A vignette of emotions, centered on a perverse ritual being practiced in a 350-year old Sikh seminary. How a search for the origins of “Chauthey Paurey Wale”, a spiritually sanctioned cussword for the low-caste Sikhs, also unearthed the true story of a folk hero, Bidhi Chand Chhina, in a village so old that it’s said to be the birthplace of Shiva. The mutiny of a renouncer that was Bidhi Chand and the lingering doubts it left about the politics of the Gurus.
THE SUN WAS BARELY OVER the yardarm, but my shopkeeper friends from Guru Bazaar had already bantered away for nearly an hour. The billowing clay oven, from the rundown corner shop across the street, spitted out Ambarsari kulche at a frantic pace, as the passers-by stopped for a quick brunch. Vendors and wayfarers from the nearby villages scouted for early trades, while the market was still waking up to the clanking of steel utensils, being rearranged on the pavements of two prominent stores.
My jaunts and jamborees in the city of Tarn Taran generally began by afternoon, but on an unusually crisp morning of December, we had gathered early at the behest of “Pardhaan” Balbir Singh. Though the slight readjustment of schedules had left everyone anxious and even imparted them with a certain sense of purpose, that group of shopkeepers couldn’t let go the customary tea, stretching the chitchat for so long—as if serious trysting would have taken away all the fun.
Pardhaan glanced at the watch and rose to fetch his bicycle.
“Pukhraj ‘Sian’! Ajj tainu kujj kamm de bandeya naal milauna ai, naale o kitaab vi davauni aa!”
(We are meeting some important people today, Pukhraj “Sian”, and I have to get that book for you!)
Careening over the pedals, he addressed me affectionately in a melodic tenor exuding rural rusticity and religiosity. As every muscle on his face contorted to deliver that perfect ‘Duchenne smile’, I couldn’t help but think how Pardhaan ji had always reminded me of the popular folk singer, Pammi Bai. I was quite fond of the old man—a local milk distributor, the elected head of a small city gurdwara and, most importantly, a liberated Sikh who had time-and-again chaperoned me on the social suavities of Punjab’s countryside.
We had just finished listening to one of Pardhaan’s war stories. The orchestrations of that gritty son-of-a-gun had led to the dismissal of a crooked Station House Officer posted in the city, after he tried implicating Pardhaan in a concocted drug bust. That an uneducated milkman had the nerve and the doggedness to take on the most powerful police official of the district—when the appointment of every SHO under the Akali regime was being administered directly by the chief minister’s office, with the reporting structure altered so deviously that they were accountable only to the constituency in-charge and the not the Senior Superintendent—sounded like a feat unimaginable. The climax to the showdown being the coup de grace delivered at the court premises, as the policeman begged for mercy:
“Hun tun praa-praa kari jaana, odon taan saare tabbar nu maaran diyan gallan karda si? Mere bazurg pyo nu vi andar karaata? Main vi Jatt aa, meri vi anakh aa!”
(Calling me a brother now? Earlier, you had threatened to wipe out the whole family. You even locked up my ailing father. I am a Jatt too and my pride has been hurt.)
So mortified was the SHO upon realizing the fallout of the case that he opted for premature retirement.
TARN TARAN LAY in the notorious Border Areas. History was witness to the small sparks of unrest lighted there that burnt the whole of Punjab to cinders, from the Khalistani militancy to the recent drug pandemic. The most backward district of the state, as per the updated human development indices, the town reeked of decadence so debilitating, its people afflicted with ignorance so ignominious, that the words “tragedies” and “tombstones” perfectly alliterated its abbreviation, T.T.
Junior policemen paid anything from five to twenty lakhs for a transfer to the place, with a guaranteed “break-even” in less than a year, to act as henchmen, extortionists and drug traffickers. Like a pack of bloodthirsty wolves, they brazenly marauded the city, its villages and the people—spinning the cogwheel of corruption, succouring the food chain of the pestilential “police-politician nexus”.
The last time I visited the local civil hospital around three years ago to interview the resident doctor heading the drug therapy centre—where a pilot project funded by the World Health Organization, first-of-its-kind in India, was experimenting with a better de-addiction technique called the Opioid Substitution Therapy—most of the patients encountered were low-ranking cops. That was how the bottom feeders were being co-opted into the trade, succumbing to the proximity from the substance. There was occasional hue-and-cry, as the regional media published unattributed figures, categorizing every third young man and woman from the district as an addict, but nothing ever came out of it.
So, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry when a young jeweller from the bazaar—whose sister was marrying the son of a local businessman, close to the two-time Akali MLA, Harmeet Singh Sandhu—retorted defensively, as I taunted him on Sandhu’s fortunes being made in the drug trade:
“Nai, hun o kamm chadd ditte ne onna ne.”
(No, he [Sandhu] has left that business.)
And that was why, in those putrid environs of parochialism, respect for someone like Pardhaan came naturally, as I witnessed the scourge affecting my own family. My grandfather, an unrelenting patriarch, got involved in a messy property dispute last year. Trying to rekindle his libido, also the talk of the town for long, Bhapaji, as everyone called him, accommodated a few female tenants with a questionable past at one of the properties. Pretty soon, they staked claim to the place and slandered Bhapaji with allegations that grossly overestimated his “potential” for the age. Expending all the options, even hired goons, who, as we came to know later, had previous “relations” with the licentious tenants, Bhapaji finally yielded to family pressure and approached the police. That decision, the small-town folks would have valuated instantly, doubled the price of the wager. Right under the nose of the SSP, despite the written orders signed by him—the SHO, the junior officials and the goons openly negotiated the compromise. Being the people from the bazaar, it brought Bhapaji and the family much infamy. And just like that, on one of those evenings, he downed a little too much moonshine than his body could take. I still wasn’t sure what killed him, cirrhosis or corruption.
Figure 1 — From left: Pardhaan Balbir Singh, Captain Pyara Singh and Master Kashmir Singh on a tour of the library.
ON THAT FORTUITOUS DECEMBER MORNING, Pardhaan took me to a place whose every square inch was consigned to posterity. Walking past the narrow lane of the souk leading to Darbar Sahib Tarn Taran—around which the whole town actually sprouted—we reached a wide entrance, marked by a gate, located right in the midst of those shop clusters. Surprised at myself for not noticing the landmark during the gazillion times I must have walked past the avenue since childhood, it was like a wormhole that materialized from another dimension. And time did indeed freeze, as we meandered through the small alleyway, towards the spacious complex inside.
Paved around a big Peepal tree, were a series of rooms, a double-storeyed building and some other quarters appearing to be warehouses. I got introduced to the four gentlemen soaking up the winter sun. The two octogenarians, Captain Pyara Singh and Master Kashmir Singh, were the officiators managing the place, owned by Bhai Mohan Singh Vaid Memorial Charitable Trust. They were entertaining Sub-Divisional Officers from Tarn Taran Improvement Trust (white elephants in Punjab’s political parlance), who came to see the newly renovated library.
Sitting on the cemented platform surrounding that massive tree trunk, I heeded to the chaiwallah’s request and grabbed a cup, though it wasn’t meant for me, as Pardhaan looked away in a desperate bid to control his sugar levels. Trying to bridge the age-gap and iron out the incongruities from the interaction that was about to happen, Pardhaan shared my love for the town and the desire to highlight its social issues. Warming up to a few homilies, the two gracefully aged seniors burst into occasional gales of laughter—not laughter actually, but childlike giggles—as their ruddy cheeks and flowing white beards glistened under the sunlight. While they sprinted towards the complex in-between, to bring down chairs or a pile of books through the stairs, their fine fettle left me amazed.
Capt. Pyara Singh took us on a tour of the library. His gravelly voice, describing the content housed over different shelves, never betrayed for a moment the fact that he had probably read most of it, making the exposition all the more interesting. The Trust had painstakingly acquired the worthy collection of the rarest books on Sikh history, philosophy and literature over the years. We finally reached an almirah solely stuffed with the works of Bhai Mohan Singh Vaid, in whose honour the organization was established.
And that was when I decided to make a delicately plotted interjection.
Figure 2 — Master Kashmir Singh holding the portrait of Bhai Mohan Singh Vaid.
BORN IN 1881 at Tarn Taran, Mohan Singh was perhaps the only Sikh polymath of our times. Hailing from a family of Ayurveda practitioners, he received little formal education, but was a natural autodidact. The reformist wave that swept Sikhism during the early part of the twentieth century left an indelible mark on the youngster, so much so that he completely devoted himself to the upliftment of the masses. Even as a teenager, he founded many social service initiatives, the talk about his activism and brilliance soon reached the ears of Chief Khalsa Diwan, the central body coordinating all the Singh Sabhas. And thus, Mohan Singh was anointed as the foot soldier of Panth, whose phenomenal contributions to the political, social and intellectual landscape of Punjab are still to be accounted for.
