A Legacy of Love: Bhai Vir Singh

My earliest memory of having anything to do with Pitaji’s writings is the sweetest.

Every Wednesday we would have kirtan at home. Just before Anand Sahib Masterji (because he was a Master of ragas) would sing one of Pitaji’s poems. 

I don’t know whether it was his penetrating voice or his exceptional talent at composition but Masterji’s tunes brought out every emotion Pitaji’s words flowed with. I was but a child - as Masterji sang, I understood.

Even as I write this I hunger…if only someone would bring his glorious voice back to me singing, “Dil sadra da dona mera, mera bhi lay jaa(n)yee…dhur Patne apnaaye Ganga, dhur Patne aapnayee. If my heart would be the lamp that lights the Ganga on the banks of Patna in homage to my love…if in this love I would burn and burn out…”

This is what Pitaji’s writings do. They transport you; calm and steady you; flow over and cleanse you; erase the peripheral and the superficial.

“He threshes you to make you naked. He sifts you to free you from your husks,” Gibran writes of love. Pitaji’s writings bring about the awareness of love, consistently elevating your consciousness. Your ‘surt’ is raised, as my Dad would say.

I must have been seven or eight when I learnt Gurmukhi. My father would make me read out either Gur Balam Sakhiya or the Khalsa Samachar to him as he lay down after a hard day’s work. Pitaji’s words would make me sleepy and I wondered what Dad found so very absorbing. Now I wonder how much effect just listening to those words without understanding anything at all, had on me.

I didn’t always address Bhai Sahib Bhai Vir Singh ji as Pitaji. Initially it was Bhai Sahib ji for many years. A casual conversation with my grand-aunt changed that.  

We were discussing Bhai Sahib Bhai Vir Singh ji’s literature. I recall adding to my grand-aunt’s train of thought with something Dad had explained to me earlier. I was fumbling as how to address the savant-poet for ‘Bhai Sahib ji’ at that moment somehow seemed too distant and not right - when my aunt stopped me mid-sentence, ‘Refer to him as Pitaji.’

‘It is how he is addressed in our family,’ she explained.

‘Pitaji,’ I repeated hesitant, even reluctant.

Sometime later I remember listening to Dad as he told me the following story. When my dadi – Mataji as we call her – met Bhai Sahib Bhai Vir Singh ji, from their very first meeting she addressed him as Pitaji, as he reminded her of her late father.

Mataji had lost her father to the plague years earlier. She was abroad at that time and could not return in time to be with him at the time of his demise. This sat heavy in her heart for many years until she met Bhai Sahib ji. Immediately, she felt released from the weight, as though she had been reunited with her lost father.

Bhai Sahib ji in turn, addressed Mataji as ‘Beji’ since she reminded him of his late mother.

This strange twist of love at first instance accorded Bhai Sahib ji the title, ‘Pitaji’ and with it, the status of spiritual head of our family.

Pitaji once told my two elder tayaji’s to look after ‘his Beji,’ well.

I never met my Mataji. She had passed on long before I was born. What I do know though, is that my Dad and his brothers could not do enough for Pita ji’s Beji.

A lot, if not all things in our family revolved around Mataji. Even today, three generations later, we get together for weekly Wednesday kirtan, a tradition started by Mataji.

When I think of my grandmother, Pitaji’s poem, ‘I Made my Mind A Beggar’s Bowl,’ comes immediately to mind:

 

‘I made my mind a beggar’s bowl.

I wandered, and begged the bread of learning from door to door;

I filled it with crumbs that fell to me from every house of learning.

I crammed it very full; I made it heavy, and I was proud;

I thought I was a pundit,

I wished to walk far above the earth in my pride,

My steps hardly touched the ground.

One day I went to my saint.

I placed my bowl before him,

and I gave it as an offering;

“Dirt, dirt”, he said, and turned it upside down.

He threw the crumbs away,

He rubbed it with sand, he washed it with water, clean of all the dirt of learning.’

(Translation, Prof. Puran Singh)

 

Never one to carry the weight of intellectual spiritualism, Mataji’s bowl was light and airy. Her path was SahejMarag. She would do simran continuously as she went along her daily chores. ‘Ek jap Vahiguru, te char vaaari shukar’ – with every breath you say Vahiguru, proffer ‘Thanks’ four times.

Pitaji, was the light that kept Mataji’s memory aglow for us kids. Through his books, he remained the glue between Dad and Mataji long after both had left Dad. Dad’s parenting, especially correction, came in the form of Sakhis, mixed with family lore and his personal takes on what had passed.

Dad once told me that when he had his bypass heart surgery in the 1990s, some twenty years ago, it was, “Probably the most difficult time of my life. I only made it through because of Pitaji’s books.”

Dad’s road to recovery was fraught with complications and he had to spend almost six months in the U.S. with Ma, away from all three of us kids. Two of us were barely adults, one, still a baby.

Naturally, this took a toll on both Ma and him mentally and emotionally. Even more so since most of our extended family lived in North America; we were halfway across the world managing by ourselves.

I did see a huge change in Dad’s post-surgery.

