By Sharan Saikumar Nov. 13, 2017
There are a few occasions when I examine my faith. A faith kept alive by tenuous connections like my relationship with my grandfather, the last of the Sikhs who came from Pakistan and created lives out of nothing.
My grandfather turns 93 this year and is not well. After his attack last year, he lives on in the dark room of his own mind, closed off to the world around him.
Last year, I sat at the hospital with him. He asked for his spectacles. Ainaka’n, he said. I tell him I’m looking for them. My Punjabi is rusty but I enjoy using it. The words come out wrong and the syntax is awkward, but I persist. My grandfather looks at me in the way he has often looked at me in the past – beseeching me not to speak in Punjabi. He has offered me good money for this.
He takes his ainaka’n and neatly folds them on his bedside table and sinks into the bed that is too large for him and goes to sleep. I don’t know how long this beautiful, snow-white-haired man is of this world, but I want to beg him to please hang around. We will lose unspeakable things when he is gone.
Papaji’s going will be the end of the era of Sikhs who came from Pakistan and created lives out of nothing and founded generations that thrive today. His going will also be my last tie to my religion.
I have forgotten, like many of my age around me, what it has even meant to be Sikh. It doesn’t help that I am wholly skeptical of the existence of God and whether the idea of this entity isn’t just a giant joke on humanity. It doesn’t help that my father and mother speak with us in English, the Punjabi reserved for people of their generation who are able to respect it. It doesn’t help that they’ve never forced us to conform.
Actually, being Sikh was never about God, but it came to me in other small ways. I would help my father fold and stretch his pagdi and hunt for my younger brother to firmly fix and tie his “fifty”. Or go to the gurudwara on a Sunday morning and sit impatiently through the kirtan, waiting for the moment when the kadha prasad would show up. Or stand and watch Papaji getting dressed in front of his wooden dresser, setting his Fixo’d beard tied tightly across his face with a thatha, tucking in stray hairs with a thin steel rod. In that shiny stiff beard, Papaji looked like the archetypal good, upstanding member of the sardar community who would be on the local gurudwara prabandhak committee.
I live in a different world now. My father gave up the Fixo and the rod and trimmed his beard into a smart grey-and-white fuzz. My brother cut his hair in college and all the fifties and the thathas became dusting cloths.
I got married to a Tamilian who comes from a strong faith in God, but is disdainful of religion. My husband speaks broken Tamil and I get the opportunity to speak Punjabi twice a year. My son speaks neither Tamil nor Punjabi. Not much remains of either of our caste identities. The only people left on either side of our families who are still proponents of their faith are our parents, who know exactly how far removed we are from everything they hold sacred so they’ve learnt not to bother us with it. By the time my son is an adult, everything will be gone. He is growing up as a boy who fears God but is wholly disinterested in whether that God is Sathya Sai or Waheguru.
The last time I went to a gurudwara was when the family held an ardaas for Papaji. To ask God to help him pass away peacefully. I sat in a private room of the same gurudwara we’d go to every Sunday morning when we were growing up, with our long oily plaits and hands smelling of kadha prasad, and performed the sombre prayer. The old familiar words of the ardaas came easily to me. It was as if I’d been reciting it every evening of my life.
In those short few minutes a circuit sprang to life. A connection that I thought was long gone glowed briefly. I was once again 12 and dreading afternoon Punjabi class that would follow after our visit to the gurudwara. Uda. Aeda. Eedi. Sassa. Hahah. Kaka. I couldn’t wait for the stupid class to be over. I didn’t want to speak Punjabi but that day in the gurudwara, as I recited the ardaas I suddenly longed to understand what I was saying. The raagi turned to me and raised one bushy eyebrow. I had the sinking feeling that he knew I was only pretending until I realised, to my relief, that he was only signalling that the dupatta that had fallen off my shaved head.
I haven’t gone back to the gurudwara since then. You grow out of places and people, but I wonder if you can ever grow out of your faith. Or then, maybe faith is really nothing more than old familiar smells, sounds, rituals of your childhood that we eventually let go. Maybe faith is really just a network of tenuous connections, kept alive by muscle memory. I’ve lost most of mine… but at least I have Papaji. For now.