From setting up a number of reformist associations, the editorships of popular publications like Khalsa, charting the progressive course of the Sikh ideology under various government committees, retaining the post of Municipal Commissioner of Tarn Taran from 1910 till his death in 1936 to getting incarcerated in jail for two years as a member of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Mohan Singh truly epitomized the entrepreneurial aspirations of Punjabis—his vision emblematic of Qaum idyll.
He wrote more than 200 books on mind-bogglingly diverse topics like politics, economics, sociology, healthcare, philosophy, ethics, theology and mysticism, not to mention fiction and plays. But perhaps the most seminal of his contributions was codifying the modern Punjabi prose by inventing a simple, lightweight version of the language that complied more with the vernacular than its morphological complexity; and by producing the first-ever translation of Granth Sahib in Devanagri, thus engaging the non-Punjabi readership and migrants. So, just like Martin Luther became the progenitor of the modern German nationhood by translating New Testament, the ‘kraftvolles Punjabi’ heralded by Mohan Singh might be the least explored historical precedents that fomented the clamouring for a distinct Sikh identity.
Even till recently, the only childhood anecdote reminiscent of his legacy was how my mother used to forcibly apply the kohl manufactured by Bhai Mohan Singh Vaid & Sons, producing a horrible burning sensation in the eyes. Mohan Singh’s Ayurdvedic practice was sustained by his two sons inculcated with the same missionary zeal, their medicinal cures carried throughout the world by the diaspora. A substantial portion of the proceeds from the business went to charity. Up until a few years ago, his descendants could be seen sitting in the dingy shop near Darbar Sahib—my nose tingled with the aroma of herbs, potions and incense emanating from there—diligently tending to the poor patients treated free of cost. Most members of that illustrious clan had already relocated across India and abroad; the remaining ones also sold their assets, as revenues dwindled, and parted from the city.
(Professor Nirvikar Singh—holding the Sarbjit Singh Aurora Chair of Sikh & Punjabi Studies at University of California, Santa Cruz—happened to be Mohan Singh’s grandson. His papers had provided me with the much needed insight on economic federalism.)
DELIBERATELY INTERRUPTING Capt. Pyara Singh’s tour, I twiddled with the mobile phone to produce a list of people whose forgotten lives should have gotten consecrated at one of the corners of the precinct.
Darbar Sahib Tarn Taran was among the firsts to be “liberated” from the clutches of the corrupt clergy, during the Gurdwara Reform Movement, whose transgressions had violated every statute of the Sikh rehat maryada(the code of conduct). Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni’s eyewitness account, published in 1922, provided the lurid details of their debaucheries. The priests were often found to be drinking in the sanctum sanctorum, eating quail meat while the Granth Sahib lay in front of them. They misbehaved with the women devotees, as one bystander described “how a Hindu girl had been kissed within the Holy of Holies”.
Mohan Singh, Municipal Commissioner at the time, organized a faction of peaceful reformists to negotiate with the clerics. Refusing to budge, the priests assembled an army of goons lodging crude bombs at the unarmed agitators, butchering them with swords during one of the meetings. As Sahni recalled, “It was the first bloodshed in the cause of Gurdwara Reform, and fitly in the temple of Guru Arjan who was the first martyr in the Sikh history”. A provisional committee of fifteen men, valiantly spearheading the struggle, was formed under the auspices of Mohan Singh to take charge of the Gurdwara affairs.
Capt. Pyara Singh got overwhelmed with nostalgia, as I recalled their names:
“Sardar Balwant Singh Subedar of village Kulla?”
“Ah, yes! He… he and Hukam Singh—and Hazara Singh—offered the highest sacrifice. The duo was martyred, but Balwant Singh went to jail as well.”
“Are any relatives of his still living here?”
“Oh no, they have all gone.”
I moved to the next entry:
“Sardar Dharam Singh of Usma?”
“Yes, yes! He passed away many years ago.”
“Sardar Mehtab Singh, Headmaster of Khalsa High School?”
“He’s been long dead, too. I remember him well—yes—very much so. His son is the editor of Nawan Zamana…”
The Sub-Divisional Officers accompanying us gaped in silence, as two disparate men, eons apart, weaved an emotional bond from a thread of shared legacy; relived a tale of selflessness, thought to be buried forever in the interstices of memory and history.
Now that I had established a rapport with the elders, we sat down for another cup of tea that was well-deserved, as I gradually leaned towards the actual agenda.
Pardhaan enquired about the availability of Santan de Kautak, a multi-volume compendium dispassionately describing the feats and foibles of many living Sikh babas. A quick search through the catalogue revealed that it had already been issued. He then subtly shared my experiences of witnessing caste-based discrimination in the gurdwaras around nearby villages.
“Sikhi ‘ch Bahmannvaad aa gaya ai.”
(Brahminism has crept into the Sikh religion.)
Capt. Pyara Singh appeared to have shrunk into himself, as he whispered that line, looking a bit cagey. Even the most liberal-minded of Sikhs lived in abject denial or tried to externalize the source of the disease, knowing very well that their own religion failed to notice, leave alone address, its underlying symptoms.
Pardhaan was not in a mood to bury the hatchet.
“Ae munde ne pata lagaya ai ki Dhotian de gurdware wich Majbi Singhan naal vitkara kitta jaanda ae.”
(The young lad has found out that a gurdwara of village Dhotian discriminates against the Mazhabi Sikhs.)
“Aaho. Sur Singh ’ch wi… Amrit shakaun vele. Ki naa rakheya ohna ne? Chauthey Paurey Wale?”
(Yes. Even in Sur Singh, while distributing Amrit [during the Khalsa baptism ceremony]. What name have they given to the people? Chauthey Paurey Wale?)
In my wide-ranging discussions with filmmaker Ajay Bhardwaj—often hailed as the “Ritwik Ghatak of Punjab”—over the steaming bowls of delectable chicken-spinach soup, at his apartment in Delhi (I called it the “home of the inquilab”), one thing which got firmly etched in my mind was to always trust the contemporary lore more than the intellectual discourse.
I learnt to hunt counter-narratives existing on the very margins of our society, ready to be pushed into the oblivion by a monoculture constricted by geopolitics, a populace fed with mass-produced histories and an intelligentsia servile to the hegemonic constructs of class. Conversations, mere conversations—the chatter at the choupal, the grumbling in the gurdwaras, the whispers in the wheat fields—miraculously preserved and sanctified the stories of faceless, nameless men and women. With the message upending the medium, transcending the barriers of space and time—oozing through the crevices of collective consciousness, emerged the truth that was carried subliminally, piggybacking on the subjectivity of our mythos; becoming the ever-present origin, spawning a million minor mutinies here and there.
And so, as Capt. Pyara Singh uttered the term, Chauthey Paurey Wale—with its literal meaning being, People from the Fourth Step—hinting at some ritualistic perversity kept secret, I had the strange inkling of stumbling upon a conversation of monumental importance and historicity, whose origins ought to be pursued further.
Little did I know that the darkness trailing on the edges of that revelation was about to engulf my own life as well…
THE NEXT VISIT TO TARN TARAN in January was limited by familial responsibilities. My sister was getting married the next month. Tasked with a few arrangements, it provided me with an excellent excuse to travel often. One afternoon, while my parents were busy shopping the numerous knick-knacks that make for a wedding ceremony, I borrowed a bike from the bazaar and headed straight to village Sur Singh, some thirty kilometres on the Bhikhiwind-Khemkaran stretch.
That fertile tract of Majha—the region comprising Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Tarn Taran—was steeped in history. The earlier excursion off-the-beaten-track, which took me there some years ago, was to locate the fabled Patton Nagar, a town named after the most ferocious tank battle ever fought since World War II, during the Indo-Pak conflict of 1965. If one were to ever come close to experiencing Valhalla on earth, then it was on the piece of land between the villages Assal Uttar and Cheema—the faltering Indian defense line that thwarted an all-out invasion—where the banzai charge of Havaldar Abdul Hamid (posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra) and Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh still rang in the ears.
Sur Singh had blipped on the radar earlier too, when I was made aware of the communal segregation being enforced in one of its gurdwaras by my ‘informant network’, and it was duly pinned on Punjab’s Map of Shame, last year. Veering towards the other side of the highway to take a sharp right, landing on the dirt track that led to the heart of the village, I ended up parking the bike in front of the very first gurdwara. Leaning over the brick wall, besides the small water pool meant for cleansing, I read the inscribed Gurumukhi, making overtures with the camera to gather the attention of the old Nihang sitting on the charpoy. The moment our eyes met, he limped forward to greet me.
