Slipping Away [Spoken Word]

Birthdays were the best

A day to relax, celebrate with family and friends
And reflect on all of my accomplishments

But this last one was different

That night of my birthday, I was awoken from my sleep
From a sound I couldn’t see, but it came from somewhere deep

The sound was getting louder; it was a sound I couldn’t block
I tried to cover my ears but all I could hear was tick-tock-tick-tock
It was the sound of a clock

I tried to sleep through it, but then I heard the door knock

A knock at the door, something wasn’t right
Who would be here for me at this time of night?

I couldn’t believe who I saw when I opened the door
The ninth master stood before me
And I fell to the floor
He knelt down and whispered in my ear
And what he said to me had me trembling in fear

He said:
Beet Jahai Beet Jahai
Slipping away, your life is uselessly slipping away

And then he was gone

Thinking of the 365 days that had passed
I wondered what I had done different from this birthday since the last.

This was supposed to have been my year to improve on my gurmat
To walk further on the guru’s path…but have I progressed at all?

I started thinking back on all the promises I made
Did I mean it when I said it, or was it all a charade?

This was my year to read more baani and reflect in veechar
Not rush through my nitnem while driving in my car

To wake up early in simran and keep my discipline tight
Not make excuses the next morning, because I stayed up all night

This was my year to change my perception
To change the lens in which I viewed the world
To see Waheguru in others
To practice compassion
To practice forgiveness
To stand arm in arm with those who are oppressed

Ferguson, Baltimore
This year was my year to protest in the streets
But I just keep fighting the fight with likes and retweets
Is this the Sikh that I’ve become?

Our shaheeds gave their tomorrow for my today
And all I’m doing is letting it just slip away?

No, I signed up for something more
I have a duty to the Guru Granth and the Guru Panth
And if I truly love my guru…and if I really do care
Then I have to put my effort forward and earn this uniform that I wear.

So what’s it going to be?
Another year of empty promises
Of talking about the struggle over half-caff lattes with friends
Or I’ll try harder this year
Or at least I’m being honest about my weaknesses
Or if only I had the gurus grace…

But what grace am I waiting for?
He’s given me the shabad
He’s given me sangat
He’s given me the ability to think, reason, and act
I keep coming up with excuses but I’m ignoring the fact

He’s given me everything to set myself free
There’s no one else to blame…it’s now up to me

So help me up my sister, help me up my brother
It’s now time to stand tall and put one foot in front of the other
Slipping away, it’s all just slipping away
But I’m here to answer your call my guru
And I’m starting today


Where I’m From [Spoken Word]

So where are you from?
I’m from here
No I mean where are you “from”?
I’ve lived here my whole life.
No, tell me where you’re really from?
Oh where I’m really from…let me tell youI come from Anandpur Sahib, the city of bliss
If I don’t expound on my history I would be remiss

I come from the land of five rivers, where my masters walked
From a prison of caste slavery that my guru unlocked

I come from the buta of blood-soaked seeds
With soiled tilled by the hands of our shaheeds

I come from where simran and seva intertwine
Serving those in need with my mind on the Divine

I come from where Deg and Tegh connect
Where justice and service is the code we protect

I come from where Miri and Piri mix
Because being political and spiritual is not a problem for Sikhs

I come from where life and death collide
Where we kill the five vices to let the bani reside

I come from a serene and spiritual source
But if you compromise our rights, we’ll come at you full force

I come from where the saint and soldier meet
We are the warrior’s elite
Never fall to defeat
Our jakara so loud, our enemies have to retreat
Fueled only by the shabad, because my Guru’s complete

I come from the people who gave their lives for the qaum
Playing the game of love with their head on their palm

My collective history stretches wide and far
The story of a thousand shaheeds in each lard of my dastaar

Where I come from may be hard to comprehend
But a Sikh is not one who just goes along with the trend

I come from the school that Guru Nanak built
And he taught us to be god-connected-humanity-loving-injustice-fighting-students

So that is where I’m from and I’m a Sikh as you can see
And if you’re ever in need of help…you can always count on me

Photo Credit:  Taren Bilkhu

Filling Your Cup


My form is but a statue, a dumb gratitude for the knot of Friendship tied by those Kings of Eternity, the Gurus who came to the Punjab, The Saviours who were gracious to love me and made me a home in the Realm of Eternal Beauty (Prema Singh, The Song of the Sikh)

An eager student approached the master violinist and asked, “Please master, can you teach me how to play the violin?” The master replied, “Have you ever played a violin before?” After a pause, the student responded, “Yes, I learned a little as a child.” The master quickly retorted, “Then sorry, I cannot help you.”

