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A Writer's Journey: The 101st Article Of I J Singh


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Batting a Century: A Writer's Journeyby I.J. SINGH

EDITOR: This week, sikhchic.com presents to you, with immense pleasure, our columnist I.J. Singh's 101st column: a distinction which is, to borrow a term from the game of Cricket, no less an achievement than 'batting a century' while playing on the writer's pitch. Our heartiest congratulations to him, as we look forward with unabated breath to the second century!

On a cruise for a few days - asea but not entirely adrift, I hope - my thoughts went to the art of writing and my preoccupation with it.
I have heard it said that, at best, a writer has a single idea that he keeps dissecting and parsing all his life in a myriad different ways. When I first came across this, I was offended. I had always admired writers and writing. And I had not yet written much but wanted to.

So I felt baffled and insulted at the same time. How could one be a writer by beating up on the same hackneyed idea time and time again, for years on end? I had more ambitious pretensions than that and hoped to do better.

Now, some years later, having published several reasonably respectable research articles in experimental biology, spent time with some excellent scientists, supervised the research and writing by doctoral students, and then having published just as many essays and ruminations on Sikhs and Sikhi, I have come to understand and treasure the alluring beauty and the possessive power of a single good idea.

Now I see that happy should be the author who has one good idea in his lifetime to explore and develop. If he is lucky and the theme has any merit, the journey will never end and his whole life would become a commentary on it. It will become the dance of a moth around a flame.

What then is that single idea that enthralls me?

It seems to me that being a Sikh, for most of us, is an accident of birth or habit; whereas, becoming a Sikh - the journey - remains the more critical reality.

The one theme that drives all of my writing then is to explore the idea of becoming a Sikh in its rich multi-faceted splendour. I really don't see how a Sikh could be otherwise and still stay true to the label Sikh that brands him a student of life, for as long as life lasts.

The idea is to connect Sikh teachings that come to us from three to five hundred years ago, to our complex, contemporary lives in North America or wherever we live in the diaspora. The Sikh way of life must speak to us today outside Punjab just as completely and meaningfully as it did to countless Sikhs on the sub-continent over the course of five centuries. It must offer sense and substance today or else it becomes fossilized and irrelevant.

How did this one good idea come to possess me? An apple did not fall on my head, nor was there an electrifying flash of revelation or an epiphany. It must then be pure grace as manna from heaven.

But this single theme is a rainbow of many hues and shades.

There is history. But history has many convoluted, cunning passages and contrived corridors that can and do deceive and defeat us. Yet, history is important; we neglect it at our own peril.

Then there is the very rich tradition of Sikhi. But traditions are rooted in the culture in which they arise and flourish. So, they end up with an enchantingly baffling mix of language, ritual and interpretation, in which the context is rarely free of cultural and mythological baggage. Yet, culture can never be entirely ignored or casually dismissed.

Then there is the pristine purity of the message at the core, hence divine to those who experience it. But it is framed, articulated and tweaked by the quirks of language, tradition, history and culture.

Ergo, I do not dismiss quite so easily the habits of the heart that we label traditions. Yet, we must continue to weigh them carefully to ferret out what is strictly cultural baggage that may be safely modified or jettisoned, and what connects us to the practice and meaning of Sikhi that we need to nurture.

My meanderings in Sikhi often remind me of the words of T.S. Eliot:

"We shall not cease from exploration
And at the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

Exploration of this splendoured existence allows me much pleasure but, more importantly, it allows me to track my own trail along the path.

Why write?

It is indeed a form of self-indulgence, but it remains a most precise, effective and economical way of examining oneself as minutely and microscopically as one's talents and inclinations allow. It is like holding a mirror to one-self, and a good mirror can reflect with brutal honesty.

It also holds the seeds of ecstasy.

I find myself standing astride the past, present and future. As I face the future to discern its promise, I stand in the present, on a pulpit for which the bricks and mortar come from the past. When I step off that dais and close my eyes to the past, I have no sense of the present - nothing to stand on, and will have diminished myself to only the tunnel vision of a fancied and unrealistic future.

Thus are the past, present and future inseparably interconnected in the endless march of time.

One thing I have no intention of doing is to preach the message of Sikhi to anyone; for that would require a degree of hubris on my part that I hope and pray I do not have.

The idea is not much different from what I tell my students in human anatomy in the first lecture every year: "I am not here to teach anatomy or, for that matter, anything in particular. I am here to make it possible for you to learn as much as your talents and inclinations allow."

Whether it is the subject of anatomy or Sikhi, the best I can hope for is to foster a discussion - a need to learn - in the readers' minds.

Though both my parents were dedicated Sikhs, my mother's take on Sikhi was purely devotional, while my father's was largely analytic. It took me a lifetime to see that Sikhi is best accosted by the dual lenses of faith and reason - head and heart. Either one alone is insufficient.

What I do wish for is the camaraderie of fellow travelers - those who do not rob me of my solitude without giving me company. The Sikh savant, Bhai Gurdas, reminds us that some congregations will liberate us, while other associations consign us to everlasting hell ("Kahoo ki sangat mil jeevan mukt hoe, kahoo ki sangat mil jum pur jaat hai.").

What is the essence of good writing?

Again, T.S. Eliot tells us: "Common words exact without vulgarity; formal words precise but not pedantic."

For me personally, that remains a distant but much admired goal on my wish list. A bit of fantasia!

Even a cursory reading will convince us all - skeptics and believers alike - that the Gurus practiced that and much, much more. They dissected - simply, directly, minutely, effectively and thoroughly, often with a dollop of humour - complex but essential questions on our sense of self and the goals, constraints and freedoms that constitute our existence.

The more I delve into gurbani (GGS:261), the more I am thrilled by the limitless meaning in "Ek akhar hur munn basat Nanak hote nihaal," meaning that one blossoms when the Word is enshrined in the heart, and that the entire creation inheres in the Word (Akhar meh tribhavan prabh dharay).

Our trouble is that our perceptions, always small and circumscribed, have changed. The allegories, similes and metaphors in Sikh teaching often escape us. These teachings come to us rooted and framed in culture and language that are now often very much alien to us. We lack the context of time and place when Sikh teaching was elaborated in order to understand the message.

But let me step aside from this and related matters and defer their further consideration to another time.

An examined life and a reality explored is the essence of a life grounded in Sikhi. A line of gurbani by Guru Amardas comes to mind. It bluntly challenges us with the words:

In your life here, what footprints will you leave in the sands of time ? - "Eh sareera mairya, iss jug may aaye kae kyaa tudh karam kamaaya" - [GGS: 922]

My writings have enjoyed such a magical and miraculous run that I am reminded of the words of David Ben-Gurion: "Anyone who doesn't believe in miracles is not a realist."

And then my thoughts go to two ideas from Guru Granth: "My aimless life has been graced with purpose and direction" - Moorakh kaaray laaiya' - [GGS:449, M4]; and "Hum dhaadhi vekaar kaaray laaiyaa" - [GGS:150, M1].

Sometimes, however, my thoughts go to Hilaire Belloc's doggerel:

"When I am dead, I hope it may be said;
His sins were scarlet,
But his books were read."

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