(Can I get something for you, sir?)
Volunteering as a caretaker of the Gurdwara, Ratan Singh preferred to pass the dull winter afternoons lazing around the premises, so the ill-timed visits from strangers always made for an interesting tête-à-tête. My introduction as a local history buff was enough to get things going.
“Bahut itehaasik pind hai ji!”
(It’s a very historic village, sir!)
The excitement was palpable as his guttural voice struggled its way out of the phlegm-choked throat. Ratan Singh was right. The place was as old as history itself. Dr. Amarjit Kaur Ibban, who taught at the local high school for girls, actually ended up writing a whole book on Sur Singh. From the rather lofty claim of it being the birthplace of Lord Shiva, Ibban gradually descends to traceable antiquity, postulating that the place was teeming with settlers much before the arrival of Sikhism.
Citing contemporary sources, she had compiled an impressive list of personalities having their roots in the village: Abdulla and Nattha, the two dhadi (ballad singers) with Guru Hargobind; Des Raj, the architect of Golden Temple; Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, the commander of Ramgarhia Sikh Confederacy; Maha Singh, the leader of Chali Muktay (Forty Liberated Ones) of Guru Gobind; Sufi saints Shah Jamal and Shah Malik; Jagat Singh and Prem Singh, martyrs from Ghadar Party; wrestler Kartar Singh, a gold medallist at Asian Games; and Dr. Waryam Singh Sandhu, the Sahitya Akademi Award winning short-story writer.
But for Ratan Singh, history began and ended with just one man—the “Robin Hood of Majha” —Baba Bidhi Chand Chhina.
“Tusi kull duniya da itehaas suneya ke Maharaj Chhevein Paatshahi chaar jung jitte aa, te Baba Bidhi Chand sa’ab sajje hatth ‘ch Maharaj ne rakhe aa. Te aenu var ditte aa—Bidhi Chand nu—ke, ‘Bidhi Chand Chhina, Guru Ka Seena’.”
(If you are little aware of “world’s history”, the sixth Sikh Guru [Hargobind] won four wars and Baba Bidhi Chand was his right hand all the way. He was exalted by the Guru with the eternal blessing—“Bidhi Chand Chhina makes Guru’s chest swell with pride”.)
The listless face of Ratan Singh swayed a little with the underlying emotions, as he carried on with the slightly incoherent monologue.
“Te Guru ne onna nu keha, “Tu saada dil ban chukkeya haan. Saade sarir vakhro-vakhri reh gaye aa, appan dovein ik ho chukke aa’. Ae koi shotta-motta itehaas…”
(And the Guru told him, “You have acquired a place in my heart. We may be separated by bodies, but our souls are one”. No ordinary history that is…)
Ratan Singh was stirred, and quite rightly so, for the man Bidhi Chand exemplified the contrarian streak that went right through the heart and history of Punjab. Like an archetypal hero emerging from Joseph Campbell’s mono-myth, his story selectively hid and revealed the subtleties that were essential to the creation of a people’s legend.
“Bidhia dar awwa
(In the beginning, Bidhia was a thief.)
—Mohsin Fani, a Persian historian of the seventeenth century, in Dabestan-e Mazaheb.
A DAREDEVIL HIGHWAYMAN in his early life, Bidhi Chand was won over by Bhai Adli, a disciple of the fifth Guru, Arjan, and brought to the Sikh fold. After spending years treading the rural heartland as a preacher, spreading the message of Sikhism, the varied skills of the burly Jatt were put to good use, as the Guruship succeeded to the sixth heir, Hargobind, also beginning the extant militarization of the faith. As a risaldar (commander of a cavalry) managing the intelligence functions, Bidhi Chand showcased tremendous valour and loyalty, routing the armies of the Mughal chieftains, in the four battles that the Guru fought. His most memorable exploit being the rescue of two horses, Dilbagh and Gulbagh, which were brought from Kabul as a gift for Hargobind, but were seized midway and taken to the stables of Lahore Fort. Using the tricks he had learnt as a thief for the one last time, Bidhi Chand managed to steal them back in plain sight, disguising as a grass-cutter and then, as a fortune teller.
Gradually withdrawing from the worldly affairs as the end drew nigh, Bidhi Chand bid an emotional farewell to Hargobind and spent the remaining days at Devnagar, near Ayodhya, in the company of a Sufi friend, Sundar Shah. As per a pact made earlier, they left the world together on 14th August, 1640 (1654, according to some accounts). Bidhi Chand’s mortal remains were brought back to his paternal place, Sur Singh, by nephew, Lal Chand—or as some say, his “second descendant”—and a smadh (shrine) was installed.
Figure 3 — A popular painting depicting Bidhi Chand disguised as a fortune teller, rescuing the horse, Dilbagh, from the stables of Lahore Fort.
But that was as far as a sanitized religious narrative could go. According to Kristina Myrvold, assistant professor at Lund University and the author of the dissertation, Inside the Guru’s Gate, “As a minority group situated within the boundaries of a Hindu centre, the Sikhs have generated their own collective emic historiography”. Circumscribed by political correctness—the ideological absolutism and the newfangled notion of belonging it results in—the case of Bidhi Chand was given the sartorial treatment to better fit within the framework of Sikh identity politics. Far from being a man gone astray, he was the proverbial baaghi: a rebel who not only challenged the writ of the Gurus, but also went to war with a society that rejected his love.
BIDHI CHAND WAS BORN to Sukh Ram Hindal (1573–1648), a farmer and a cleric who established Jandiala Guru, a kasba or small settlement situated at a comfortable distance of eighteen kilometres from both Amritsar and Tarn Taran (one of my cousins got married there). Hindal, or Handal, as referred to in some texts, was a Muslim disciple of the Sufi saint, Sakhi Sarwar. He was converted to Sikhism by the third Guru, Amar Das, and given the responsibility of organizing langar at Goindwal. For his commendable service to the faith, Hindal was later appointed as the masand (administrator) of a manji—the dioceses that were the precursors to gurdwaras.
The young Bidhi Chand seemingly followed the footsteps of his father, preaching the sizeable congregation of Hindal’s disciples. By a curious twist of fate, he fell for a Mohammedan girl and eventually ended up marrying her—an act which was widely despised by the Sikh community and its leaders. The embittered Bidhi Chand was soon tagged as an apostate, only strengthening the convictions of that diehard. He reneged against the very order by creating a schismatic sect that ingeniously exploited the politics of the Gurus. Skilfully mobilizing the followers of Hindal—called Niranjani or Hindali—he pitted them directly against the Sikh establishment. The Niranjanis refused to be identified as Sikhs and frequently aligned themselves with the Mughal rulers and the foreign invaders.
Sometimes, dissent pricked the thick skin of religion at just the right spot to drain out the uncomfortable truths from the abscesses of history. In a masterly move, Bidhi Chand brought the Sikh leaders to the negotiating table by crafting Hindaliya Janam Sakhi: a biographical account on the life of Baba Nanak that depicted him as a disciple of the low-caste Muslim weaver, Kabir; even mentioning the legendary meeting between the two celebrated poets at Varanasi. Deemed as a plagiarized variant of the earliest-known texts authored by one Bala Sandhu—who was said to have pioneered the “Bala tradition” of janam sakhis (quite literally, the birth stories)—the supposedly derogatory references were methodically expunged by the hagiographers and the revised document was put back into circulation. However, the wily propaganda appeared to have raised enough hackles, making the situation untenable for the Sikh leaders, as the “heretical” Niranjanis gained more ground.
Jandiala became the strategically positioned nerve-center of a rebellion. Not abundantly clear as to when and how Bidhi Chand had a change of heart, due to the peculiar absence of archives on that momentous phase, the switching of sides under Baba Adli’s decree and his gradual elevation to a military commander had the shades of a compromise—a balancing act between the political expediency of the Sikh Gurus, and the honour and ambition of a baaghi. It doesn’t take more than a cursory observation of the religious politics played out in Punjab during the recent past to understand how all that could have been legitimatized under the dominancy, the questionable edict of a monoculture.
And as far as the Niranjanis were concerned, the third-oldest sect of the Sikhs gradually faded into insignificance, their lands taken away by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to punish them for tacitly supporting the Mughals. Yet, that rabidly nonconformist movement continued plotting against them till the late eighteenth century, conveniently leveraging the communal rift—notably, by endorsing the official storyline emerging from Lahore on Guru Arjan’s death; by covertly siding with Punjab governor, Adeena Beg Khan, to drive away the Guru’s armies; and by playing a dangerous game in collusion with the Afghan invader, Ahmad Shah Durrani, inadvertently creating the conditions that led to Vadda Ghallughara (Big Holocaust).