The confused student was almost sure his familiarity with the instrument and prior learning would have served as an advantage to the master, but the master was wise enough to know, that the work to un-do the student’s prior learning would have been too much of an effort. Instead, he would have preferred to work with a “clean slate.”

Reflecting on gurbani these days, I often feel like the confused student. I come to the master’s door step, bowing before Him, symbolically saying, “I am nothing, you are everything…fill me with your wisdom.” But let’s face it…my mind is already filled. It is filled with my knowledge, my experiences, my intellect and…my baggage. What room have I really left for gurmat? Shouldn’t I be coming to him with a clean slate?

It’s an interesting dichotomy we as Sikhs face. Like many of you, I am judged and measured at work, school, and so many other aspects of my life by my intellect and experiences. My ability to demonstrate my knowledge is how I try to give myself an edge over the others.  But when it comes to my Sikhi, none of that matters. I need to let go of all of that and see the world through Guru’s lens, not my own. I need to submit to his way of thinking, not my own. I know this makes me, and perhaps some of you uncomfortable, but Guru Sahib does not mince words. He makes it clear where gurmat fits in the gursikh’s life

Guru Raam Daas Ji shares in his experience:

Shabad 1
Shabad 2

I am blind, ignorant and totally without wisdom; how can I walk on the Path?
I am blind – O Guru, please let me grasp the hem of Your robe, so that servant Nanak may walk in harmony with you

And as Bhatt Nall writes:

Shabad 3

So speaks Nall the poet; with your eyes, make Him your Guru; with the words you speak, make Him your Guru, your true Guru

So where do my experiences and intellect play in to gurmat? Is it a roadblock on my path toward the guru? Or is it necessary in order to process and understand gurmat, and turn the word in to action? I don’t know for sure, but my thoughts take me to a simple cup of tea…

An empty cup, a mere vessel
Essential to hold the tea, but an empty cup serves no purpose
In that cup lies a lone sugar cube
The sugar cube knows not of the cup or vice versa
But when the tea is poured in
The personality of the cup changes
It carries a fragrance
It brings warmth
And inside it, the sugar cube no longer exists on its own
It merges with the tea, you cannot separate it
And anyone who sips from that cup
All they taste is sweet

O My Guru, please fill me with your naam baani,
so that I can carry such a fragrance
so that I may bring warmth
so that my actions are sweet
So I may see the world through your eyes

Kultar’s Silent Scream


This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the popular 1984 themed play, Kultar’s Mime.

Having taught classes and led presentations on 1984 for years, I understand how polarizing the subject can be, so I was curious about this play that has earned the praise and accolades of so many, regardless of where they sit on the spectrum of views on 1984.

As the performance began, I’ll admit…it was difficult for me to connect. Not sure if it was my ignorance on the pogrom of Kishinev, the story the play drew parallels with, or if it was the non-South Asian actors portraying life in Delhi that was hard for me to process. But it only took a few more minutes as the familiar events of November 1984 began to unfold that I was immediately drawn in.

I was moved by the play.

Perhaps it was because certain scenes hit home, as family members of mine fell victim to the mobs in the terrorizing ways depicted or maybe it was the portrayal of fear and pain suffered by the children that would tug at the heartstrings of any parent. At one point, I looked around the room and I could see community members who experienced the pogroms in Delhi firsthand with their eyes glued to the stage as though they were watching their past unfold before them. And even some of the stoic leaders in our communities had to turn away at times when the scenes became too much.

Towards the end of the play I no longer saw the actors as Americans…they were the children of Tilak Vihar. And for that moment, 1984 was race-less, religion-less and even place-less.

It is what happens when corrupt governments feel threatened
When a small minority resists
When laws are suspended
When evil lurks in men
And when the people look away

The fact is that ‘1984’ did not end in those early days of November. It happened many times over in India and all around the world. In fact, it is happening today…in Africa, the Middle East and all around us.

