Meet Narinder Singh International, Chandigarh’s guardian angel of tourists
Narinder Singh ‘International’, who started chaperoning foreign visitors in 1958, is still going strong at 81, and how.punjab Updated: Dec 08, 2017 18:35 IST
“Chandigarh has its own self-styled unofficial greeter, the boundlessly energetic Narinder Singh, a government clerk-turned local legend, who haunts the bus stand.”
That is how New York Times described Narinder Singh International way back in 1982.It went on to add, “If you encounter Narinder Singh, be sure to accept his invitation to his house…This may be the most memorable part of your tour of the city.”
Thirty-five years on, Singh continues to be the guardian angel for tourists, especially those travelling on a small budget.A few years ago, you could spot him at the bus stand – a figure straight out of the Punjab of yore with his bushy white beard, thick spectacles and an old bicycle. These days, Singh, a little bent with the weight of 81 years, prefers to walk instead, clocking 20-25 km a day.
“Chandigarh has changed, there are too many vehicles on the road,” he gives you his toothy smile.
The city may have changed but Singh remains the same. He is as welcoming, and as eager to show tourists around the city as he was 59 years ago when the then Punjab chief minister, Partap Singh Kairon, asked him to escort a group of American peace corps volunteers in 1958. “He said we must be very hospitable to the people who visit us so that they return with good memories of India,” recounts Singh, then a 21-year-old typist.
The young Singh, who idolises Kairon — he takes out a solo march on Kairon’s birth anniversary every year — took his words to heart and started devoting his spare time to helping tourists.Once in December 1988, he found a lone Italian woman being chased by rickshaw-pullers near Sector 17.Singh came to her rescue and even suffered some bruises. He dismisses the incident in one line, but a letter of appreciation by then minister of human resource development, Margaret Alva, thanking him for saving the Italian tourist at the risk of his life tells the whole story.
FRIENDS FOR LIFE
The city, says Singh, receives 300 to 400 low-budget tourists from Germany, France, Switzerland, Holland, Israel, Poland, and New Zealand et al every month. Earlier, he used to scout the Sector 17 bus stand for foreign visitors, now he likes to station himself at the tourist information centre in Sector 1. “Many of them can’t afford to stay in plush hotels, so I help them get a room in gurdwaras.”
There are times when Singh, who retired as an undersecretary in 1994,lodges them in his own house, free of cost. His wife, Surjit Kaur, says she has lost count of visitors who have stayed with them. “At times, it’s not possible to get a place at the last minute, so he brings them home,” she says. Her menu of dal-roti with sabji, beams Singh, is a big hit with visitors.
Some tourists such as a mother-daughter duo from Amsterdam have become family friends and visit them every few years. Swiss photographerThomas Flechtner, whose works are displayed at the Guggenheimmuseum, is also a good friend. “My son, Tarmanjeet, learnt German from him,” says Singh, telling you how photos of Chandigarh by Flechtner were reproduced on the Swiss Franc as a tribute to Le Corbusier.Tarmanjeet, a lawyer, often goes abroad due to friends he made through Singh.
Surjit Kaur is particularly fond of Barbara Crossette, a Fulbright fellow, who spent six months teaching at Panjab University and became a regular visitor to their house.
It was in 1980 that Singh got his moniker ‘international’ from then Union home minister Giani Zail Singh.The latter was at a function at Panchayat Bhavan when a reporter pointed to Narinder Singh and asked, “Do you know him?” Zail Singh replied, “Of course, Margaret Thatcher knows him, the whole world knows him, he is an international man.”
What began as a joke soon stuck.Singh fondly recalls his association with Thatcher. “She was secretary of state in the Heath Cabinet when she visited Chandigarh and I showed her around. When then Punjab education minister Umrao Singh was taking her on a tour of the Vidhan Sabha, she pointed to me, and said ‘I know Mr Singh, he will go with me’.”
An avid letter writer, Singh continued to correspond with her until her death. “She always made it a point to reply,” says the man, who speaks and writes crisp English. It was thanks to his petitions to the government of India that Dakhla village in Batala district was renamed Surjit Singhwala in 1987 as a mark of respect to the Olympian hockey captain by the same name.
Singh, who knows the city like the back of his hand, not only takes visitors to popular spots such as the Sukhna lake, Rock Garden, museum and Capitol Complex, but also gives them a taste of the local culture. “I always take them to the Sector 22 gurdwara and the Sector 23 temple. They are impressed by the langar and our devotion. I tweak my itinerary to suit their interests.”
His scrap book is overflowing with warm thank-you notes. Some tourists even broadcast their gratitude by writing to local newspapers.
Singh also likes introducing visitors to legends of the city. “Earlier, I used to take them to Nek Chand and Milkha Singh, now only one is left,” he rues.
Honoured with a commendation certificate by the Union Territory five years ago, Singh has very doable wishlist for the administration. “They should publish brochures in German, French, Hebrew and Spanish. They should also build a hotel to accommodate low-budget travellers,” says Singh, recounting how Chandigarh used to have a camping sitenear the lake in the early years. “Now it’s been given to a horse-riding academy.”
Ironically, Singh himself has never travelled abroad. “Why should I when I can meet the world here?” he says.
Tell him how some visitors call him an “angel”, and he replies, “I am only a tourism promoter.”