Kristina Myrvold made another noteworthy observation, “The rhetorical strategy to counter dominant beliefs and practices is in no way exceptional for the contemporary local historiography in Varanasi, but typical of the seventeenth century Janam-sakhi literature that aimed at proving the supremacy of Guru Nanak and the geographical spread of his teaching”. So the genuine questions regarding the relationship between Nanak and Kabir were consciously sidelined and erased from the public memory. Similarly, the aspersions about Bidhi Chand’s Muslim wife were addressed by inserting the nephew, Lal Chand, into the narrative, instead of his actual son, Devi Das.
Figure 4 — Gurdwara Baba Bidhi Chand of Sur Singh.
THE SUN WAS FINALLY GIVING WAY to the wintry haze, as the day drew near to a close.
“Baba Daya Singh gyarvein peedi de ne.”
(Baba Daya Singh is from the eleventh generation.)
Caretaker Ratan Singh was extolling the lineage of Bidhi Chand. His eleventh “descendant”, Baba Daya Singh, led one of the four Nihang battalions of Khalsa Army and an important Sikh seminary, under the umbrella organization, Sampardaye Baba Bidhi Chand Ji (also called Baba Bidhi Chand Dal).
Guru Hargobind once arrived in Sur Singh at the constant bidding of a rich trader by the name of Bhag Mal, who offered his newly built palatial bungalow and a thousand bighas of land to further the cause of Sikhism. The Guru was travelling extensively and rarely stayed at one place for long. So he delegated Lal Chand, the “second scion”, to develop the property. One could still find the magnificent and remarkably well-preserved ruins of the old buildings in the village, dating back many centuries. The progenies of Bidhi Chand steadily invested their efforts in converting those assets into places of worship and influence.
Ratan Singh told me that the village boasted five historical gurdwaras. The one in front of which we were sitting was the shrine of Bidhi Chand and I saw a larger structure just a few meters away that was Gurdwara Sri Hargobind Sahib. All those institutions were managed by Bidhi Chand Dal. The aging Daya Singh—whose “army” had closely sided with Bhindranwale in the fight for Khalistan—was preparing to pass the baton to his son, Avtar Singh, from the twelfth generation, though they never made it clear whether the politically powerful ancestry stemmed from Bidhi Chand’s nephew, or his son from the Muslim wife.
Figure 5 — Ratan Singh (L) and Ajaib Singh (R) with the author.
I asked Ratan Singh the question that drew me to the wild-goose chase in the first place:
“Babaji, ae Chauthey Paurey da ki matlab aa?
(Babaji, what does the term “Chauthey Paurey” imply?)
He was habitual to talking in quick spurts and the answers trickled out more rapidly than my questions. I didn’t register surprise or bemusement on the weatherworn face, but his changed mien had a confessional undertone to it:
“Babaji, ek bennti aa meri—mai anpaddh aa. Mai ae nai keh sakda ki, jaaneya, jyon Maharaj ne Amrit shakaaya—Bhai, ae kiss vitth wich baba bhaavein dass gaye—Majbi Singh jehde aa na? Ohna nu Chauthey Pauriye ahnne hunne si. Te… te Amrit taan ikko hi ai na? Ae ghar taan sabda saanjha ai na? Aaye te rabb de ghar ne?”
(Sir, I submit very humbly that I am an uneducated person. I can’t ascertain the context in which, after the Gurus baptized them with Amrit, the babas started referring to the Mazhabi Sikhs as “Chauthey Pauriye”. But… but isn’t the same Amrit partaken by all? Isn’t this our common home? After all, haven’t we arrived in God’s abode?)
I tried pushing him for little more:
“Mainu badi ruchi aa ki ae Paurey ki ne. Koi dooja ya teeja paura wi hunda?”
(But I am quite interested in knowing what Paurey means. Is there any second or third “step” as well?)
Ratan Singh shirked, but not before divulging the partial truth:
“Babaji, mai tuhannu dasseya ki mai ehde do gaan gall nai koi jaanda. Bhai, Chautha Paura—sannu ehde matbal da hi nai pata—picche aam gall karde hunde si ke falaane Chuhre aa. Chuhre te Jatt, gall taan inni ai na? Te Nihang Singh ehna nu Chauthey Paurey…”
(Sir, as I have already told you, this is the best I can come up with. I am completely ignorant about its origin or interpretation. Earlier, it was the fairly common to use the term “Chuhre” for them. Isn’t the whole thing about Chuhre and Jatt? So similarly, the Nihang Singhs called them Chauthey Paurey…)
The barely decipherable exchange got interrupted by what sounded like a faint cry from Ajaib Singh. He was the granthi (one who reads the scripture) at the Gurdwara. The rotund man with pinkish complexion had an irritably squeaky voice, giving him the appearance of an anthropomorphic piglet from a Disney film. He was busy chopping the daatun (Neem twigs used for oral cleaning), until the interaction piqued his interest:
“Baba Jiwan Singh Chauthi Pauri chon hoya na? Majbi Singh hoya na? Maharaj ne jad sarir tyageya, ohna ne laiyanda nai sir onna da?”
(Didn’t Baba Jiwan Singh belong to the Chauthi Pauri? Wasn’t he a Mazhabi Sikh? When the Guru departed, wasn’t he the one to bring his severed head?)
Ajaib Singh had made a tactical interpolation by invoking the legend of Jiwan Singh, or Bhai Jaita, who rescued the severed head of the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, from Delhi. The first known Dalit poet of Punjab, his story of service and sacrifice marked a turning point in the evolution of caste consciousness among the Sikhs, paving the way for a new social contract based on equity that was unheard of.
Ratan Singh dutifully filled in the blanks:
“Laiyanda! Maharaj ne ohna nu gall naal la leya. Inni gehri gall aakhi ki, ‘Rangrete Guru ke Bete’.”
(Yes, he brought it! The deeply moved Guru [Gobind Singh] embraced him and said, “Rangrete [the low-castes] are the sons of the Guru”.)
Indeed, that impassioned verse became the incantation for inclusion in the times to come.
The semblance of empathy was distracting me, as I tried again to stress on the origin of that disturbing ritual of segregation, hounding them with questions on Paurey and its colloquial usage for Dalits. The thudding of the wooden plank, to which I had grown comfortable by then, stopped for a second as Ajaib Singh raised thedaatar (arc-shaped knife) and said:
“Mai tuhannu das dinna. Amrit banauna ikko thaan.Te jehda mudke pauna ke nai? O tuhadda baata tuhannu dena. Jehde Majbi Singh hai na, ohna nu ahdd baata dena, appan nu ahdd baata dena… bannde ikko thaan hi aa.”
(Let me explain it to you. The Amrit is prepared at one place. But when it is distributed later, the Mazhabi Sikhs receive it in a separate utensil, while we [the upper castes] partake from the other one.)
It was as simple as that, clear as crystal. We had bridged the distance of a few generations, between people imagining themselves as warriors, born to different mothers, raised to represent different eras. An achievement of sorts, more like an epiphany actually. There I was: spectacled, clad in a hooded sweatshirt and a leather overcoat, with a voice recorder in one hand and a smart-phone in the other; the two rugged Nihangs—who must have strode vast lands over horsebacks during the youth, with nerves bulging out of the faces and limbs like an imprinted relic from their adventures—reminiscing how they had raced the horses at full-speed while spearing a target with a lance at the same time, to a jubilant crowd of onlookers.
A gust of wind ruffled through the leaves of the ghostly Peepal trees that arched over us menacingly, carrying a spell towards the shrine of Bidhi Chand Chhina, then just a mere silhouette in front of the setting sun. For all the Amrit that was partaken there, the gloomy building appeared devoid of the life-giving elixir. The last remnant of the evening took a deep, infectious yawn and right at that very moment, God seemed to have left the Gurdwara.
FROM HARMANDIR TO HARVARD, the Sikh scholars were busy convincing each other that all the rhetoric about the systemic depravity gripping their religious and political bodies, the clergy and the adherents, was the result of a targeted campaign singling-out a few cases; aberrations for which only some digressing babas or deras were to be blamed. It was their gross misapprehension that an ordinary person can’t see through the complex schemata of the Sikh establishment—that the aspect of Daya Singh slaughtering hundreds of goats for the ravenous Nihangs at the marriage of his son would be treated as a minor eccentricity, long associated with such folks; while the perverse practice of caste-based segregation, masqueraded as a spiritually sanctioned act, in the 350 years old seminary of a religion that abhors ritualism in the first place, would be seen as a crime against humanity.
