Recently published on sikhchic.com
My father always kept a large collection of “Sikh” books at home, covering all aspects of Sikhi – history, Gurbani, and contemporary issues. I rarely delved in to these books, because the English was so hard to understand – often written by authors from the early 1900’s or non-English speakers. But on a hot summer day, while on break – one book caught my eye.
It was a series of essays – easy to read, easy to understand…and most of all…captivating! I read the entire book in one sitting. I was able to relate to it so well, as it spoke about Sikh history’s significance in today’s society. One essay, titled “What Is A Head Worth” blew me away. Although I heard the story of Vaisakhi Day in 1699 dozens of times, this essay brought it to life for me, and I connected with it in a way I hadn’t before. More importantly, the author made it relevant to today…and relevant to me. He explained that 300 years later, the Guru is still asking for our head. And we are being tested every day by our choices and actions the same way Guru Sahib tested his Sikhs on that day. The author concluded the essay with a question that shook me, and I immediately wrote it in my journal.
Three hundred years later, once again the Guru wants your head. Many will slip away, just as they did three hundred years ago. Many more will look away, just as they did then. The question is: How are you going to answer the call?
I was so moved by this book, I did something I never did before…I wrote a letter to the author. This was long before email and commenting on blog posts…this was a hand-written note. I wanted to tell the author how much I loved the book and how much this essay meant to me as a young Sikh discovering my faith. To my surprise, a few weeks later…I received a call.
Sure enough, it was the author. He was appreciative of my note and we engaged in discussion. I couldn’t believe a professor and published author would take the time to call me…a mere college freshman. I invited him to speak at a conference a few of us university students were organizing and he obliged. The conference was a disappointment, as it turned out most of the participants were more interested in partying than attending the workshops – very few actually attended his talk. But he gracefully understood and encouraged me not to get frustrated and continue organizing such events…so I did.
As years passed, the author and I lost touch, but we would run in to each other from time to time in various cities – at workshops, retreats, seminars. He was always a featured speaker and it didn’t matter what the topic or theme was – he was always an expert. And each time we would meet, he would mention the letter I sent him as a kid – and remind me that he still keeps it!
I have followed his writings over the years, through his books and his articles on sikhchic.com, and they still captivate me. Often times he titles them with something provocative, as though he may make some controversial declarative statement at the end – but he rarely does, sometimes to my frustration. He instead raises pertinent issues, analyzes both sides of the argument down to the intricate details – and then leaves the reader to make up their own mind. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate this more. As I’ve seen in Sikh politics and Sikh leadership, we often rush to make declarative statements without the necessary discourse and debate. And we become more comfortable just following the “loudest talker” rather than thinking for ourselves.
Late last year, on a whim – I sent an essay of my own to the author for his feedback. I respect him as a writer and was hoping to develop my own writing. I had rarely shared my essays with anyone else before. He promptly replied with some feedback and encouragement. He also suggested I send my essay to sikhchic.com. With that encouragement, I’ve continued to write and share pieces – which has been a tremendously reflectively experience and one where I’ve discovered a lot about myself in the process. It’s funny, that same person who patted me on the back and encouraged me then as a kid, is still doing the same 15 years later.
I thank Dr. IJ Singh (UncleJi) not only for his guidance and encouragement of me, but for his guidance and encouragement of so many Sikhs of my generation. Although he is a self-proclaimed “gray-beard”, he has a knack for connecting with youth activists unlike any other, serving as a trusted mentor and advisor to several Sikh organizations. He has filled the gap as a “visionary” and “thinker” for our institutions, something we as a community often lack.
In one of UncleJi’s previous columns, “From Seeds To Flowers”, he poignantly addressed the youth of today, stating, “Sometimes I like to tell them to keep in mind that if they can see farther and act more purposefully, it is because the young stand on the shoulders of giants.”
True indeed! I wish UncleJi the best of health, the highest spirits…and most importantly…the strongest of shoulders!