“What,” my daughter asked, an incredulous look on her face, “are we going all this way to commemorate an event that took place three hundred and fifty years ago? Why do we traverse the same path which a disciple took carrying the martyred head of his Guru to give it to his ten year old son?”
I explained to her how our doing this shows respect and our gratitude for an act that saved our religion three hundred fifty years ago.
To a generation brought up on internet and instantaneous mobile traffic, the proposal of a yatra (spiritual journey) can seem surreal and even have a sense of unreality that is difficult to comprehend.
We were discussing a phone call that had come a while ago. The person at the other end, Mr. Ashwini Chrungoo, President of Pannun Kashmir, who is campaigning for the homeland of Kashmiri pandits, had asked me if I would be willing to read a chapter from my book ‘The infidel next door’ at the Anandpur Sahib Gurudwara at a function to commemorate the martyrdom of the Guru. He had suggested that the organizers would be glad to have a book launch at the very spot where Pandit Kripa Ram with five hundred pandits went to ask the ninth Guru for saving them from Aurungzeb’s cruelty. “Since in your book, the protagonist, Aditya, is inspired by the martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur to sacrifice his own life, it would be a fitting tribute to his memory.”
As I listened, Mr. Chrungoo added that to the best of his knowledge it will be the first time a book will be released there on the sacred spot. “I believe that it will lead our younger generation to remember his martyrdom to stand up to injustice and develop compassion for the weak. It is very much a need of the hour,” he said. “The organizers have also asked that they would like to keep a copy of your book in their archives. So bring it along,” he had added and hung up.
A million anxieties had crossed my mind. To release a book in one of the holiest places, a sacred spot like that is an honor. “Has it ever been done before?” I had asked my friend, a Sikh intellectual with knowledge of Sikh history. “Not to the best of my knowledge. It will be the first time that a book, a work of fiction, is being released because of the book’s significance.”
“Do you feel it is an honor for you?” my daughter asked me when I shared the conversation.
“Yes, definitely for all of us,” I added. “More than anything else I feel it will be a pilgrimage for me, for us as a family to repay the debt we owe to him that we are still Hindus. We will go to the very place where the martyrdom took seeds and the birth of Khalsa took place.”
As my daughter read it on the net she said it seems like a very sacred space, very unusual and unique in the annals of religious history.
“Your book is on religious violence and compassion,” my family reminded me. “It will take you to the roots of your story as to why you wrote it.”
For those who may not know, Anandpur Sahib is the second most holiest pilgrimage for the Sikhs. The birth of the Khalsa took place here after the tenth Guru gave a call to the Sikhs to awaken from slumber and protect their faith by becoming fearless. The Guru had turned out to be not only a military genius but a deeply compassionate being who wrote some of the most sublime poetry ever written on human suffering.
Many an author makes a journey to discover himself in relation to his book. To discover why he felt compelled to write his story, on how he conceived the characters and why he couldn’t leave it midway. If the story is historical, brings up a festering wound and needs a closure to heal it is all the more important the writer makes this journey to realize his writing has come to an end. He may then find that his characters have become real, of flesh and blood and merged in a symbolic way with a larger consciousness to not haunt him anymore.
Would it be a journey in reverse then, for closure on the same path once again, this time metaphorically? A journey that had begun on a cold December evening outside a refugee camp where an old Kashmiri man had pointed out to me with his hand towards the camp saying that the camp was Aurungzeb’s dream, the final resting place of a people, their way of life that would never start again. Then he had asked me to go to Gurudwara Sisganj in Delhi to meditate to understand the trauma of his people.
I had done as he had asked. I had gone and sat in meditation. The place had a deeply meditative space that grows on you. I had begun to understand the message in his words.
I had understood why a young Sikh boy had run away from his playtime because he wouldn’t miss his evening story of Guru Teg Bahadur from his grandfather. I had understood the power of stories over Sikh children that kept the soul of a people alive.
All of these incidents had come alive in the pages of the book that I wrote.
Little did I know then that the journey to Anandpur Sahib would be a learning experience that would reveal to me a fascinating blend of memory, healing and forgiveness for an entire race. That the journey would be a search that would tell me the identity of a generation for two different communities buried in the pages of history.
The journey would open the raw wounds of an entire generation. When people spoke up, they spoke as if the past was alive and real. It happened in every conversation.
As a Kashmiri pandit sitting near me spoke, “I feel mired in gratitude when I think of the sacrifice of the Guru. I find it difficult to answer my son why we didn’t fight the Mughals and went to plead to a Guru? It makes me sad to think why we were not courageous? Even today we hope someone would come to help us. Isn’t it deeply humiliating for our race not to be able to protect itself again and again? The events of 1989 had opened the wound once again for all of us.” He then added that he realizes that the Sikhs understand our pain. “They have faced many traumas similar to us. The events of 1984 also made the Sikhs realize how alone they are when faces with a crisis.”
One Sikh told me, “We as a race don’t feel gratitude towards anyone except our Gurus. That is the way I remember being brought up as a child. A Sikh child is not afraid of torture or even death after he listens to the sacrifice of his Gurus. He would die but not beg or plead to anyone for mercy.”
“What do you think of the gratitude of Kashmiri pandits towards the ninth Guru?” I had asked him.
“The Guru belonged to everyone not just to us,” he replied, his face bright and shining. “He would have given his life for the smallest living being, such was his compassion.”
Both the Sikhs and the Kashmiri pandits have gone through what modern psychological research describes as trans-generational trauma. It is the trauma that is passed on to future generations about the persecution faced by an entire race at a given point of time. The trauma for both the communities was primarily historical, of attempts to convert them to another faith and in the last one of attempted genocide. Every child is told of the two sons of Guru Govind Singh being killed for not accepting conversion. Who can forget the zeal of Aurungzeb to apply jazia (tax) to his Hindu subjects?