Long enamoured by the trope of falsification and by endlessly chasing the spectre of institutional downfall, I was slowly inching towards the eye of the storm.
Situated on the road towards Goindwal, Gurdwara Marhi Sahib looked more like the headquarters of a business conglomerate, when I visited it in January. The huge, marble-floored campus was like a small township with its own go-downs, granaries and a bay for trucks and tractors. A newly-built ultramodern, multispecialty hospital adjacent to it, funded by the same organization that managed Marhi Sahib, was now the crown jewel of Tarn Taran. After downing two glasses of the freshest buttermilk at the langar hall, I asked for Baba Jagtar Singh “Kar-Sewa Wale”, who had become the elusive boogeyman since my visit to village Dhotian, earlier in November.
Like any other institutionalized religion, Sikhism had also fallen prey to the commoditization of spirituality and Baba Jagtar Singh was at the very forefront of that game. Kar Sewa, or the voluntary, selfless contribution of services and goods, from physical labor to money, had been one of the founding tenets of the faith. Dera Kar Sewa of Tarn Taran honed a series of leaders to spearhead such initiatives in an organized manner, by training a cadre of volunteers and channelling donations through structured investment vehicles since the last 200 years or so. Jagtar Singh was like the reigning chief executive of the corpus. He had mobilized lakhs of volunteers to renovate dozens of crumbling historical monuments and building new ones across India and abroad; cleaning the holy tank of Golden Temple being the pinnacle of his career. It was an altogether different story that Jagtar Singh’s subordinates had gotten away after embezzlement of funds that his misplaced zeal had led to the wanton destruction of old artefacts and that he unrestrainedly exercised the power coming with the job.
But all of that never mattered while I was looking for him at Marhi Sahib. My self-imagined grouse with Jagtar Singh was on a much simpler issue. While investigating a case of discrimination against the Dalit Christians of Dhotian, I encountered a prominent gurdwara—one among the many under Jagtar Singh’s administration—that had publicly barred the Mazhabis from performing the langar sewa because their supposed lack of hygiene killed the appetite of a few (chronicled in my article for Kafila.org, A Day in the Life of a Sikh Prejudice).
After some waiting, a message arrived that Baba ji had left for Mumbai. He was in the United States when I had enquired earlier. Disappointed a little, but still having ample time at my disposal, I raced towards the village of Alawalpur, around four kilometres from the place. Sardara Singh, its sarpanch, was another character from my grand confabulation, the most entertaining of all, neatly fitting the profile of transgressors described in my case-book, my very own Malleus Maleficarum.
Sardara Singh drew power from the political standing of his mother, Manjit Kaur, once an SGPC Member. Apparently, the senior Shiromani Akali Dal leader and former minister, Ranjit Singh Brahmpura—widely known as the “Jarnail (General) of Majha” after a slew of electoral victories from the region—bestowed patronage on Manjit Kaur, so she revered him like an elder brother. It was through the ménage à trois that the sarpanch of Alawalpur wielded his clout.
A baptized Sikh with unshorn hair and a ceremonial dagger dangling by the side, he would have resembled a genuine harbinger of the faith, but for a particularly irresistible vice. Earlier in September, Sardara Singh’s mugshot was splashed all over the papers, when the outlandish plan to stage his own kidnapping was foiled. Enacting a drama of epic hilarity, Sardara Singh instructed his cohorts to theatrically “abduct” him from the car and an “eyewitness” was summarily dispatched to file a police complaint. As the cops belted their trousers to get cracking on the sensational case, both the hostage and the abductees merrily sped to a nearby village, in what seemed like a lopsided effect of Stockholm Syndrome, taking a woman on board.
Like any other married man, desperate to escape the scrutiny of his wife and in-laws, Sardara Singh’s shenanigans were merely aimed at spending some quality time with the mistresses. The week-long sojourn amidst the romantic dales of Srinagar was cut short when a relative ratted him out. A passionate lover that he was, driven to the extremes, another plan of a lengthy outing, by falsely summoning himself in a court case, had also gone kaput.
I could very well have ended up appreciating his “lust for life”, until another startling revelation reached my ears through the grapevine of Tarn Taran. When push came to shove, when it was no longer possible to bridle—what many scholars have alluded to as the “Indus libido”—Sardara Singh used to barge into the sarai (lodge) of the gurdwaras around Goindwal for the romping sessions, both with paramours and prostitutes. The clergy and the caretakers either turned a blind eye, or were themselves enticed by the conveniences of power. The one or two times that he got arrested, a prompt call from Brahmpura’s office was enough to let go the Don Juan. The orgies in the gurdwaras continued unabated.
An orderly at his residence told me that Sardara Singh was unavailable. Not prepared to be snubbed twice in a day, I pushed hard by pretending to be a journalist from Delhi, keen to hear his side of the story. After a long pause, I was told to go away.
Barring a few minor roadblocks like as such, I had arrived full circle in a witch-hunt spanning many months. During the numerous and sometimes exhausting trips to the bucolic outback—cultivating sources, chasing the obscure stories and its subjects, and deconstructing the newspaper clippings that looked interesting to no one but me; hitching over rickety public transport, forever cash-strapped; beating the deadly summer heat, falling sick; getting rubbed off in the wrong way by the so-called intellectuals, activists and apologists, only to hit them back in the same coin—the one stubborn belief, in fact, a presupposition, was that all those contraventions led directly to the “Source”. It was a hothead’s attempt to call for an arraignment of the “System” by never ignoring the cogs, but, more importantly, by also focusing on the wheel, as a whole, to prove that it had deviated from the chosen path—politically, institutionally and spiritually.
If Sardara Singh was meant to be a case in point for the venality of religio-communitarian politics, then Baba Jagtar Singh Kar-Sewa Wale, with his unhindered access to the Akal Takht, was symbolic of the insidious, self-serving cabal that had taken control of the religious bodies. The ever-widening gulf between Miri and Piri, between the temporal and the spiritual—only efficacious when working in tandem—had produced something as sinister as Brahminism, but was never to be confused with it. The demonic plague of “purity-pollution” had struck again—witnessed at places like Sur Singh and Dhotian, to name a few; even at Sis Ganj and Bangla Sahib, where the destitute were served a separate langar simply because they looked “dirty”—leading to the dismemberment of humanity on the basis of caste and creed. The Timeless Throne seemed to have gotten lost in its very timelessness; the daily ablutions with milk had made its floor unctuous with the grease of greed and pomp.
AS THE VISIT TO ALAWALPUR wrapped early, I spent the rest of the day mingling with acquaintances from the bazaar. Perched on the counter at a friend’s shop selling used clothes, shipped in containers from Europe and America, idly staring at the crowd, I receive a message to reach home immediately. The unusual twist was a bit surprising.
My Chacha and mother were sitting in the drawing room, sipping the afternoon tea. He tried giving me a disarming smile and mumbled something incoherent. From the years that I had known my uncle, I knew it was a mix of affection and nervousness forcing him to do so. He certainly had an odd disposition, like every other member of our clan, always reminding me of the lines from G.K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, “He came of a family of cranks, in which all the oldest people had all the newest notions”, the more our ladies “preached a more than Puritan abstinence” the more did the men expanded “into a more than pagan latitude”.
Was it about alcohol, I made a few guesses. I certainly drank like a fish whenever the opportunity beckoned, more often than not in a joint family type of setting. My mother, whose face was flushing a bit by then, began the interrogation. She enquired about my recent visit to the villages. I was unnaturally indiscrete and told them everything. And that was when the bombshell landed.
Not that I hadn’t anticipated it earlier, but some stranger, looking like a “dera man” (unwelcome in our places), delivered a missive to my Chacha at the shop, telling me to quit meddling in their affairs or the “consequences would be dire”. He also hinted that the bazaar would not take to the uncharted excursions of the young lad very kindly, for which the whole family would suffer. That was as serious as things could get.
We were calico printers by caste—Cheemba in Punjabi, Chhipa in Hindi and Rangrez in Urdu. Traditionally the followers of poet-saint, Namdev, from Maharashtra, they had made early ingress into Sikhism, after his poetry was incorporated in Granth Sahib. The migration got a further boost over the years, as Mokham Chand, one of the original Panj Pyare (Five Beloved Ones) baptized by Guru Gobind Singh, was also from the same community. With changing times, they became washermen and tailors as well. Like most landless, artisan groups stuck in the social stratification, their conditions remained deplorable, so they were categorized as “Backward”.
