In 1920 the United States granted women the right to vote. In 1921, Bhai Vir Singh published a book titled, The Redemption of Subhagji through the grace of Baba Naudh Singh. With great sensitivity, he wrote about the plight of women through the voice of a young Jain widow – Jamuna. Men dressed in pious garbs prey upon her. Each new experience shows their immorality which pushes her to seek refuge in death. However, her plunge into the raging waters paves the way for her rescue and redemption. She is carried out of the waters, by a young Sikh saint who gives her hope and then disappears as suddenly and mysteriously as he appeared. The deftness of Bhai Vir Singh’s writing reveals his deep understanding of the social conditions, human relationships, and divinity. The saint is a transparent symbology, an emblem of divinity in human form. This free-style translation is the first chapter of his above-mentioned book. The book is a study of idealism that represents a moment in Sikh consciousness around the turn of the century.
Jamuna was now in a desolate place; without any money; without a friend; with no direction and no home. Nervously, she agrees to put herself under the protection of the stranger standing in front of her. His tender words are like a balm to her open wounds.
Yes! She has been robbed of her worldly possessions but she still has her chastity to guard, which she values more than life itself. She decides to accompany the stranger; for, after all, he has saved her from the jaws of death. He certainly seems better than the Swami...
The stranger takes her to a town, where she is warmly received and looked after.
For three months, Jamuna basks in the community’s love as she listens to the stranger’s sermons.
One Sunday, he baptizes her and renames her Miss Dumeli. He entrusts her care to a woman who vows to treat her as her daughter and to instruct her in Christianity.
Miss Dumeli’s new mother showers her with modern clothes and attention. Her confidence grows and she begins to glow. Soon, she starts receiving marriage proposals from dark-skinned cobblers and scavengers—the lowest strata of Hindu society who have been converted to Christianity. Brought up in the Brahmin tradition, she loathes their very sight.
Besides, fidelity to her husband’s memory is paramount to her. Therefore, the idea of remarriage is evil. Out of fear, she cannot express her true feelings, nor can she uproot the ideals that were ingrained into her very being.
She uses every trick in the book to push off her ardent suitors. She has come here, to find the way to heaven; but instead, she finds men who are only interested in seeking her flesh.
“O, God! Have mercy and release my soul from this body or grant me a peaceful life. I am fed up with people trying to save my soul,” she prays day and night.
There is no trace of the high principles with which she has been brought to this place. She sees no future and the past she has left far behind.
In despair, she discloses her secret and reveals everything to an old Muslim woman who is a maid-servant at the house.
“Mother, please take pity on me and get me out of this hell-hole. I’d rather beg than sell my flesh,” she pleads.
“Dear daughter, I’m willing to sacrifice myself for your welfare. Don’t worry, I will free you, but you must have patience. I cannot jeopardize my respectable job in this household. Your leaving will require some planning. Have faith in me. I will definitely get you out,” replies the old woman.
Five days later, Jamuna/Miss Dumeli sneaks out of the house and travels under the cover of darkness to the home of the old woman’s cousin in Lahore.
A devout fakir (Muslim ascetic) takes her under his wing. He instructs her to face the Kaaba and recite the text of Ayat Karima (Islamic prayer) for three hours daily along with other rituals. Sometimes the fakir presses his hands on her eyes and recites the lyrics of Bulleh Shah.
Jamuna begins to see a glittering light; visions of her late husband dance before her eyes. Her heart leaps. At last, she has found peace.
One Friday, Jamuna/Miss Dumeli presents herself at the mosque in Lahore for her third birth.
Congratulations resound. “You are lucky to have been converted to the faith. The Holy Prophet will grant you salvation and you will rule over heaven.”
Her joy is boundless.
Although she does not know how to recite the Kalima perfectly, she utters it to the best of her ability and adopts her new religion with zeal.
The head Maulvi (Islamic teacher) gives her a new name: Ghulam Fatima. In the congregation, he asks, “Can someone instruct her in the faith so that she may become a good believer?”
A young-looking Maulvi agrees to take over her religious education. He begins to come daily to teach her the Kalima. After a few weeks, the Maulvi thinks that Ghulam Fatima should not remain single for her own welfare.
One day, he mentions to her that his monthly income is fifty rupees and that he is a well-known person belonging to a very high caste. He repeats this over and over again and gently insists that she marry him.
“After all, it is the commandment of Allah and His Prophet that without a husband, a woman’s chastity is always in jeopardy,” he says, trying his best to persuade her into marrying him.
