Five lives from the land of five rivers
Ever since the start of the convergence of farmers on Delhi’s borders, I have been thinking of people from the Punjab who have left a permanent imprint on my mind.
Five of them, I have been lucky enough to have met. First, the United States (US)-based campaigner for India’s Independence, Jagjit Singh (1897-1976); second, the great writer, Khushwant Singh (1915-2014); third, the communist leader, Harkishan Singh Surjeet (1916-2008); fourth, the veteran diplomat, Gurbachan Singh (1923-2012); and fifth, a lamp in the gloom of our times, the painter Arpana Caur (b. 1954).
JJ, as Jagjit Singh was known, has been all but forgotten. But he was, in his time, a redoubtable figure, having brought to America’s attention India’s struggle for freedom much in the manner VK Krishna Menon did in the United Kingdom. And in the process, he gave expatriates from the Punjab in the US a sense of their self-worth. Over the decades, he was an associate and supporter of Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). I was a child when I first saw him visiting my parents. JJ and JP were kindred spirits, committed to human rights and human liberty. An Indian Sikh and a freedom fighter, he would have instinctively understood today’s protest.
“India”, Khushwant Singh said to me in 1963, “is unwritten”. With Jayant Das, a contemporary of mine at the same college that the writer had studied in — St Stephen’s College, Delhi — I had gone to interview him for a college magazine Jayant had founded. Standing at the doorway of Vaikunth, the gracious house his father Sir Sobha Singh had built in New Delhi, the author of Train to Pakistan was telling us that our Partition-battered land is not through with its travails brought upon its hard-working and innocent people by myopic politics. And those will one day get to be written about — either with the regret of failure or the satisfaction of success.
It was while studying the lives of the ten Sikh gurus recently that I realised Comrade Surjeet was named after the eighth guru, Guru Har Kishanji whose tenure lasted for but three years – 1661 to 1664, in which year he died at the age of eight. Eight? That is correct. He was but a child when he succeeded his father Guru Har Rai to the high seat, dying of smallpox which he contracted while tending to those stricken by the disease during an epidemic. But not before indicating his choice of successor — the iconic Guru Teg Bahadur.
Surjeet, the great communist leader, member of the politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from 1964 to 2008 and the party general secretary between 1992 to 2005, would have been 104 if living today. I can imagine him motoring to the Capital’s borders and, telling the farmers to be mindful of the pandemic, merging his solidarity with their courage.
Gurbachan Singh was an aristocrat if ever there was one, fingernails pared to the neatest roundedness, beard groomed to perfection, turban tied to a geometrical QED. He was India’s high commissioner in Colombo when I served under him as a junior stationed in Kandy, handling the repatriation of Tamil plantation labour to India under the Shastri-Sirimavo Agreemnt. All of old peasant stock, these farmer-tea workers left under self-doubt and great distress for a motherland they scarcely knew. And, ironically, customs authorities at the Indian end of their voyage — Rameshwaram — put them through the works. “Do a random check on them”, Gurbachan Singh told the customs officials on a visit to the port with me, “and if you find any contraband on any of them go the length of the law. But I say this to you with every force I can command, you will not harass these men and women who are the salt of the earth.”
Is Arpana Caur art’s gift to nobility or the reverse? Be that as it may, she is the gift of meher to both. The Farsi word — meher — is untranslatable. The closest one can get to its meaning in English, is mercy but not in a plaintive sense, rather, in the sense of redemptive power. One of her acclaimed paintings is Resilient Green, showing a pair of scissors, menacingly parted above much smaller figures of trees in leaf. You can think of it as being about the environment, you can think of it as being about the perils of the world that live on good earth.
These five Sikh Indians have tilled historical and cultural truths with the hoe of faith. If the protest remains peaceful and does not get co-opted into other agendas, it can be a landmark in India’s agrarian history. It is not for nothing that Rabindranath Tagore in his great song commences naming India’s regions with the seat of the Five Rivers.