A Very Human Tragedy I.J. Singh Let me tell you a simple but true tale of woe. I leave out any hint of the location simply because it is true. We Sikhs now have almost 200 gurduaras in North America. Who runs them in our name? Who takes care of them and who provides the basic religious service even though it is only once or twice a week – on Sunday mornings and sometimes also Friday evenings? These are Sikhs, all males, often middle-aged that remain nameless and register only at the periphery of our awareness. They are the granthis; the equivalent of pastors, priests, ministers or rabbis that one finds in the Judeo-Christian traditions that surround us. Most of them are brought here for only one purpose: to provide the rudiments of a religious service for the Sikh community, to do the right thing at weddings, funerals and occasional celebrations. How well do they to do the job they need to do? Their language skills are rudimentary; their ability to navigate the cultural landscape of America non-existent. Their skills in music, singing of the liturgy (keertan) and exegesis of Sikh teachings and history are, at best, minimal. Often they know no language but Punjabi. When hired they usually get no job description but if they did it might speak of a person who is a scholar at least on Sikhi and somewhat knowledgeable on the faiths of our neighbors. The first requirement is often partially met, the second almost never. In the overly busy lives of the congregation these granthis are reduced to survival wages; their role best described as gofers at the mercy of management committees, and hardly ever as mentors and scholars in their (chosen?) profession of granthis. There is little they can do beyond the four walls of the gurduara where they might have a small room of their own. They do not drive, are unable to engage non-Sikhs in conversation. All that they can do is to wait for the weekend to come when the community will walk in for another service. Since many small gurduaras have only one such employee on board there is no one at all to talk to all day – for days. The wonder is that they don’t get into or get arrested for moral lapses or antisocial behavior more often. A lovely gurduara in a prosperous neighborhood in a glorious city in North America that shall remain nameless had such a granthi for years. He performed as I mapped out. His congregation seemed satisfied. Here he was in America, a prisoner of his patrons’ prosperity. Couldn’t go anywhere! He sat there and suffered – Man is not equipped to handle solitude day after day. We in the secular world know that solitary confinement is a worse for the human soul than ordinary confinement with others in the same boat, don’t we? His wife and children were in India perhaps waiting for the day that they could join him and grateful for what little money he could send them. And then his 17 years old daughter in India died and then so did the son. Perhaps the loneliness got to him. Some days he would steal a drink. So what you might ask? Priests and rabbis drink. But in the gurduara premises alcohol would never be condoned. And for an amritdhari and a granthi it is absolutely taboo. Of course he got caught. He tearfully confessed. What exactly to do with him. The gurduara management did what was expected of it. This was a mortal sin so they cast him out sooner than immediately. But this poor man that I am talking about had no place to go. He went to stay with someone he knew in the community and offered him a roof over his head. A few days later he got so strung out that he hanged himself in the friend’s garage. How would you have dealt with the crisis that the man’s life presented? Don’t forget that in our daily prayer (ardass) we intone the set words that ask for sarbat ka bhala, or betterment for all humankind. We also know the words of gurbani that warn us against judging other too quickly, too well or too harshly. Could the management have found him some counseling and some cure? But for alcoholism the only workable treatment would likely be long term talk therapy grounded in the culture around us. And the man couldn’t handle the English language; neither he nor the therapist would likely be able to span the cultural abyss. And such therapy doesn’t come cheap. Should the gurduara have paid to repatriate him back to India and ended the story there. Should the gurduara have given him a year’s medical leave and a ticket to India and directed him to get treated – and only then return to his job here? We all understand very well that he was a trusted granthi – a man of the cloth – a functionary in a Gurduara that is a house of worship. And more is expected of any person in such a position. But isn’t a house of worship, be it a temple, mosque, church or gurduara, ultimately for imperfect people who are on the path of becoming better. These edifices are absolutely not for perfect people; heaven knows they don’t need any. Or should we discard imperfect people at the first sign of their imperfections? If that were the criterion perhaps a very few would survive to adulthood – those who were able to hide their transgressions. I offer you these words today because the answer is not so easy or simple. Many opinions will emerge and just as many will be unrealistic or impractical. What is exactly the wisest and kindest thing to do while remaining true to our noble traditions and values? (As an aside I recall another granthi in a major gurduara on the Eastern seaboard. He, too, was found hoarding a bottle or two of contraband in his room. He was ousted immediately. But he was educated and his life not so bleak; he survived fine.) To the best of my knowledge what I have rendered to you is a true account. But don’t get caught up in an emotional tear-jerker. That will do no good. If you wish treat this as a fictional but plausible matter that could happen. The question is how we should act when it does. Each life is full of both complications and complexities. I have always argued that one should run away from complications, whether they are personal, social or professional, as fast as one’s legs can carry, while embracing the complexities which, in the final analysis, enrich a life. These are matters that a living community needs to consider.