The Maulvi is presentable and quite gentle, but Jamuna has become wiser. She knows that for a Muslim man to have more than one wife is not a sin, but the thought of remarriage disgusts her. Her deepest desire is to have a vision of her husband. Devotion to her childhood principles and fidelity to her husband is deeply rooted in her.
Upon hearing the Maulvi’s marriage proposal, Jamuna fakes a dizzy spell and distances herself from him.
“I don’t want to commit to anything right now as I’m not feeling well. Please give me a few days to get well. When I’m better, I will ask you to come,” she says.
Even in this third incarnation, Jamuna/Miss Dumeli/Ghulam Fatima’s desire to see her departed husband does not bear fruit.
In despair, she curses the stranger who saved her from the mountain-top.
“Death would have been better than to endure these overtures,” she moans. She abandons her newly acquired religious rituals and suffers silently. Her torment increases day by day.
One evening sitting on the balcony, facing the bazar, Jamuna/Ghulam Fatima recognizes a face from years gone by. She rushes downstairs.
“Ganga Bai?” she asks.
“Yes, I am Ganga Bai. But how do you know me? I don’t recognize you,” replies the woman.
“I will tell you everything when we are alone,” Jamuna says. “Do you have time to talk?”
“Not right now. I’m on my way to the Gurduara (Sikh place of learning). I will talk to you when I return,” says Ganga Bai.
Jamuna nods and anxiously awaits her friend’s return.
When Ganga Bai returns, she takes Jamuna to her own home.
“Bhain (sister), you have recognized me, but I’m not sure who you are,” Ganga Bai says.
“I am the unfortunate Jamuna, who was your playmate in school.”
“Jamuna, what have you done to yourself? Who has misguided you to throw away your noble faith?”
“There is no one to blame but myself for all that I have suffered. When one’s wits get twisted, then one falls into bad ways. I thought I was taking a good step, but it turned out to be disastrous. My husband died, and through my own folly, I lost my property and my family.”
“I’m so sorry to hear about your suffering. Please tell me everything.”
Jamuna narrates everything. “Now, I have no shelter and no place to go. I feel like jumping into the river and ending my life. Who knows what more I have to suffer for the sins of my past births?”
“Hush! Don’t talk about ending your life. Human birth is precious, my Guru says.”
“Who is your Guru?”
“My Guru is the Guru Granth Sahib. After my marriage, I went to live in Panjab with my husband’s family. There, I studied the teachings of the Guru. My husband and I then moved to Lahore for business. Here, I have been blessed to have met Upkar Kaur, who is a great devotee of the Guru. In her sangat (company), my love for the Guru has grown.”
“So, you have become a Sikh? I have heard bad things about the Sikhs at both the places where I have been. How come you have fallen under their influence?”
“The Sikh faith is noble. Truth is its first principle. If you attend a Sikh congregation, you will experience this for yourself. But I am worried about you. I don’t want you to do anything foolish like killing yourself. Let’s go and meet Upkar Kaur. I am sure she will be able to help you,” says Ganga Bai gently.
“I trust you. If you think she can help me, let’s go.”
Upkar Kaur welcomes them warmly and listens carefully to Jamuna’s story. “The Sikh path is simple. There are no priests and no superstitious beliefs. The paramount teaching is that IkOankar (1-Ness) is the Creator of the universe and is in all. The core tenets are to remember IkOankar in everything that we do; lovingly serve everyone; share with the needy and recognize the divinity in all. This in a nutshell is the path of Sikhi (Sikh way of life),” says Upkar Kaur affectionately.
“If I follow this path, will I see my beloved husband? Will I find peace and contentment?” asks Jamuna.
Tenderly, Upkar Kaur replies, “If your love for IkOankar is sincere and you live a life of truth and serve humanity, you will experience peace and contentment. Whether you will see your departed husband or not, is not for me to say.”
Jamuna sighs. Although Upkar Kaur’s words please her, the memory of her past experiences has made her wary. She isn’t willing to allow herself to trust anyone. She leaves saying, “I will come again.”
Exhausted from her emotional state of mind, Jamuna falls asleep. Voices interrupt her already disturbed sleep. News of her visit to the home of a Sikh family has reached the Maulvi. Plans seem to be underway that prevent that from happening again.
That evening, the Maulvi’s colleagues—now new friends and acquaintances—come over and insist that she join them on their holiday to Delhi. “A change of scenery will do you good,” they say in excitement.
Jamuna agrees knowing fully well why this gesture is being made.
That night, she does not sleep.
The world appears dark to her and a kind of dementia grips her.
She walks out of her home not knowing where she is heading.