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Bhaaiyya ji: My Father, Bhai Sunder Singh ji

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Born in 1933 in Dijkot, a small hamlet in district Lyallpur (now Faisalabad, Pakistan), I (Sangat Singh) came after about eight attempts, including miscarriages. I  grew up in Lyallpur as a  pampered child. At the age of five, I was sent to nearby one roomed primary school where spartan old Jute Hessian bags (borian) were used  for  mats.  I refused to study there, and was enrolled in Sacred Heart Convent School  for the next 9 years.  After getting his college degree in India, he moved to Singapore in 1954, and then to Malaysia in 1957, where, now a retired plantation manager, he lives with his wife.  More about him at this link.

Ed. note: A version of this article originally appeared at https://sikhchic.com/people/life_with_bhaaiyya_ji_my_father_bhai_sunder_singh_ji

It was 1931 or 1932. I was not born yet.

My two elder sisters, Bhenji Amar and Bhenji Beant, were getting married within a week's gap. The weddings took place in our own double-storeyed building that had the business end on the ground floor facing Karkhana Bazar in Lyallpur (pre-Partition Punjab). The two floors above were the residential quarters.

The façade prominently carried the names Bhai Jawaher Singh Sunder Singh. It was a common practice to have the grandfather's name in it. It was later when it became Bhai Sunder Singh & Sons.

But fortunes were to change. It was the time of ‘The Great Crash' of 1929 and the tremors were felt in India too. Overnight, we lost everything. The house was sold, and the creditors paid to the last paisa.

My parents moved back to a little hamlet known as Dijkot some 16 miles from Lyallpur where we still had the ancestral home.

It was the only brick building in Dijkot then. It also had a room dedicated as a gurdwara for the small Sikh community there.

I was born in Dijkot in 1933 - the first son. I had five elder sisters then.

I seem to have a hazy recollection of the place when I was about three years old. Just opposite our house used to be a one-roomed katcha daak-khanna (post-office) manned by a Muslim Post Master. He had rented a room in our house. His wife was naturally referred as Masterani. They had no children and they doted on me.

I am told that the post master would use his mohr chhaap, and stamp my face and body with black postal marks all over. One playful reason was: nazar na lugg jayey (ward off the evil eye!)

His father

Bhai Sunder Singh ji. About 1970. About 80 years old

At that time, my father then ran a shop selling sundry items. I remember a particular bottle of syrup then sold known as Fauladi Sharbat.  It was a rose-coloured syrup and had a picture of a wrestler showing his biceps. It was a popular drink then and considered an aid for body building.

Before long, things started to look up. My parents moved back to Lyallpur. The year must have been 1937, as my youngest sister was born there in 1938. By then, the household complement was six daughters and we two sons. The two elder sisters had been married then.

I have a recollection of Bhenji Maan's wedding; she was the next in line. The year was 1939. As the elder brother aged 6, I was to accompany her doli (bridal procession heading to her new home) but I didn't know for what. Luckily, she was married in Lyallpur itself and her Sohra Ghar (home of the in-laws) was not too far away.

There was something highly impressionable that happened on the eve of doli. When it arrived, the custom was for the mother-in-law to pour oil on the threshold as an auspicious welcome. I don't think it happened quite that way.

The mother-in-law, known as Bibi ji, was a highly respected, saintly person. When the doli arrived, Bibi ji was having her daily satsang.

There were some 20 odd women sitting on the floor while Bibi ji sat on the bench. She had a book in her hands, which she was reading. When the new bride arrived, Bibi ji got up and put her hand on Bhenji Maan's head and made her sit next to her.  Bibi ji handed the book to Bhenji, "Lai, aree - ai parrh ke sunnaa saa-nu (Here, girl, read this aloud for us!)"

Later I was told that the book was Bhai Vir Singh's Guru Nanak Chamatkar.

What a wonderful welcome for the new bride!

On another occasion not long thereafter, Bibi ji pushed over the harmonium towards Bhenji and asked her to sing some shabads. Until then, Bhenji had never in her life touched the harmonium. But, with Bibi ji's hand on her head, the fingers started to work on the keyboard in perfect harmony, and shabads started to pour out. Overnight she had become a kirtania as a gurparsad (the Guru's Grace).

Years later, Bhenji was much sought after, sitting and singing Guru's shabads with eyes closed, and a picture of kirtan itself. After the Partition of Punjab, her family settled in West Patel Nagar, New Delhi.  I used to notice that a limousine with a driver would come occasionally to take her to the bungalow of Mrs. Oberoi, the wife of the famous hotelier, Mohan Singh Oberoi of Oberoi Hotels fame, to do kirtan for her group of satsangis.

When Bhenji got married, by then, my father had by then re-started his business in Lyallpur to re-build his life. I remember a phrase he often used when someone asked him how he was faring.

He would say "shukkar hai -- safaed poshi which din sukh day lung rahai hun") With His Grace, He is providing sustenance while keeping us in clean clothes!)"

In my Lyallpur home, there used to be a framed document, which had text on it in Punjabi in gold print. It was called a maan pattar (honour scroll). I didn't quite understand what it meant but was told that it was given to Bhaaiyya ji when he left for Dijkot, for his seva (service) in the Wadda Gurdwara. Wish we had brought that heirloom with us when we fled at the time of partition!

I think it was in 1944 that my mother passed away after a prolonged illness. It was the time of World War II, and there was a dearth of medicines. I saw my mother wasting away despite whatever medical help was available then. I was present when she breathed her last. Though we were all weighed down by grief, I noticed that two people did not cry nor shed tears. It was my Bhaaiyya ji and my saintly aunt (my father's sister) who kept doing paatth (recitation of scriptures) without any break.

