Sheila Chaman, the one time most admired newsreader on Doordarshan and now a Delhi based freelance journalist sent me, the other day, a piece ‘Huge blessing in small virtues’ by Maj Gen SPS Narang (Retd). She came across the article in The Tribune, liked it and forwarded it to me. Thank you, Sheila. The author’s forceful narrative of a moving incident carries an extremely tender, human message which I am sharing with the readers of The Indian Panorama.
Like a large percentage of secular Indians, I have an incident to share which may awaken the conscience of some of my fellow men. The incident goes back to nearly a year, and even now evokes poignancy in my heart.
Last November, I was driving back to Dehradun from Chandigarh – a fascinating four-hour journey, with the added attraction of visiting Paonta Sahib Gurdwara. I had to break on the way to give myself and my car some rest. And what better than entering the abode of the Guru. Besides the soothing kirtan, it is the langar that one savors, seated on the floor among a multitude of people from all walks of life. Some partake of all meals as they have no means to satiate their hunger.
Breaking bread with them gives an indescribable spiritual high, and to experience this, one doesn’t have to belong to any one religion. I, too, enjoyed the langar and came out to get on with my journey.
I stopped to buy some knick-knacks from a kiosk outside the gurdwara. Just then, I spotted a family of Gujjars (Muslims nomads who rear cattle in semi mountains and sell milk), in an intent discussion in front of a tea vendor. The family comprised an elderly couple, two middle-aged couples and four children. Three women were partially veiled. They seemed poor as the eldest gentleman (probably the father) counted coins and some crumpled notes.
Undoubtedly, the issue was how much they could afford to buy. They asked for three cups of tea and four samosas (popular Indian snack).
Gathering courage, I asked him, “Kya aap sab khana khayenge?” (would you all like to have food!!) They looked at one another with a mix of surprise, apprehension and a hurt self-respect.
There was silence. Sometimes, silence can be loud. The innocent eyes of the kids were filled with hope. “Hum kha ke aaaye hain,” (we have eaten already) he responded.
There was an instant retort, “Kahan khayaa hai subeh se kuch bhi, Abba?” (we have not eaten anything since morning, Papa!!)
Hearing that, a dull ache in my chest caught me by surprise. The stern look in the eyes of the three men and the pleading moist eyes of the women said it all
I insisted that they come with me. They agreed, reluctantly. We entered the gurdwara (Sikh Temple of God)
A good feeling descended over me as I deposited their shoes at the jora ghar (Shoe deposit room in all Gurdwaras). The elders were awed by the architectural marvel.
However, there was fear in their eyes, which was understandable. They were entering a non-Islamic place of worship for the first time.
But the children couldn’t care less, their innocent faces single-mindedly focused on food. Some onlookers flashed strange looks from the corner of their eyes. But then I followed the children, adopting their easy attitude as they excitedly chose head wraps of different colors. (everyone is supposed to cover their heads inside a Gurdwara).
Except for the eldest member, all accompanied me inside, and emulating me, bowed their heads and touched their forehead to the floor. Many others must have noticed, as I did, that these children went through this ritual with utmost reverence. They took Parshad (offering) from the Bhaiji (The Priest)) who asked them if they needed more. The children gladly nodded.
We entered the Langar Hall and I took the kids along to collect thaalis (plates).
They did it with joy, like only kids would. Seated opposite us was a newly-married couple. The bride, with red bangles accentuating her charm, asked the children to sit beside her, and two of them sat between them. The way she was looking after them, I could tell she would make a loving mother.
Langar was served, and though I had already eaten, I ate a little to make my guests comfortable. One had to see to believe how they relished it. The initial apprehension had vanished and they ate to their fill. I have no words to describe the joy I experienced.
We had nearly finished when an elderly Sikh and a youth with flowing beard (perhaps the head granthi and sewadar- helper) sought me out.
I was overcome by fear, and more than me, my guests were scared. I walked up to them with folded hands.
He enquired, “Inhaan nu tusi le ke aaye ho? (Have you brought them in?).” I nodded.
The next question had me baffled, “Tusi har din path karde ho? (Do you say prayers every day?).” I almost blurted “yes”, but it would have been a lie. So, with utmost humility I said “no”.
Expecting an admonishment, he surprised me, “Tuhaanu tha koi lorh hi nahin. Aj tuhaanu sab kuch mil gaya hai ji (You don’t need to. Today you have got everything).” I was flabbergasted. Was it advice or sarcasm? He added, “Inha nu Babbe de ghar lya ke te langar shaka ke tusi sab kuch paa laya. Tuhaada dhanwad. Assi dhan ho gaye (By bringing them to the Guru’s abode for langar, you’ve got everything from God. Thank you. We are blessed).”
Then, with folded hands, he walked up to the elderly couple and requested them, “Aap jad bhi idhar aao to langar kha ke jaaiye. Yeh to uparwale da diya hai ji (Whenever you happen to pass through here, please come and have food. It is God’s gift).”
I escorted my guests out of the Langar Hall. Just as we were about to pick our footwear, one of the children said, “Humme aur halwa do naa.” (Get us some more sweet offering). We five went in to get more parshad.
Finally, as they were about to depart, the elderly lady whispered to her husband.
I enquired, “Koi baat, Miyaji?” (is there any problem, Mian Ji!!
Almost pleadingly, he said, “Yeh keh rahin ki, kya aap ke sar par haath rakh sakti hain? (She is saying, can she keep her hand on your head)!! I bowed as she blessed me with tears in her eyes.
A wave of emotions swept over me.
Is it my imagination, or for real, that I often feel the beautiful hand of a Muslim lady, wrapped in purity and love, on my head?
This is the reason, we are secular.