Bhai Vir Singh's "Sant Gatha", Parts 1 & 2. These books are also available in PDF format as E-books.

11: Ravinder Singh Kalra (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), May 07, 2013, 9:52 PM.

Sangat Mama ji, I was only 3-4 years old when Bhaaiyya ji passed away. However, I have a vivid memory of him doing paatth in Baba ji's room at Rajinder Mama ji's home in Jalandhar. Mom shares her memories of Bhaaiyya ji with me that he was always a picture of humility and would address even the kids with a "ji". Even if someone younger pointed out something, he would say, "ussi bhul gayey ..." Another incident Mom remembers is when you had some argument with him and he said, "tussi(n) parrhey hoi ho tey ussi guurhey hoye haa(n)". One of his favorite nitnem shabadd, amongst others, was, "tum karo bhalaa hum bhalo na jaane..." We shall always be indebted to Waheguru for giving us birth in the family of such gursikhs.

12: Manjeet Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 08, 2013, 3:33 AM.

It is His razaa that one is blessed to be born into a Gursikh family. "ja tis bhaana ta jamm-iaa parvaar bhalaa bhaa-i-aa' [Anand]. I see the same light of gurmukh jeevanee in Bhai Sangat Singh ji. A delightful account of his beloved Bhaaiyya ji.

13: Simarjot Kaur (India), May 09, 2013, 1:10 AM.

What a profound article. We as grandchildren are proud to have such a rich legacy. Thanks very much for taking us down memory lane.

14: Kitty (Patiala, Punjab), May 09, 2013, 9:47 AM.

Mama ji, you have set in motion a nostalgia which is an integral part of me. My earliest memory is sitting in his lap early in the morning listening to his melodious nitnem and a beatific smile worthy of a pontiff - which to me he was and STILL is! Always addressing us grandchildren with a 'ji'; despite hardships, always getting us goodies when he came home ... I remember pinching dry fruit from his pockets and him, pretending he did not notice, telling my mum with a twinkle in eyes: "Pritam ji, you have a mouse in your house," and my mum pretending to look for a mouse trap while we looked on in tacit silence. But wicked though it may sound, my treasured memory is going with him and Sangat mama ji to get an 'achkan' stitched for him. He asked the tailor to put in a dozen pockets. Visibly, Sangat mama ji was a bit miffed and said: "Bhaaiyya ji, eh kee?" - What're you up to? Humble as he was: "ussi tey kummley rummley haa(n). Tussi jo thheek sumjho kar deo (I am a simpleton, you do what's right!). Adored that Sangat mama ji was even then, there was an aura and an awe about him. And Bhaaiya ji made him look so sheepish. To this date I do not know why my chuckle was so smug! Love you, mama ji, for so many things and for being the illustrious progeny of a great man.

15: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 09, 2013, 3:59 PM.

Thanks, Kitty and all other grandchildren, for sharing their sweet memories of Bhaaiyya ji and adding to his colourful biography. I missed those moments as I was away in Malaysia where my 'daanay's were ordained: "nak nath khasam hath kirat dhakay day / jahaa daanay tahaan khaanay / nankaa such hay" [GGS:653.12] - "The string through the nose is in the hands of Waheguru, one's own actions drive him on. Wherever his food is there he eats it, O Nanak, this is the truth." But I do remember as a kid that every day, whenever he returned home from his work, he always had some sweets for us kids, which for some reason we called 'cheeji' (a small thing). He was held in such great respect that every time he happened to walk out in our lane, the girls and their mothers would immediately cover their heads and fold their hands in respect.

16: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpuur, Malaysia), May 11, 2013, 3:49 AM.

The growing pains did not always have a mix of honey and milk. Dealing with a somewhat wild tyke wasn't devoid of copious application of the rod when necessary. Let me share. In the wintry mornings in the early 50's, around 4 am, our Bhaaiyya ji would first gently intone "Kaka ji, uttho (get up)." Now, just imagine a young growing boy who had been measuring the length and breath of the streets would not be easily woken, especially in the ambrosial hour. Soon after would come the second call, a little louder and purposeful. If that didn't produce any signs of life, it would be followed by the last and final call, strident enough to wake the neighbourhood. A hand would reach for my joorrah: "Oye, utthda hai(n) kay nahee(n)!?" "Are you going to get up ... or else ...!" Thus, the horse was brought to the water. Reluctantly accompanied by yawns, the Five Banis were drilled into us together with some 'chhakaas' of Asa-ki-Vaar. You now know what a Sikh boot camp is.

17: Punit (New Zealand), May 11, 2013, 11:06 PM.

I was 23 days old when our great grandfather, Bhaaiyya ji passed away. This exquisitely written homage is an aide-memoire of the qualities we have inherited in our DNA. The resilience that Bhaaiyya ji showed in the face of adversity proves his quality to never give up and plod along no matter what. The upheavals he went through in one lifetime are ordinarily associated with generations of hardship. There is a saying: "If you voluntarily quit in the face of adversity, you'll wonder about it for the rest of your life." Well, wonder Bhaaiyya ji didn't and carried on so that we all could be given a platform to succeed. We sang a shabad in school, it was one that our Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh wrote as a tribute to Khalsa Panth: "inhi ki kirpa se saje hum hai(n)". By the same token, it is because of our Bhaaiyya ji that we are who we are and thanks to him we exist today in the form and substance we do. Like everything Mama ji writes, there is a hidden message in this too for all kids: anything you want done, use the grandchildren to push your entreaties - very commonly associated with the phrase, "mool nalo vaiyaaj pyara" ... "The interest is more precious than the principal." Children are the principal and grand kids are the interest." No wonder the grand children seem to get the best out of parents. I have a good memory but to say that I remember Bhaaiyya ji is stretching it a little bit. Thanks, Mama ji, for introducing us to our great grandfather. We just love him!

18: Paramjit Singh Grewal (Auckland, New Zealand), May 11, 2013, 11:23 PM.

Thank you very much for sharing your lovely recollection of your father. I see a lot of similarities between you and what has been written about your father. Bhai Harbans Lal ji - I look forward to your contribution. I remember meeting your mother during my year-long exchange program in Dallas.

19: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpuur, Malaysia), May 13, 2013, 8:27 AM.

A lesson by example. It was in 1953 when I ran a photo business known as 'Rakesh Studio' in Ludhiana, Punjab. I used to work quite late and had hardly any time to go to the cinema. My dear friends, Jaswant and Inderjit, literally abducted me to ensure that I did not miss the biggest Hindi hit film 'Anarkali' of the decade. It was the last run and the last (third) show that ended around 1 am. It was around 2 am when I reached home. As I was climbing the stairs, I heard my Bhaiaaya ji uttering "dhan Guru Nanak, Satguru Nanak". It was time for him to get up as it was the ambrosial hour to do his nitnem and simran. I just froze until he went to the bathroom and got into my bed fully dressed with a sheet over me to give the impression that I had been there all along. That was it. Something snapped in me, that here was Bhaaiyya ji getting up for prayers and here was I, the son, just returning after gallivanting around town, wasting his precious time. I promised myself that it would never happen again. I have kept that promise for the last 60 years.

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My Father, Bhai Sunder Singh ji"

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