Sometimes I wonder if I am part of that small resistance…or if I am the one looking away.

I have debated with many over the years on whether we should focus our efforts on educating the world about 1984 or whether we need to educate the Sikh community first. And outside of a handful of solid efforts, I’d say we’ve fared poorly with both. So I am intrigued by how much this play resonated with non-Sikhs and the interfaith community. With the aspirations of the directors, Kultar’s Mime will be published so dozens of theater groups could perform this play across hundreds of theaters (big and small) all throughout the world in different languages, educating those about the events of 1984 without a Sikh on stage or in the audience. Pretty amazing.

In the talk-back session after the performance, there was discussion about how the new regime in India may deliver justice to the victims of 1984 and bring change, so such events never happen again.

I’m not so optimistic.

Personally I don’t expect justice to start from the halls of India’s Parliament. For there to be justice, it must start with truth. The truth must be exposed to the world. And my hope lies in the pen, the mic, the stage, and the paintbrush to be the instruments of truth.

I believe in the arts breathing life into the movement. And I hope Kultar’s Mime reminds us of how powerful the medium is and inspires a new breed of artists that expose truth to the world, wherever injustice lies.

So if you’re wondering what role you can play, just flip through the pages of your own personal journal. Let’s not forget this weekend’s performance was inspired by a poem the poet tucked away for 25 years only to be turned into a play written by his 18-year-old daughter. Two years later, it would sell out 25 shows across 3 continents. This weekend, Kultar’s silent scream was heard loud and clear…but there are many more stories to tell. Now it’s our turn.

Know No Bounds

Mata GujriOver the next few nights, Sikhs all over the world will be heading to their Gurdwaras or joining in sangat to remember the lives, bravery, and martyrdom of the chotay sahibzadey.  In our household, this has taken on extra meaning this year, as the recent blockbuster film Chaar Sahibzaadey has brought the personality of Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s sons to life and inspired us all.  I have closely followed the discussion of the film and even some of the debate…in particular, the portrayal of Mata Gujri Ji. Now this is not a critique of the film, but an attempt to engage in a broader dialogue.

Over the years teaching Sikh history to children, I’ve struggled with the story of Mata Guri Ji.  When I read history, I see Mata Gujri Ji along with Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib as the ones who shaped young Gobind Rai, the warrior-poet, who would ultimately become the father of the Khalsa.  And even with the difficult circumstances after Guru Tegh Bahadur’s shaheedi, Mata Gujri Ji played a critical role in managing affairs of the panth and inspired the soldiers at the Battle of Bhangani.  She also played an instrumental role in the training and upbringing of her grandsons.  And when Mata Gujri Ji and the chotay sahibzadey were held captive in the thanda burj for days, it was she who recited baani for them and inspired them through stories of their grandfather, father, and gurus before them.  It was she who motivated them to remain firm in their faith, so much so that when the entire fate of the khalsa panth rested on their shoulders – a 7 and 9 year old – they responded fearlessly, with such courage and bravery that they continue to inspire the Sikh nation 300 years later.  So when the worried Mata Gujri Ji, upon learning of the execution of her grandsons, is so overcome with emotion that she faints and dies…it gives me pause.

There is a part of me that appreciates the movie’s portrayal of Mata Gurji Ji.  After all, she was a human being who suffered incredible losses.  Humans are complex and it’s perfectly reasonable that she can be the stoic matriarch, yet still feel pain and sadness.  But there’s also a part of me that thinks something else…maybe we have it wrong.

In one of the debates over Facebook on the portrayal of Mata Gujri Ji in the film, a friend said “You have to know true Gursikhs in order to portray them.” This thought resonated with me and made me reflect.  As human beings, our perceptions of things are bounded by our knowledge. And more so than our knowledge…our experiences.  Sikh history is no different; we can connect with it only as far as our boundaries will take us.  So perhaps as educators, storytellers, and filmmakers…our experiences have limited us.