All his life, he had directed us towards good literature and theatre, extremely careful in what books his children brought home. But, now movies, theatre and books had lost more than some of their charm. Dad seemed detached even as he laughed through comedy shows, and drama which he now found, ‘too heavy.’

He read a whole lot more, only now they were mostly Pitaji’s books.

Dad would often recount passages and Sakhis, bringing forth characters, descriptions or actions that touched him. His retelling came from his heart - he left out details like dates, even names. Highlighting instead, emotion; he retold the Sakhi the way it touched him, moved him, and changed him. As he spoke I was touched, moved, and I changed too.

Most recently more than once Dad narrated to me the Sakhi of Rai Bular and his last meeting with Guru Nanak Sahib.

I can almost hear him again slipping between Panjabi and English, “Guru ji jad aaye Talwandi vapas, he did not go to meet Mata Triptaji…”

Guruji sat under the shade of the Banyan tree outside the village and told Bhai Mardana to go home and meet his family. Bhai Mardana went and after meeting his wife and children, went over to Guruji’s home, Pita Kaluji was away at work but Mata Triptaji was there. She repeatedly inquired about Guruji but Bhai Mardana remained silent.

Magar ey Ma da dil see, Ma-va(n) noopata lag jandahai…A mother’s heart knows.” It knows – that Bhai Mardana will be where his Guru is. So, her Nanak could not be far. Hastily packing some rotis she rushed to follow Bhai Mardana.

…till he leads her to her heart. “Guru ji Mata ji nu paree pa-ye. Sarey jagat dey data magar oh Ma di jagah hai...” Dad’s eyes would mist. Guru Nanak was Jagat-daata, one who bestowed Grace on all, yet when he met Mata Triptaji, he fell at her feet.

By then word had spread through the village that Guruji had returned to Talwandi. Rai Bular, now too old and too sick sent one of his servants to confirm the news.

Guruji sent him back with the message that Raiji should not trouble himself, Guruji would come visit him.

When Rai Bular saw Guruji enter his room, frail from old age and illness, he summoned the strength got up from his bed …and fell at Guru’s feet. His tears would not stop. “Oh Dhaiyya maar maar key ron(e)…like he was emptying his entire heart out.”

Rai Bular knew that Guruji would leave again. It was Hukam. He knew that this was the last time he would meet Guruji. So, when the opportunity was offered Rai Bular begged, he asked, he told -- his Love, with the rights only a lover has, “Mera agga savarnaa, Mai(n) tujhe tey hi aasra.”

Dad was sold on these lines -- the intrinsic sweetness of the language, the plea, the faith! “Bharosa, apney Guru tey – itna bharosa, eho hee te pyaar hai.” Trust matures into faith - To know that you are looked after. A Gursikh is one who knows this. When you recognize your intrinsic divinity, you are able to impose that Love to accompany you to places beyond the horizon of these realms. You can only count on that Love, turn to that Love for such aasra, whom you have Faith in.

The last time he retold the sakhi, I called him up from the car not ten minutes after leaving his hospital room, “Papa, what were those lines again? That Rai Bular said…” “Mera agga savarnaa, Mai(n) tujhe tey hi aasra,” he replied with quiet happiness.

For he knew. He had retied me yet again with another exquisite thread to Pitaji.

This is the last passage Dad shared with me. It is from Pitaji’s, ‘Guru Nanak Chamatkar.’ All through the terribly difficult days that followed Dad’s absence from this world, Rai Bular’s words became a prayer in my mind. It’s what Dad wanted so earnestly, it’s what I hoped he had achieved.

The last book Dad was reading was Pitaji’s Jeevan Bhai Sai Das, the biography of Guru HarGobind Sahib brother-in-law and his wife Bibi Ramo, who was Guru’s wife Mata Ganga ji’s elder sister.

Guruji was very close to them and Bhai Sai Das’s love for Guruji was of such depth that he begged Guruji to relieve him of all worldly relations and only keep the relationship of a Sikh and Guru alive.

It is a description of an exquisite love – both emotion and rendition is so fine and of such high caliber, that I dare not attempt to rewrite it. But hopefully, my impression gives you an idea of what entails the love that a Gursikh reserves for his Guru.

Shakespeare wrote about the quality of mercy. This is the quality of love. The same love that prompted Raiji to fall at the feet of one old enough to be his son and put forth a plea that was beggarly, commanding, loving and demanding all at the same time: “Mera agga savarnaa, Mai(n) tujhe tey hi aasra,”

These words give me hope, hold me together. I know that in all my helplessness, I have Aasra. When I’m told there is no remedy for this ‘loss,’ I hear a voice inside saying, ‘Mai(n) tujhe tey hi aasra.’

Now, Pitaji is my one link to Dad.  My map, my road, my compass and my guide. I miss Dad’s voice, his story-telling and his explanations. And when my eyes travel over the words that his once did, I grow silent. And when I pause to recall Dad relaying a particular portion, I wonder if he too paused at that particular point to think, to allow the words to sink in as I am doing. I feel Dad’s constant influence in my daily life. Pitaji’s words remain the glue that holds our family together.

 

Satbharai Kaur

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