Gurus Growing Up In Gobind Rai's 'Hood - Part II


1947-2014 (Archived)
Growing up in Gobind Rai's 'Hood - Part II

In the Old City of Patna, there were signs of the boy Gobind Rai everywhere.

Being told the stories and taken to the very places where they had happened three centuries earlier, was like following him through the laneways as he was growing up. I fell in love with this child so full of life, and tried to imagine how it must have been for him.

I knew he had learnt to speak in the local Bihari dialects because the language comes through loud and clear, in its unadulterated sweetness, in the verses that are identified from his pen in the Dasam Granth.

This is where he played with his little friends by the well and teased the village women by aiming his catapult at their ghurraas (water pots). That is where he pulled out his play arrows and shot them at their brass pots.

The well is still there and so are some of the catapult clay ***** and arrows on display, from the period.

The mansion and estate of Raja Maini and his Rani are but a short walk away, where the latter watched Gobind play and yearned for a son like him. They still serve ghuggni (black chhole) as parshad at the gurdwara where they had lived - it was little changed, furniture and all, from its original form when I was there last - the very same local dish that Gobind asked her to serve every time he visited her, assuring her that if she wanted a son like him, he would be hers too.

Head the other way and you find yourself at a ghat (dock) where the River Ganges used to whisper by; it doesn't any more, I'm told, because it has changed its course a bit. It is where the boy Gobind had lobbed his gold bracelet far into the river ... to point out exactly where he had lost his other one the day before!

I could even imagine what he wore, weaving my own image of him in my mind, based on his ancient chola (shirt) on display at the Takht Sahib, along with some other artefacts. (Not in a very good state, I'm afraid.)

All of this aroused my interest in this boy, fuelled by the saakhis of the extraordinary Man he grew up to be, from my parents and baby-sitters.

I remember that when I was but 10 years old, Brother Johnson in our Grade 7 class assigned us our Thursday essay topic - "The Most Unforgettable Character I've Met", pointing to the Reader's Digest series under that title - and urged us to chose our own subjects.

It was an easy one for me. I chose Gobind because I felt I already knew him, that he was indeed an acquaintance, nay, a friend!

By this time, there were other forces at work.

Patna University at this time had a strong contingent of Sikh students, led by a charismatic young man, Bawa Jaswant Singh. He now headed The Patna Sikh Students' Association, which had developed, through the years, a good reputation as a cultural and educational group led by a new, post-Independence generation of go-getters.

I remember Bawa because he was a powerful orator. He had a thundering voice and an elephant's memory. Since my father was a Patron of the Association, he visited us often - I'll never forget a gift he once bought me for my birthday - a BB Gun!

Well, the friendship between him and my father led to my being conscripted to give a "speech" on the life of Guru Gobind Singh every December at their annual Gurpurab celebrations which were held in the University Senate Hall and had the local literati and glitterati in full attendance.

Which meant weeks of misery for a young boy not yet into his teens. It would ruin my winter holidays as I fretted over writing the speech - which was part of the deal - and, at the same time, strived desperately each year to get out of it.

The day of the actual delivery each year was not a pleasant one. I would sweat all day, first in fearful anticipation, then in my uncomfortable formal school blazer and tie - for heaven's sake, these were my winter holidays! Finally, my turn would come, and I would somehow make my way up to the podium. To my little stature, a hall full of several hundred adults, many of them VIPs, looked like a gladiatorial arena: remember, I had already seen "Quo Vadis" a few times at school by now.

As I stood under the glare, my legs would start shaking uncontrollably, until they were numb and all sensation was lost. As I struggled to hide the trembling in my voice, my next worry would be ... how was I going to get back down the stairs and back to my seat, if I couldn't even feel my legs!

Within a couple of years, after one such event, the leading local English daily - The Indian Nation - asked me for my script. I was glad to get rid of it.

The next thing I knew, it was on the front page of the weekend edition. Seeing my name in newsprint for the first time was no small boost to my self-confidence, but the usual trauma of public speaking remained for a long, long time. It would take the first two years of law school twenty years later to completely conquer the nervousness of public exposure.

But the research I was forced into in order to prepare for these speeches took me into the very heart of Guru Gobind Singh's life. The more I looked and found, the more I liked it and the hungrier I became for more.

It also began my life-long addiction to the acquisition of books!

The childish little speeches gave rise to demands for articles. Not long thereafter, S. Mohan Singh Kalra of The Sikh Review in Calcutta was in the audience. He urged me to send him stuff, and then unleashed that tyrannical monster that I still grapple with today: a deadline!