I was 11 years old then.

My two elder sisters, Bhenjis Satwant and Pritam were soon to be married. My eldest sister Bhenji Amar moved from Kamalia to look after us. For all intents and purposes, she became the mother, and was treated as such.

Soon enough, in 1947 it was the Partition.

Time for another upheaval. We were once again to be uprooted. This time to an unknown destination where Waheguru's razaa (will) would take us.

The first task, of course, was to cross the Wagha Border. Thence, it was to be Ludhiana. That is where the train stopped.

Bhaaiyya ji rose like the phoenix to start all over again and rebuild the shattered life once again. All that was done without any rancour, without even a hint of a furrow to crease his forehead. It was chardi kalaa (Fearless, brave and optimistic attitude despite daunting or oppressive circumstances) throughout! 

We were allotted an evacuee property situated in Wait Ganj in Ludhiana. Our part of the house had 3 rooms. Bhaaiyya ji had just brought along the Guru Granth Sahib with him from Lyallpur, and nothing else but the clothes he had on his person.

Unfortunately, there was no suitable place for the parkash (Formally installation of Guru Granth Sahib in a special room) so he used a small cupboard that had no doors to keep his sainchis (volumes). That is where he would stand morning and evening to do ardaas (prayer) If we happened to wander in at that time, naturally we were expected to stand behind him with folded hands. At that time a distinct over-powering feeling would come over me, the sense that the forces of the whole world were also standing behind him with folded hands at his bidding.

I would walk away with a feeling that no harm shall ever come to us.

That two-storeyed allotted house was occupied by four other Multani refugee families besides ours. The house had a complement of eight daughters and three sons (kaakas) of varying ages between 3 - 14 years. At 14, I became the wadda kaaka. In Multani language, kaaka is the elder brother. This appendage was to stick for a long time.

The youngest kaaka was about three years old. He had a delightful stammer and was invariably dressed in a shirt which was a tad short and didn't quite cover his wee. He was everybody‘s darling.

That was where I picked up the Multani/Saraiki dialect.

Bhaaiyya ji was respectfully considered by all as the ad hoc head of the entire household. This extended family was to last for quite a few years before we were to scatter. But, we continued to remain in touch with each other long thereafter, although by then we were spread out all over the world.

In the late 1950s we were once again the proud owners of our own home in Civil Lines, Ludhiana. In the meantime, I had already found a job in Singapore / Malaysia.

In the early 1960s my younger sister, brother and I were married. Since everyone was settled, we persuaded our respected Bhaaiyya ji to retire.

A few years later, we had the pleasure of having Bhaaiyya ji move to Malaysia, where I was, and he soon settled comfortably into his usual routine.

He would be up around 2 am reciting around shabads in his melodious voice. Do his nitnem, and almost weekly do a sehaj paatth. ( Shabads -hymns from Guru Granth Sahib; Sehaj Paatth - prayers-  a few pages daily)

One day when I had just returned from work, I saw our daughter Vimal crawling towards an electric socket. To stop her in her tracks, I just shouted, "Vimal!"

Vimal daughter

Vimal, his daughter, 1963.

Bhaaiyya ji was sitting close by, oblivious of the reason why, and was busy reading his newspaper. He looked up and said: "Mithat neevee naankaa gun chang-aa-ee tat" [GGS: 470.13} - "Sweetness and humility, O Nanak, are the essence of virtue and goodness".

(Ed. note: GGS refers to Guru Granth Sahib.)

Having already distracted Vimal from her path, I started to laugh. He looked his usual stern self and asked why I found it mirthful. "Bhaiyya ji, what happened to sweetness during our time, when a 10-pounder slap would make my ears sing for a good 10 minutes?"

"Oye, rehan vi day, yar, hun - O, let bygones be bygones!" he replied.

The ravages of time ... and grandchildren ... had indeed made him into a model of sweetness.

He had a car and driver at his disposal and would spend at least half day at the local gurdwara. He spent only one year with us as immigration would not allow any further extension to his visa. He then went on to stay with my younger brother, who was then posted in Kanpur, India.

He remained quite healthy for some time, but unfortunately developed some urinary infection. On his own volition one day, he went to some roadside doctor who tried to drain his bladder ... resulting in a prolapsing of the bladder and creating further complications. He had to be admitted in hospital, and started to go downhill.

My sisters were informed and they all arrived in Kanpur to be at his bedside. They started a relay of Sukhmani Sahib paatths. Whenever they asked him how he was, his reply would invariably be: "shukkar hai". He remained in his usual chardi kala. (Always thankful  and remain in  optimistic attitude)

On 31 March, 1971 when the Sukhmani paatth reached the closing lines of the concluding 24th ashtpadi, he folded his hands, and said: "hun challeya" (Now, it's time to go!) And the next instant he was gone home.

"Sooraj kiran milay jal kaa jal hoo-aa raam" [GGS:846.17] (The rays of light merge into the sun, and water merges with water").

It was the end of an era.

"Chal ga-ee-aa pankhee-aan jinhee vasaa-ay tal / fareeda sar bhari-aa bhee chalsee thakay kaval ikal" [GGS:1381.8] (The birds which lived in the pools have flown away and left. Farid, the over-flowing pool shall also pass away, and only the lotus flowers shall remain).

Epilogue

My greatest regret was that I did not sit at his feet long enough to have his touch of gurbani.

My only heartfelt plea now is for those who have parents alive today, please do not miss the opportunity to serve them while they are alive.

Once they are gone this opportunity will never return.


© Sangat Singh 2016

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