All my uncles and aunts were uneducated, so were most of the cousins. Our grandfather relocated from village Bundala, the growing settlement around Darbar Sahib Tarn Taran offered better opportunities. Womenfolk from the nearby hamlets would flock to the town over masya (new moon day) and sangrand (new month in the sidereal-solar calendar), and bathe in the holy tank—the largest ever constructed. As had been the proclivity since the beginning of civilization, they would also steal some time to shop, ordering new suits or customizing the older ones with fancy embroidery, which was what Bhapaji did to raise our family, though the uninhibited proximity to the opposite sex also led to many amorous encounters (some tricks of the trade remaining effective till lately).
One son, exhibiting prodigal talent, was admitted to Sainik School, Kapurthala, after much pounding on their doors, to end up as a defence officer. The youngest turned out be a violent schizophrenic. The remaining two were bequeathed with shops in the main arcade towards Darbar Sahib, the tiniest ones in the whole bazaar, to sell tailoring material or offer the associated services. The truism, that one mantra, which helped them come out unscathed from the dark days of the militancy, was to always keep the heads low, only to mind their own business, never-ever to catch anyone’s eye.
“Do peg lao, daal-roti khaake, ramaan naal so jao.”
(Drink two pegs, eat daal-roti and sleep in peace.)
In the big, resource constrained world of working-class families, where countless siblings craved for attention, where the kids were breast-fed till they were ten, the failure of expectations, the overlap of oedipal complexes, and the resulting madness was far too common—making us a normal poor family. Religion hardly offered any realistic advice to the landless, the artisans and the downtrodden. That’s probably why a noticeable strain of agnosticism, a penchant for scepticism, ran through most of them.
Incidents, like the one mentioned by my mother, could’ve easily brought down the house of cards in a second. Laden words like aukaad introduced certain sombreness to the conversation, making me realize that a line had been crossed. It didn’t matter who that person was, whether he belonged to the dera of Jagtar Singh or Sardara Singh’s gang. In a small town like ours, where power still lay in the old hands, resisting capitulation to the onslaughts of modernism, those folks were law unto themselves.
But, of course, I had known all of that very well. What I really underestimated, that too by a wide margin, was the vulnerability of my own family, how inescapably linked they were to the culture, its geography and the backwardness. For reasons that would be hard to appreciate, arguments ensued the whole evening. A tightly lidded urn got shattered, letting loose the ghosts of the past, feeding over the prized middle-class commodity: peace of mind. Bhapaji had expired recently and my sister was getting married in a fortnight. I had risked a lot. My previous skirmishes with the system played their part too. I was a whistleblower once—a wretched, deliriously high-minded act which almost destroyed my career. You couldn’t pollute the air you breathed.
“IK-ADDHI KANDDH DHAA DO gurdware di, fer dasseyo ki karde ne.”
(Bring down one or two walls of the gurdwara and then tell me what they would do.)
The dim, smoke-filled bar of the Press Club was heady with the laidback attitude so typically associated with Chandigarh. The moist window panes, with trails of dew, offered a view to the underworld, which was what the city had transformed into, after a dense evening fog descended over. Hardly discouraging the experienced prowlers of the night, a few tables were still occupied, making the whole setting look like an ungodly feast from a Transylvanian castle—the elaborate capes and makeup hiding the tails and fangs that were to appear later. As expected, the women outnumbered the men, fuelling my long-harboured fantasies about a certain esoteric libertinism of the local gentry.
I hardly socialized in Chandigarh, though my parents lived in Mohali—driven to the ‘bourgeoisie anthills’ that had popped up recently—so it was my first visit to the Club. Gurveer (name changed), a veteran journalist, had invited me over. A fixture in the local art and cultural circuits, he was known to have a reasoned and moderated outlook. Gurveer was referring to the incidents of discrimination while making that comment about the gurdwaras, more specifically to the ones which I had highlighted in the “Map of Shame” and the article on Dhotian. His idea of instigating a revolt in the gurdwaras excited me at the outset. Even historically, those institutions had acted as the centres for social upheaval, the common public taking charge when necessary to enforce the shared ethos. I was also pleasantly surprised by Gurveer being candid to that extent, as differing ideologies had led to some friction earlier. The imaginings about a “conspiracy of silence” had turned me into a bit of a rabble-rouser, though some of the suspicions did rung true later.
Nietzsche coined the sublime phrase—the pathos of distance—having so many political, moral and spiritual connotations that the exercise of describing what it exactly meant became a treacherous one. Implying that the birth of the moral framework, the created set of virtues and the foundation of equality, as enforced similarity, deliberately underplayed a primal human instinct to stand apart, to exist, to discriminate, both positively and negatively; to assert, to command and obey; to accept and reject the multiplicities as per need. It was the widening of polarities, the lack of its realization at an inward and outward level, that led to the misperceptions, to the inefficient structures of administration in class and caste hierarchies—if at all such things were to exist, which they would, no matter what. The garb of perfection that only exacerbated the decadence; what appeared like a race to a finale turned out to be hamsters tumbling over each other in a wheel. Not to risk his reputation, but right before the breakdown, he came close to the most subjective of its definitions, “‘The world is perfect’—thus speaks the instinct of the most intellectual men, affirmative instinct; ‘imperfection, every kind of inferiority to us, distance, pathos of distance, even the Chandala belongs to this perfection”.
“Mai nai samajh sakda ke tuhadde ki experiences rahe ne…”
(I can’t put myself in your shoes…)
Gurveer was bridging the ‘distance’, acknowledging the confusion that arose due to the generalities around ‘us’ and ‘them’, and accepting how ideologies could sometimes underplay the intensity of emotions. But the seething suspicion had already firmed up my prejudices against his ilk. Like a splinter lodged in the eye, the past interactions with them unsettled me to a great extent. The seeds of disenchantment had long been sown.
THE PRESENCE OF AMARJIT CHANDAN at the Punjabi Subaltern Summit, a small conference I had organized in Chandigarh last year, made the whole effort worthwhile. He didn’t speak much but sat attentively throughout the day, almost wedged in a corner, the glazed eyes and the impassive demeanour imparting some regality to the doyen of Punjabi culture. A British-Indian writer—a young woman with dark, streaming locks and large, accentuated eyes—was constantly by Chandan’s side, like a warder of his poetic sensitivities. The attendees fawned over, even skipped the talks to genuflect in front of him. He appeared lost, slightly weary of the one-sided exchanges, occasionally uttering monosyllables when someone raised a topic of interest. The halo around his head became obvious after a young poet greeted me and immediately rushed towards Chandan, before I could even reciprocate the gesture. As a computer science engineer from Malout, I was a rank outsider to those circles, completely uninitiated to the schools of thought that governed them, with it being my first exposure to their complex dynamics. What seemed rather foolhardy later, I had conjured up a dream to build a united front of the thinkers and doers, influencing policy issues in Punjab.
“Can any dalitist academic do a lit analysis of the following two liner gem of Punjabi folk poetry? — Gaa ke aarti, te dhoop jaga ke, Majbi ne choddi Bahmani.” (By singing hymns and lighting incense, a Mazhabi fucks a Brahmin woman.)
The dream started falling apart like a Jackson Pollock painting just around the same time I received that email from Chandan a few months later, as a reply to a seemingly benign message on a mailing-list, having absolutely no bearing to the scurrilous remark. The sensory deprivation induced by technology often gave shape to the most deeply-harboured biases, but Chandan was no ordinary being. Initially numb with fear for having triggered his outrage, befuddled beyond words by what led to it, I then felt pity for the old man who soon realized that the rant was also broadcasted to his worshippers on the list. He was specifically concerned about the two Bahmaniyan, a feminist-poetess who treated him as a reverential figurehead and that British writer. Showcasing the same traits of senility as my grandfather, I knew Chandan didn’t mean what he said. It was rather the deafening silence of his self-righteous friends—those public intellectuals with private ambitions, who generally didn’t hesitate to nitpick the slightest deviations of an underdog like me—fully aware of the delicacy with which I was touching the caste issues, that really set me off. The whole effort around the Summit looked undone.
After weeks of sulking and sending drunken diatribes, I decided to delve into Chandan’s world. Son of aKumiar, a Naxalite in the heydays, he was a contemporary of the radical poet, Lal Singh Dil. Even his own compositions, tepid in verse, betrayed the discordant note he had struck earlier. And I knew at that very instant, Chandan went too close to the “Revolution” and got singed—overwhelmed by the “miasma of lying that, far more than the cruelty took the heart out of it”. He was one of those born-again believers who survived, but had never planned on it; who should have ideally spent the rest of the days in a sanatorium, like Orwell after the Spanish Civil War, meticulously noting down the number eggs the hens were laying. As a friend of mine tried to put things into perspective:
“O ae babey ne, aina nu nai pata!”
