What grabs me most about Harinder Singh is that it was the horrific experiences of 1984 that helped remove the shackles of narrow-mindedness for him … instead of engulfing him, as such things are wont to do.
It freed his mind and nudged him in the direction of the open- and big-heartedness of Sikhi, and gradually, step by step, turned him into a renaissance man -- again, something that Sikhi aims to do with every man and woman.
The first time I got to spend a bit of time with him was a couple of years ago, on my first trip to San Antonio. Being in the vicinity, I thought I should find out a bit more about SikhRI -- the Sikh Research Institute which has spawned projects like Sidak and Sojhi.
It was then that Harinder introduced me to the San Jose Mission, eighteenth century ruins of a Spanish settlement in the San Antonio area … a full-fledged community at one time, revolving around a church run by Franciscans designed to attract and support local (read ‘native‘) converts to Christianity. The complex has now, since a few decades, been rebuilt and renovated along the lines of its original configuration.
It was a quick visit, but long enough for me to get a taste of Harinder’s passion for learning from the world around him. I loved the way his interests are centrifugal, but bringing all that he picks up from his multiplicity of interests centripetally into each of the Sikh educational projects that he gets involved in.
Inspired by his ‘sales-pitch’ a couple of years ago, I sneaked away for a few hours yesterday and found my way -- thank the good Lord for GPS -- back to the San Jose Mission.
I walked into a full church in the midst of its Sunday Mass. I am glad I waited until its conclusion, because I discovered then that, after a short interval, a second Mass would be held … except this one would be a Mariachi Mass. That is, entirely sung in the traditional style prevalent in the Mexico of yore.
The mariachis you will recognize, I’m sure, from the singers and guitar players who occasionally encounter in a restaurant, more than ready and willing to serenade you and your partner, on the promise of a tip or fee.
They produce a lively, high-energy genre of song and music. This and imagine a combination of a troupe of Punjabi baraat band-wallahs with a Jewish/Kletzmer ensemble, and it’ll give you an idea of what a Mariachi does to add electricity to the air.
I have heard Dya Singh -- who’s one who never shies away exploring the frontiers of kirtan music -- having already sung Jaap Sahib to rap (which I listen to at home everyday to pace myself on the tread-mill), for example. Or, his unique addition of the ukulele and the didgeridoo, to name but two, to his shabads.
I felt much more than merely twice blessed, not only for having attended two Masses, back to back, but getting an unprecedented demonstration of what ’kirtan’ brings to worship.
In the first Mass, it was uplifting to watch the congregation worship within the serenity of a centuries’ old chapel.
However, the full-throated singing of a Spanish chorus, complemented by half-a-dozen guitars, the guitaron and trumpet of the Mariachis, certainly took the second hour-long devotion soaring to new heights.
I sat there, enthralled, wondering why I haven’t ever heard kirtan sung to Mariachi music?
I asked Harinder this very question when I ran into him this morning at Sidak. His pat answer was, “Why not?” He too thought it would be a great idea, certainly one worth trying.
That’s what I like about Sidak and about the SikhRI: they teach no-holds-barred Sikhi.
They’ve been blessed with a whole line of mentors who understand the bigness of Sikhi, who know that Sikhi is a set of beliefs and a life-style which free you, not limit you, things that teach you to conquer yourself and thereby conquer the world!
I look at Harinder Singh and realize that he is not a blip, an anomaly. Instead, he is one of a long line of visionaries.
Another man, one of an equally big vision -- G P Singh, also of San Antonio -- was instrumental in giving birth to the group and send it off and running.
Thereafter, it has had equally brave and wise shepherds. A learned Dr Gurpal Singh Bhullar of Virigina, for example, guided it through a crucial and critical period of transition.
Currently, it is led by tech-savvy Inderpreet Singh from Chelmsford, Massachusetts.
Jasmine Kaur, armed with skills honed in the thick of the educational arena and, most recently, in bringing up twins, helps run the institution smoothly from Dallas, Texas.
I look at all these extraordinary men and women -- there are many others who lend their shoulders -- and can see why many of us feel that there is a shift in the community worldwide: a growing awareness of our strengths, our blessings and our challenges. And the willingness to do more to meet our new and ever-changing needs.
And I see it all the more clearly -- all the way to horizon -- when I turn to Harinder’s own journey.
* * * * *
It was 1984 and its aftermath that brought Harinder and his family to USA.
He had managed to push its memories out of his consciousness, he says, rarely thinking about it through his teen years. He did well in high school, winning a scholarship to Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas.
He headed into building a career for himself, with two clear goals in mind: he wanted to study aerospace engineering, establish himself in the field, and help his family become financially comfortable; and, after putting in the time needed to achieve the aforesaid goal, to abandon it all and dedicate his life to Sikhi education.
School came easy for him, given his love for academia. There was always time and energy to delve in Sikh literature as well … he can quote Puran Singh, both in Punjabi and English, in his sleep!
Five years of working as an expert in developing Emergency Oxygen Systems for the aerospace industry allowed him to achieve his first goal.
Around this time, he had met a handful of like-minded Sikh-American young men and women -- and Canadians too -- and therein began the beginning of a life of activism.
While looking at the American Peace Corps as a possible option -- their slogan, “The toughest job you’ll ever love!” particularly appealed to him, in what it said and for what it stood -- he and his colleagues began a Sikh version of it under the rubric, “Fateh’ - Victory! -- a word which also serves as an abbreviated Sikh greeting.
Each of them, men and women -- including Harinder -- headed off to Punjab to work in its villages on localized educational projects, applying their western-honed skills and ideas.
Harinder spent the next five years, shepherding and mentoring a stream of Sikh youth from the diaspora who were willing to devote several years of their lives, and their parent’s resources, on helping Sikhs in Punjab.
Their success was unprecedented … and phenomenal.
Not surprisingly, in a post-1984 Indian universe, the mere fact that Sikh youth from the West -- intelligent, skilled, resourceful, independent, committed, dedicated, but immune to the reach and control of India’s censorship laws crafted to silence the Sikh intelligentia, and the oppressive influence of the Indian propaganda machinery -- were making inroads into the Punjabi countryside alarmed Indian ‘intelligence’ to no end. In the latter’s minds, anything that strengthened Sikhi or Punjabiyat was a threat to a navel-gazing India.
A series of concocted situations mysteriously arose out of thin air. It didn’t take long for the Indians to help kill the Fateh project.
The merry band of bright young men and women who had come to bring progress to a country otherwise mired in the quicksand of corruption and medievalism -- the likes of a people the country had rarely seen since the heady days of the independence struggle -- headed home.
So did Harinder.
But then, how do you keep a lid on such energy and dedication?
SikhRI took birth, and from it, slowly but surely, came its string of educational projects which are now, very quickly, becoming the mainstay of Sikh children and youth community schooling across the diaspora.
Sidak is one such project.