Gurpurab of My Childhood: Langar, Mul Mantar, and My Dadi’s History Lessons

Culture

Gurpurab of My Childhood: Langar, Mul Mantar, and My Dadi’s History Lessons

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

“Sat Sri Akaal, beta.” I hear my dadi’s voice on the line.

“Sat Sri Akaal, dadi.” My patent greeting for her. “Ki haal,” she asks.

Shit. Years of casual Hinglish being thrown around in my metropolitan upbringing had led to the demise of my already broken Punjabi. I switch over to English. A little chitter-chatter ensues, where Dadi excitedly informs me about how her day went. She’s been watching the live telecast of the Golden Temple on PTC Punjabi. “It’s decked up beautifully with lanterns and lights for Gurpurab. A heavenly sight.”Gurpurab. Oh yes. Guru Nanak’s birthday. When is that again? I scratch my head and ask sheepishly. Patiently, as always, she replies, “November 12th.”

Unlike my grandparents, my pro-activeness toward practising Sikhism has been perpetually non-existent. I wear the kara, and don’t rebel when my father wants me to accompany him to a gurdwara when I go home on vacation, but that’s about it. My stint in Punjab was a short-lived one. With father being in the forces, we were transferred around a lot. Chandigarh visits were limited to vacationing at Dadi’s house, and a few years of senior high school.

“For Gurpurab I remember all of us going to the Golden Temple when you were younger.  And even to the one in Sector 34. You loved the kadha prasad,” her voice wavers. Yes Dadi. Yes, I did really love it. I remember clutching my father’s finger with my tiny hand as we made our way through the crowd, my head covered with mother’s red dupatta, clenching onto a ₹100 note for dear life until I managed to “matha tekna” and slip it inside the donation box. That was always my “duty” and I would take it very seriously.

“So what are you doing for Gurpurab this year,” I ask her. “We’ll go and have langar. Now we’re older, so we can’t sit for the kirtan for too long. Our knees ache.” A hearty laugh. “But back in the day, your Dadu would go to the gurdwara at 4 am every day for 10 days straight, and sing the kirtan. He had such a melodic voice. Still does.” I do remember grandpa singing beautiful hymns at numerous occasions. Something tugs at my heart. I should have been around for more family events.

Although I believe that God is energy, and energy is omnipresent, I also feel guilty for not going to the gurdwara at all now, in spite of my father’s quarterly reminders. I cross many on numerous occasions, but I’m always rushing to someplace. Work. Home. A party. Somebody’s birthday. The thought of life keeps me busy enough to console myself for never stopping for even five minutes, and… saying hello, I guess. The need to solve the intricacies of the present somewhat precedes the wish to preserve some dying memories. “Next time,” I tell myself.

“Do you remember the teachings of Guru Nanak that I had taught you,” Dadi finally asks me. I have a blurry memory of her reciting the Mul Mantar to me over and over again until it was engraved in my mind. “Ik Onkar, Sat Naam.” I could recite the opening phrase in my sleep. But as Dadi passionately went over the chapters of Sikh history, my young mind started drifting toward the fairy tales that lay outside of that small town. So no, I don’t have a recollection of anything else she taught me. Instinctively, I look down at my inner wrist. A calligraphic symbol of Ik Onkar is tattooed in black ink. I had got it done when life was throwing unanticipated curveballs my way, and the going got tough. In hindsight, I can’t seem to recall why I gravitated toward this symbol.

Guru Nanak formalised three pillars of Sikhism. One: Naam Japo. Two: Kirat Karo. And three: Vaṇḍ Chhakō.

Dadi goes on to reacquaint me with what I’m having trouble remembering. “Guru Nanak formalised three pillars of Sikhism. One: Naam Japo. Recite God’s name. Two: Kirat Karo. Earn an honest living with hard work and all that God has bestowed upon you. And three: Vaṇḍ Chhakō. Share what you have.”

I think hard. I already try to do all those things. Being kind. Compassionate. True. A good human being. Is that what the Guru meant? “I didn’t know these were the three pillars, dadi. But without knowing, I do try to follow them.” I could feel her smiling. “Then,” she tells me, “I guess you were paying a little more attention than you thought you were.”

I cringe. She’s giving me more credit than I deserve. My identity as a Sikh only exists on paper now, and through my name. Every now and then, I fear not being able to pass on any traditions to my children. I realise that my grandmother’s generation is my last link to a deep-rooted history that I never took the time or effort to understand. What does it mean to be a Sikh?

“Sikh simply means a disciple. A student. And as long as you’re practicing the three pillars given by the Guru, you’ll be fine. And anytime you feel lost, or low, just recite the Mul Mantar. Do you remember it?” Yes, I do. That much, I do. Although I can hear her voice getting tired, she starts reciting over the phone. “Ik Onkar, Sat Naam, Karta Purakh…” I join in, just like when I was a child. I suddenly crave to be there with her. A young girl waking up to the soft sound of Gurbani playing and the smell of fresh kadha prasad. Where did the time go?

It’s time to say goodbye. “It would be Guru Nanak’s 550th birthday on November 12. It’s a special one,” she reminds me. “Is there a gurdwara around where you stay?”

I don’t know. “Yes, there is,” I bluff.

“Try to go, if you have time. And do a little seva, if you can. And have langar. It will remind you of your childhood, beta. Sat Sri Akal.” Click. Goodbyes are done.

It will remind you of your childhood.

My mother’s red dupatta. My father’s ₹100 note. The loud clanging of the plates at the langar. Kadha prasad. My grandmother’s history lessons. My grandfather’s hymns. These were all part of my childhood. All part of my roots. All moments that I forgot to acknowledge as time went by.

I don’t know what it means to be a Sikh yet. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. And that is why it would be so important to go back. To be a student again. I don’t know all of Guru Nanak’s teachings, nor do I understand all the words in the Gurbani. But this time, when the Gurpurab comes around, I’ll go down to a Gurdwara, and maybe just say, “Hi.” And that would be a start.

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