(They are babas, too old to change!)
“You smug-faced PUNJABI LEFTISTS with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.”
—An improvisation of Siegfried Sassoon’s Suicide in the Trenches.
GURVEER OFFERED ME the last piece of fish tikka from the platter. Our interaction at the Press Club was well past the initial hitches, so I asked him about the “Rajab Ali affair”. Nodding his head, as if the question was almost anticipated, he admitted that the matter needed to be contemplated at many levels.
The local continuities in Punjab had often subverted the rigid precepts of religion and nationalism, creating identity markers that were more organically rooted in its culture and geography, with Babu Rajab Ali (1894-1979) being one of its most potent catalysts. Merely mentioning the name of that famed bard elicited unrestrained emotions across both sides of the border. The uncrowned king of kavishari—folk poetry sung in an energetic manner—tapped the latent passions of the land by invoking various legends, from Dahood Badshah to Bidhi Chand. Ajay Bhardwaj, who managed to capture the essence of such fascinating anomalies, had said, “Go to Malwa and you will see how peasants, on moonlit nights, sing songs of Babu Rajab Ali. They need no textbooks to read his songs from. They are rooted in them. He is entwined in their oral tradition”.
But the unhinged directness of folklore, its flirtations with the raw truth, could contradict the conventions of change—that happened when, in September last year, a few publishers from Barnala and Samrala were tossed in prison under the SC / ST Act. Punjab Police went on an overdrive after a group of protesters emerged from nowhere, alleging that the works of Rajab Ali, reprinted by the publishers, hurt their sentiments, as his poetry was abundant with colloquial slangs for Dalits, quite prevalent during those times.
A comedic farce was set into motion. It wasn’t the first time that his works were re-circulated. Some of the activists and the editors running the publishing house were themselves from the Scheduled Castes and well placed within the left-leaning intelligentsia, so the highbrows cried hoarse over the clampdown. Gurveer mobilized the ideological network and pretty soon, in an unusual show of support, the beau monde of Punjab from the media and the academia petitioned the authorities, fully leveraging their access to the newsprint and the airwaves. A barrage of editorials was unleashed, avowing freedom of speech, propriety and all— justifying that even Nanak resorted to the same argot in Granth Sahib, hence it would be preposterous to censor the historically relevant content. Amarjit Chandan, too, was roped in for old times’ sake.
I had a severe heartburn that day. The do-gooders made no noise ever on why similar fissures were appearing more frequently in the first place, why the caste tensions led to instant polarization, and why it was important to acknowledge the changes in societal equations happening at the grassroots. I knew that the clique, whose denial stemmed from guilt, was morally famished. There was no place for propriety or even posterity where such prejudice had existed. It was time to blacken-out those slangs from the conscience, if not from Granth Sahib.
“Kayi vaari aunde ne.”
(The caste-denoting words are scattered throughout.)
When I proposed that rather ambitious alternative of using moderation as a precedent, Gurveer told me that it would make Rajab Ali’s poems completely illegible—a humbling reminder that even art can aggravate the human condition.
Gurveer carried the image of a progressive liberal, more open to ideas than ideologies. Now in his forties, he still occasionally alluded to the charm of Marxism. Like many young men of his age coming from rural families with midsized land holdings during the peak of the agrarian growth, he was also initiated as arangroot and dreamt of the collectivist utopia—they were actually the baby-boomers. Their inspired vision of communism got firmly bastioned on top of the radical foundations of modern Punjab. It was perfectly alright to be a Jatt, a Sikh and a Comrade at the same time. A generation of philosophers, who chiselled the socio-political discourse over the decades, came from similar settings, so the university systems also became the conceptual foundries of leftism. Its writ ran large among the educated few and was unquestionable.
Punjabi leftists or closeted Sikh apologists, I thought. They adored Nanak’s politics, but pretended to ignore his transcendentalism. They gleefully inherited the anti-Muslim bias of the Sikh community, by garbing it under “anti-imperialism”. They preached equity, but, in fact, secretly aspired to marry within their own castes.
Gail Omvedt wrote a blog post last winter which began like, “Writing on the subject of ‘Anti-Caste movements and the left’ is in one sense fairly simple because the Left has so thoroughly ignored and marginalized the issues of the anti-caste movements that there is little to say”. She was correct. They were harmlessly supine. And I had the same consternations, but leaving them aside, it was the sense of wonderment for having encountered the menagerie very late in my life which left me thoroughly amused. I was so diminutive a figure in front of them that the veritable lack of ideology, my intellectual promiscuity became the saving grace! An oaf with roots in Sturm und Drang (Of Storm and Urge)—German Romanticism that challenged the Age of Reason for being bereft of love, ridiculing its aridity with intense subjectivity and an extreme display of emotions—I was the hackneyed “young Werther” of Goethe; overwhelmed with my obsessions, infatuated with my own insecurities.
The quixotic orientation generated visions of splendour that were completely antithetical to what my left-leaning friends had long espoused. I rejected their Revolution and its Heroes, smitten by the love song of the survivor than the banshee’s cry of the martyr. One, crooning Bant Singh Jhabar outscored Banda Bahadur, Bhagat Singh and Bhindranwale taken together. I would have lost all faith in them if the left-feminist cadre hadn’t taken me to task on the inborn patriarchy. My preconceptions on feminism as a fringe cult—that forced its members to wear mannish battle fatigues, women who refused to shave their underarms for some idealistic causes, symbolized by the image of Valerie Solanas chasing Andy Warhol with a pistol—were addressed with honest affirmation. I became extremely cognizant of the gender bias.
But it wasn’t as if their blatant denial had left me unaffected. “Punjab’s Map of Shame” began as an investigative subproject, dissecting how competently and accurately did the regional media addressed caste issues, and to explore avenues that would apprise them of the realities on the ground. In a way, the motive was to lobby for certain causes. My first break came with a news snippet detailing an incident from village Mahan Singh Wala, where the Jatt landlords had imposed social boycott and unfair wage restrictions on Dalit laborers, in complicity with the panchayat and the politicians. Having realized its potential, I delved into the story. In the thick of summer, I was travelling around and meeting the protesters encamping at Mahan Singh Wala, to further understand the makings of that debacle. Soon enough, I had gathered enough information which, when corroborated with the happenings at the village, highlighted a widespread, systemic bias against the low-caste farm workers. Armed with firsthand evidence, I approached the patrons of the Subaltern Summit, spread across key regional media houses and universities, pressing for more coverage. There was no response, but for a few laconic utterances. So the impetuous few among us approached the national media and voila!—it got streamed on the front pages and the breaking news tickers. The state government finally made a half-hearted attempt to broker a truce in the village, which, as the observers saw, was a sham.
Figure 6 — The infamous notification by the panchayat of Mahan Singh Wala, imposing the social boycott on Dalit laborers.
An eye-opening experience, it made me realize how long-drawn, lonely and thankless the battle was. So, to minimize the dependency on the engrained elite, the armchair activists and the jabbering journalists who rarely crossed the borders of Chandigarh, I charted a travel plan for bootstrapping my own ‘informant network’. Even with the little money, a tight schedule and the backbreaking journeys from Delhi to rural Punjab, I was flooded with tales of atrocities; every third place of worship stunk to high heaven. In a matter of few months, twelve names burst on the Map like ugly zits. There was Sarhali—the maternal home of Bidhi Chand, which had inherited the blight of Chauthey Paurey Wale. Then there were the rest—Amirke, Faride Wala, Dhotian, Sardarpura, Gandav, Sakohan, Jogewala, Lehra Khana and Khiva Khurd—each carrying a sordid saga long enough to fill a few dozen pages. It was more than I could ever handle and soon, with little or no encouragement to go by, despair started looming large.
“Mai qaiyan nu tadaphde vekheya hai, bahot bure halataan wich.”
(I have seen many an activist suffer excruciatingly in dire conditions.)
Gurveer gave me a ride till Mohali. The fog was so thick that one could barely see beyond the front bumper of the car. We almost hit a divider once, so it was hard for me to concentrate on the discussion, but that statement of his did add some solemnity. Gurveer had spent years struggling as an artist, often failing to strike that delicate balance between passion and profession, not to mention the material pressures of life making it even worse. He had watched the most fervent of activists plunge into the depths of despondency, living the rest of their lives in extreme poverty and isolation, betrayed and forgotten by their own—the careerists who sold their souls.