At the time of Aurungzeb, the Kashmiri pandits were a spiritual, deeply intellectual and isolated community. They had turned introspective and were not militant. The Sikhs on the other hand decided to face Aurangzeb’s brutality guided by a philosophy of their tenth Guru, Guru Govind Singh. They were also going through the grief of the torture and murder of Guru Teg Bahadur by Aurungzeb along with his disciples. The coming together of the two communities created a moment in Indian history of two grieving communities coming together creating a bond and synergy that remains unbroken to this day.
“Should we as a community forever stay rooted in our gratitude?” a Kashmiri pandit asked me on the bus journey. “Isn’t it time that we introspect and move on to accept the gratitude as a gift to begin an awakening within our community? If we continue to stay bound by gratitude will we be ever able to outgrow to fight our battle for our homeland? By not outgrowing out of this trauma, are we not stopping ourselves from imbibing some of the valiance and courage of the Sikh Gurus that saved us? Won’t that give us a stronger, a much deeper identity to feel respected and make our demand of our homeland more powerful?”
The bus journey apart from such philosophical questions also was raising many emotions in us. Lasting more than six hours it was never for a moment dull and boring. Interspaced with songs and poems sung by the old and young alike for their lost homes and their aspirations for their homeland, the grief of the people emerged as they talked of the time when they had their seventh exodus and their longing for their homes.
“Don’t you have your own homes in Delhi?” I asked a man who said he is settled in Delhi.
“Yes, that is where we live. But our real home is Kashmir. However big the present home may be, this I consider only a shelter.”
The home as the lines of his song said is not a place, just a roof over your head or even a place where one lives, but where one’s heart lies.
“You know this exile has been good for us in a way,” he added. “It has made us aware of our vulnerabilities. We had become too cocooned in our own shells. We considered ourselves the seat of Hinduism and that had made us unaware of the harsh realities of the world.”
In the function speakers spoke about the injustices to Sikhs done over the centuries. Two bards carrying instruments sang about the torture done to Guru Teg Bahadur where they cut his body into pieces and how he didn’t give in to Aurungzeb’s demand to convert to Islam. The torture was graphically described in the poem and as I turned to see the faces of the people around me, they seemed to be listening with a stoic face. The eyes of the people didn’t waver and didn’t seem to bow either. There was a silence with no signs of emotions from anywhere.
I remembered once having read the legend that when the Guru was beheaded, he had kept calm and silent and meditated on the nature of death. It was said that even when the executioner severed his head, his eyes didn’t fall and they didn’t bow. The audience around me listening to his martyrdom was paying respect to his martyrdom by behaving in the same way.
How powerful is human memory to create an identity, I thought. Three hundred and fifty years later we are paying respect to him in the same way.
I had also read then that his son Guru Govind Singh who was only ten years old, had received his father’s severed head but didn’t cry on receiving it and did the last rites. Was the grief of a ten year old child the inner force that transformed to manifest itself as the Sikh identity?
The rest of the function passed away quietly. We had a ceremony to release my book. Ten eminent people opened the ribbon and it seemed the book had its spiritual birth. I shared one of the chapters from the book with the audience where Guru Teg Bahadur becomes a martyr to save Hindus. As the function ended with a loud cry of ‘bole so nihal sat sri akal’, I suddenly felt as if the time stood still. For a brief moment I thought I saw an image of a man sitting in a white robe, his face unusually calm as if he knew his destiny was preordained and he was there for a purpose. He was telling hundreds of scared faces who surrounded him to go home in peace without fear.
“Congratulations for your book.” A distinguished Sikh was shaking my hand, my book in his hands. His words brought me back to reality. “I read some of lines you have written. Very inspiring, even I didn’t know some of the things you have written.”
Another man introduced himself. “I am from Ludhiana. I read the lines too. You have written in a highly visual form something that makes it easier to imagine those times. Some of the realities described inside are so graphic and real. How did you write this?”
I told him it took me hours to visualize, think of the complex emotions and add them to the descriptions written in the manuscript.
When I was leaving, a Sikh gentleman came and asked me where did I learn this story from? When I told him I had heard it at a Kashmiri refugee camp in Jammu where a Sikh grandfather was narrating it to his grandchild, he smiled and told me this is the same story he had heard from his grandfather too seventy years ago while they came as refugees from Lahore. He told me how his grandfather told him this story on the journey to increase his courage and hope and to not give up till they reach India. The Sikhs told their children of valor and courage of the sons of Guru Govind Singh. “Our stories bind each generation to the next. Sikh children don’t grow up listening to fairy tales,” he became a little melancholic and added, “this is why our children grow up and fight injustice. That is why I can die knowing our future is safe in the hands of our children.”
While leaving he shook my hand and said, “Your book, I believe, will tell the world how it felt like for the people who went through our land’s troubled history. I pray that the aashirwad (blessings) of the Guru takes you forward. Go in peace and may the blessings of our Gurus give you courage.”
I don’t think, I as an author, could have had a better opening for my book. The journey taught me that in an attempt to write about a man who goes to his roots, I had unknowingly stumbled upon that human identity is collective, that spirituality is not just turning inwards for self-realization for some inner goal but the ability to see and feel the pain of the weakest, the smallest and sacrifice oneself without a second thought, of any form of reward. I had been a witness to that spirit in the two days that I journeyed sitting in that gathering and seen the role the human memory plays in keeping our deepest aspiration of truth alive. It is a realization that I now know could have only come from listening to that voice that long ago told me to understand the sacrifice of a man three hundred and fifty years ago.