Usually, this time of the year is busy. There is Easter dinner with friends who are family, Vaisakhi, followed by Vaisakhi parades – one in downtown Toronto. The second, between the towns of Malton-Etobicoke in the Greater Toronto Area.
Sakhis (witnessed-narratives) are recounted and at least one more trip to Costco is always necessary because there are never enough chocolates, especially when you’re distributing them.
Our newly minted teen J started distributing candy at the gurduara (Sikh place of learning and worship) and parades as an adorable four, or was it five-year-old? Super-excited to be the belle of the ball in her shiny new salwar-kameez (loose pants-long shirt), firmly giving her peers ‘just one more,’ as she struggled to juggle her precious giveaways - part bully, part quasi-grown up. Every year I am curious to see how much of her has actually (not) changed.
Falling into and nurturing a routine, growing in that one, same direction – it all seems so easy now. All our struggles with life and time washed away. There was that one year when the Vaisakhi parade fell on my sister-in-law’s birthday, a month after she had left the earthly realm. We picked ourselves up and distributed her favorite, KitKat bars. It was akin to stepping out of the house, taking a lungful of fresh air and exhaling.
I long for that one breath.
It’s a strange fire, this COVID-19. Our reality seems surreal.
It has become a slow and painful struggle for survival. Death has many faces and one of the most wretched is helplessness.
There is no refuge to be found in hathi seva (physical service) for there is no hathi seva for the majority of us. Staying home, getting out of the way and staying safe is the only way we can make a difference. By not adding ourselves to the growing dead.
A strange war this is, and it calls for singular warfare. One that firmly places ‘Saint’ before ‘Soldier.’ It will be won through seva (service), simran (Remembrance), and sharing.
Only recently my sister asked me, “What are you listening to?”
“I know I will be alright,” I replied after a pause. “But the sounds have changed. I am unsettled and restless…
“Will they ever go back? Will that sense of ‘normalcy’ ever reoccur?” I counter.
“Well, is this what the sangat (community) asked after Guru Arjan Sahib’s shahidi(martyrdom) and after Guru Teghbahadar Sahib’s sacrifice? Did things go back to being ‘normal?’”
Elder sisters are always busting your chops; always pushing your limits!
I am listening. Only without grace.
This utter lack of gratitude?
The first week of isolation I spent working myself to a huff and driving out seeking nature, walking trails till my legs refused to cooperate and reluctantly returning home. Then I got introduced to the glamour of online shopping through YouTube videos. In pursuit of a pair of perfect spring jeans, I ordered five, received two and promptly put them both in the returns pile. (This remote shopping is an acquired art not recommended for novices.) Now I feel terribly silly, justifiably so.
This is not the time to punish or acknowledge a need to be compensated. People have lost much more than freedom of everyday movement.
My sister’s words force me to admit all I have…with humility.
One thing I learned from my parents is when you can do nothing else, you can pray. During the pogroms of 1984, we as a family would recite 100 Caupai Sahibs (prayers). One-rupee coins fell into the jar after each completed Caupai Sahib. We would not sleep till that jar got its due. We learned Sabads (Infinite-Wisdom) like:
ਨਾਲਿ ਨਰਾਇਣੁ ਮੇਰੈ ॥
ਜਮਦੂਤੁ ਨ ਆਵੈ ਨੇਰੈ ॥
The All-Pervading is with me.
The Messenger of death (Yama) does not come near me.
- Guru Granth Sahib 630
ਸੁਲਹੀ ਤੇ ਨਾਰਾਇਣ ਰਾਖੁ ॥
O’ All-Pervading! Protect me from Sulhi.
- Guru Granth Sahib 825
because Mom and Dad would sing them post-Rahrasi (evening prayer).
So now all of us recite a Sabad each after Rahrasi. It is as though the Sabad belies our frame of mind. It is the best half-an-hour of the day, one that flows easily.
Nitnem (Daily Prayer) is the lifeline.
My favorite grand-aunt once said to me, “When you are in the habit of doing Nitnem and then don’t do it for a few days, it gets you down, till you pick up the Gutka (prayer-book) again.”
Today I did my morning prayers with J. We usually take turns with each pauri (verse) of the Japu Sahib (prayer). When we took turns singing Jap Sahib (prayer) my heart grew full. Dad often took the vaja (harmonium) out – every Saturday morning actually – and sang the Nitnem; till his heart would not permit him to do so any longer. To hear J sing, to hear myself mimic Dad’s style of rendition, to see my mother turn in quick acknowledgment with a knowing and happy smile. It is perhaps the most precious of the few blossoms that have perfumed my heart since Dad left this earth.
I am most grateful that in these three weeks her Nani (maternal grandmother) has taught J the first 100 stanzas of Jap Sahib. Shukar (gratitude)!
This morning we had waffles and ice-cream for breakfast. “In the history of our lives I never thought Mom would sanction this,” says my J. She enjoys cooking, loves ice-cream and kindly threw in an apple to humor me. Win-win.
So, what am I listening to?
To happy laughter. That we will be fine. And that it’s our responsibility to ensure that everyone we come in contact with stays that way.