I knew what he was talking about. I knew how tempting it was to give up everything.
PROFESSOR KUMAR HAD READ my piece on Dhotian and was keen to meet up. He called me unexpectedly one Sunday morning, sounding quite excited about the work I was undertaking. I tried complimenting it with equally appreciative remarks on the papers he had written. Kumar taught history at a prominent university located in the western part of India. The first child from a family of Dalit Christians based in Majha to receive an education beyond primary school, the sheer sense of Kumar’s achievements became apparent with a line from his online bio: “… it was only at the Masters level that he [Kumar] started getting used to the English language”.
Ideally, interacting with someone like him would have been cathartic, but I had gazed into the abyss for so long that numbness gripped me all over. Those platitudes from puny professors made me sick to my stomach. The apathy of the entrenched and the endowed had left me completely disillusioned. I was writhing in the agony of hopelessness.
It was that time of the year when I lodge myself into a cocoon for months.
Lacking a convincing excuse and after a few more phone calls, I finally agreed to face Kumar at a plush hotel in the heart of Delhi, where he had arrived for a conference. Dressed in a tweed jacket and a flat cap, the dark and short-statured professor had a fantastically Nubian nose—his broad and pleasant smile gave the impression of a jolly old bloke. As he poured a glass of water, I noticed from the periphery of the eye, Kumar staring at me intently, nodding his head in certain ambiguity. He was sizing me up, locating the common threads of existence—verifying whether my demeanour conveyed the same ‘pathos of distance’, the same nuanced understanding of things, as portrayed in the writings. I had experienced similar class anxieties all too often, with my own personality being tempered by them. In any case, he was happy to have met me.
“Itthe takk paunchna hi ek supne wang lagda hai.”
(It feels like a dream to reach this level.)
In a moment of introspection, Kumar confessed how surreal it felt to be standing in the posh hotel suite. That fleeting glimpse into the intensity of his travails, the casualness with which he made that remark, filled me to the brim, and rather impulsively, I ended up patting his shoulder.
“Khair, in cheezan nu wi kade-kade enjoy karna chahida!”
(Anyhow, such things must be enjoyed occasionally!)
Kumar sensed the opportunity. It was time to drink.
A few pegs later, I was doing all the talking, unintentionally stoking the subtle tensions. With the harboured disgust for politically-correct exchanges, wary of its attempts to sabotage my weakening will, the patience to listen had long worn out. Kumar’s passive aggression also surfaced erratically.
“Ki naa oda? Sant Singh Sekhon. O taan siddha hi kehnda si ki, ‘Ae Mhalle Waleyan nu bahar kaddo!’”
(What’s his name? Sant Singh Sekhon. He used to blurt openly, “Kick these Mhalle Wale out!”)
He shocked me by telling how the venerated Punjabi litterateur, Sant Singh Sekhon, used to openly lambast the low-caste members of the socialist movement, hurling demotic abuses like Mhalle Wale (on their habit of staying huddled together in a few colonies).
I felt like burning his books.
We had found a comfortable spot under the blistering ‘twilight of the idols’.
As I shared my parables from Sur Singh, Kumar furnished a perspicacious account on the etymology of “Chauthey Paurey Wale”. It was the last piece of the puzzle that had confounded me too much, and for too long. The Internet forums on Sikhism and the village squares were pregnant with rumours on how such practices and terms had existed for centuries, how some babas had taken the lead by enforcing apartheid in every other gurdwara. But like an embarrassing family secret, it was repeatedly purged from the mainstream narrative to leave no trace at all. From the bits and pieces I could recollect the next morning, being a little drunk by the time he began with the soliloquy, Kumar’s account painted a surprisingly endearing picture. With an unparalleled foresight, one of the Gurus—possibly Gobind Singh at the insistence of Bhai Jaita—took the lead in affirmative action by reserving a fourth of the stairs surrounding the holy tank of Golden Temple for the low-caste Sikhs. As propounded by Kumar, they wanted the newly-initiated converts to feel welcomed, to bask in the acceptance that the fledgling religion had offered.
As much as I wanted to believe that, the only citable reference on the subject, coming from a paper of political scientist, Harish K. Puri, had something else to say, “Harjot Oberoi cites from an ‘authoritative manual’ – Khalsa Dharam Sastra of 1914 – which laid down that the members of the untouchable groups (like the Mazhabi, Rahtia and Ramdasia Sikhs) did not have the right to go beyond the fourth step in the Golden Temple and the members of the fourfold varnas including Nai, chippe (sic), Jhivar, (sudra sub castes) were instructed not to mix with persons belonging to the untouchable castes”.
The one disconcerting lesson emerging from the folly was that the predacious public memory, naturally inclined towards prejudices, could simmer hate even after the original structures of control had collapsed centuries ago. How baffling was the fact that, although no incidences recounting the actual act of exclusion were ever memorialized, like the will-o’-the-wisp, its myth resurfaced around the damned outliers of rural Punjab.
AS I SLIPPED MY HANDS through her floral negligee, the sepulchral beauty that was Noor, felt like a still-unfolding Greek tragedy. The pale, golden light from the sodium lamp across the street passed through the window grill, splitting her buxom silhouette into two. She appeared half-black and half-white. But that was merely the cast of my own imperfections. Noor had always been flawless, pure and innocent…
Sashaying through the crowds of Nizamuddin mosque, while the qawwals—festooned with saffron cloaks to celebrate Basant Panchmi the way Hazrat Auliya loved doing so—tuned their musical instruments, Noor gently stroked her golden hair. Spanning every inch of the sacred floor with her delicate steps, dressed in a shade above yellow, she was one with the saints. I followed her in congruent motion and thoughts. With emerald green eyes, rosy cheeks and a mole above the deliciously pouty lips, people mistook her for a Persian tourist.
Being so disturbingly perfect, Noor became the Strange Attractor of divine causation, and that was how we seemed to have met, despite an unbridgeable age difference, surrendering to the dark forces and an imminent fate. Only those who had glimpsed into the netherworlds of consciousness could grapple the higher purpose of that union. She was among the few eyewitnesses who saw the tumults of a movement that was Bahujan Samaj Party in its early years. Noor, in fact, bore the brunt of madness, anger and violence that didn’t get channelized, coming from the oppressed who tried to give a fight, but failed miserably.
She offered me food and shelter. For the two years that I had known Noor—majority of which was spent in quelling the angst that often led to bitter fights between us—the chip on my shoulder and her internment in the past never became that obvious. And one spring evening, our love fell prey to the perceived wounds of injustice perpetrated by others, and I lost her forever.
The temperatures had risen considerably by April, so I hopped on a rickshaw for the last leg of my daily commute to Gurgaon. The scrawny figure on the pedals spoke Hindi with an unmistakable Punjabi accent. As it turned out, the man, a Sikh with a masters in political science, had fallen on hard times. We covered the three kilometres fairly quickly and he bid adieu with a couplet of Gurdas Maan.
The next day, we bounced into each other again. Foaming from the mouth and looking very unkempt, he appeared on the verge of a breakdown. I profiled that the man was either a runaway convict or a drug fiend. Genuinely concerned, I confronted him with alacrity:
“Tu koi galat kamm karke bhajjeya lagda, Punjab ton.”
(You seem be a felon on the run from Punjab.)
The confirmation came quickly with a half-cooked yarn of how his brothers had disowned him for the property.
“Waise assin Saini hunde aan.”
(By the way, we are Sainis by caste.)
The once glorious antecedents offered him imaginary relief.
He stayed in the shanty town of Kapashera, near the Delhi-Gurgaon border. It was a shithole for the dispensable lot which erected the MNC utopia—like the security guards of our gated colonies, malls and cyber-parks—flushed away to the place like roaches when they were not needed.
“Mera munda kainda, ‘Baapu, saada taan haal Majbiyan ton vi maada ho gaya.’”
(My son tells me, “Father, our living conditions are even deplorable than that of theMazhabis”.)
Here was a creature that would barely pass off as a human, who wilfully got arrested for the three free meals in a lock-up. Yet, in his mind, in his soul, still survived a sadist, a demon—placating the ego, licking the maggots off the wounds. He even played politics with hygiene, reminding me of a poignant statement made by a Mazhabi Sikh of Sur Singh, when I nudged him a little about the goings-on in the gurdwara:
“Saanu ki aa? Assin taan nauhne wi roz aa, te saadi boli wi saaf aa.”
(Why should I care? We bathe daily and don’t use obscene language.)
Bouncing atop that rickshaw, I could do nothing but shed a tear on the cruel joke, on the all-encompassing irony of it.
My long winter was finally coming to an end.