I was moved to distraction by his encouragement and wanted to try something unique, something different, something that would change the world for ever.

I turned to the credal story of Vaisakhi, but even my tender years found it extremely limiting to write a mere, regurgitated account of it.

So, I turned to fiction!

I imagined myself as Dya Ram heading into Anandpur, in answer to a call from Guru Gobind Rai for a Vaisakhi gathering ... and related the days that followed through his eyes.

Seeing it in The Sikh Review was another shot in the arm ... and I became a writer! But strangely enough, I wouldn't tackle fiction again for another forty years or so. [I wonder why!]

Add to this entire mix the fact that Patna, being a Takht, was a magnet for the most interesting characters in the world.

We lived but a stone-throw away from the Patna Junction railway station, and it was the only local stop for the national trains during my early years. The Old City being a dozen miles away, it sometimes fell on my Dad to bring home many of the visiting VIPs for the initial tea and refreshments before leading them to the Takht Sahib.

So, I had the pleasure of matching names with live faces, often in our own "drawing room", long before I fully understood what they were famous - or notorious - for.

Master Tara Singh is the earliest one I remember. Baba Gurdit Singh of the Komagata Maru was over once for dinner - and it was the first time I heard of a distant land called "Canada".

Giani Kartar Singh, Gian Singh Rarewala, Sirdar Kapur Singh, Partap Singh Kairon, Hukam Singh, Ujjal Singh, Fateh Singh ... Jai Prakash Narayan, Vinobha Bhave ...

My father would bore me to death before and after every such event, relating who the person was, what he or she had done, their historical significance, etc.

The one line - the refrain - I remember the most vividly is: "Son, remember - the ‘great' ones are no different from you or me. Only, they believe in something, they work hard, and they forge ahead!"

All of this continued with a strange twist of fate, shortly after I finished high school and joined Patna University in 1965 as a science student (yes, science!)

I was informed one day, as I came back from a holiday in the hills, that I had been elected, in absentia, the President of The Patna Sikh Students' Association. Indeed, I was a university student now and qualified ... but they had no idea that I was a mere 16 years old, despite my nascent beard and mature looks.

"Try it out for a bit!" suggested my father when he heard that I wanted to refuse the position.

What followed was an education in so many delightful ways. In short shrift, through the events and programs of a very busy and effective association, I learnt the rudiments of being a small-town impresario, a speaker, a writer, an editor, a publisher ...

I let my imagination fly and tried whatever and wherever it led me ... subject to the limitations I had in time and resources.

I was able to bring in my favourite people from across the country to wow our members and audiences at the seminars and conferences we held on or around Guru Gobind Singh.

Some, through quirks of destiny, led to life-transforming friendships.

Hardit Singh Malik fell ill a few days before he was due to fly in as a key-note speaker. He offered to come nevertheless when my mother promised to host him at our home and look after his health needs. Three days of face-to-face hero-worship with this Renaissance man led to a long pen-friendship!

Then there was the scholar Dr. Ganda Singh, who had certain diet restrictions. He stayed with us for a few days. That too led to a long friendship and his allowing me immediately to publish one of his books, "Sikhs & Sikhism" - my first publishing venture, in my teens!

The artist Kirpal Singh stood out because of his tip-to-toe black tunic and eccentric persona. I can't remember why, but he stayed with us too. Years later, after we had moved to Canada, I had the delight of reconnecting with him during a visit to Chandigarh expressly to meet up with him. He painted three masterpieces for me - one of them, at my request, of Guru Gobind Singh in The Battle of Bhangani.

Thus, in that town where I was born and where I grew up, there was nothing I touched, nothing I bumped into, that didn't remind me of The Man and of how much I owed Him.

None of all that I have described, and so much more, would have happened, or led to any good, if it hadn't been for my good fortune to be born in Gobind Rai's ‘hood and to fall in love with the life and work of Guru Gobind Singh.

Six decades later, I still marvel at this extraordinary Man - I truly know of no equal in human history - and that one simple act of his on Vaisakhi Day in 1699 on that hill-top in Anandpur, when he dropped down on his knee before newly-minted Daya Singh, Dharam Singh, Himmat Singh, Mohkam Singh and Sahib Singh and said in utter humility: "I am thy disciple ... bless me, if you will, with Amrit and make me thine, O Khalsa ji!"

January 5, 2009


  • patna_early_1800s.jpg
    19.4 KB · Reads: 146
  • patna_early_1800s002.jpg
    23.2 KB · Reads: 136
  • patna_early_1800s003.jpg
    22 KB · Reads: 134
  • patna_early_1800s004.jpg
    8.6 KB · Reads: 781