In my pre-teen years, when I was exposed to the rehat maryada for the first time, I couldn’t imagine Sikhs actually living this discipline “to the letter.”  I could only picture images in my head of the “puratan singhs” who lived like this. And so I would dismiss the rehat, calling it “outdated” and more of a “guideline” than a code.  But then I ventured out of my circle, and I met Gursikhs who lived this discipline – to the letter – from waking up at amritvela, engrossed in simran, reciting baani, and interacting with others with such love that you knew you were in the company of guru-centered Sikhs. After this experience, this “ideal” image of the Sikh all of a sudden didn’t feel so distant.  Sometimes I reflect on the torture of Bhai Sati Daas, Bhai Mati Das and Bhai Dayala Ji at the hands of Aurangzeb and it’s incomprehensible.  But after speaking to Singhs who withstood horrific torture by the hands of the Indian State in the 80’s and 90’s, my perspective sharpens and I look at stories of shaheedi throughout our history with a different lens.  It all feels much closer. And when I listen to the accounts of mothers throughout the 80’s and 90’s whose fathers, husbands, and sons were taken or murdered before their eyes and they live on to speak with courage and remain in the chardi kalaa, I think to myself…that is Mata Gujri Ji.

So the lesson I’ve taken from this is simple, in fact it’s one my Guru tells me multiple times a day…be in the company of Gursikhs.  It will expand my boundaries.  It will not only help me connect with my Guru, but also connect me with my history in a way I never have before.

Educate. Engage. Inspire


Board meetings at the Sikh Coalition are intense.

The needs are many, the resources are few, and there’s plenty of debate (often heated) on how best to serve the community, to move the panth forward, and to realize the civil and human rights of all people.

Earlier this year around Vasakhi, when we met in New York City for our annual planning, we landed on our agenda topic titled “1984 – 30 Years.”  But this topic was unlike any others we discussed that day.  There was no debate, no arguments…but instead a collective commitment to make this the most impactful program of the year.  Over the next few weeks, the entire Sikh Coalition team put together a plan to remember the 30th anniversary of 1984 around the themes of Educate, Engage, & Inspire.


“First Ever Congressional Briefing”
The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hosted the first-ever Congressional briefing on the November 1984 anti-Sikh massacres, which claimed the lives of several thousand Sikh civilians throughout India. Led by the Sikh Coalition, panelists at the briefing included Manoj Mitta, Sukhman Singh Dhami of Ensaaf; and filmmakers Harpreet Kaur and Manmeet Singh from Sach Productions. Check out the Hearing Notice and clips of the testimony: Clip of Manoj Mitta’s Testimony >>  Clip of Harpreet Kaur’s Testimony >>  Clip of Sukhman Singh’s Testimony >>

As part of our media engagement efforts, the Sikh Coalition staff and advisory board authored the following articles.

“It’s Time India Accept Responsibility for Its 1984 Sikh Genocide” – Simran Jeet Singh, Time Magazine
“How Washington can support justice for the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms” – Rajdeep Singh, The Hill
“India’s new prime minister promised to investigate a genocide against Sikhs. Why hasn’t he?” – Jasmeet K. Ahuja, Washington Post
“As 30-Year Anniversary of Mass Killings in India Arrives, Sikhs Find Safety in USA” – Simran Jeet Singh, The Daily Beast
“India’s problems will not be solved with money and weapons” – Rajdeep Singh, The Hill

As part of our community engagement, we led the following initiatives;

“Witnessing 1984” Panel Discussion – a panel discussion on the Sikh experiences and events of 1984. Three community members shared their experiences in in our New York City office about living through the attack on Darbar Sahib in June and the pogroms of November 1984.

“From 1984 to Gujarat” Book Discussions with Author Manoj Mitta – Book discussions were held with author, journalist, and human rights activist Manoj Mitta at George Washington University, Columbia University, and the Sikh Coalition’s NYC office. Mr. Mitta spoke about his two groundbreaking books on human rights abuses in India: When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and Its Aftermath and The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra.

Kultar’s Mime – On Saturday, January 24th, The Sikh Coalition will host a showing of Kultar’s Mime in Washington DC followed by a panel discussion for Capitol Hill staffers, human rights organizations, and partners.  Kultar’s Mime is a play based on a poem describing the sufferings of the Sikhs of Delhi after the pogroms, through the eyes of a group of young survivors.


But of all the initiatives, the one that inspired me most was the Connecting with 1984’ Small Grants Pool, where a group of committed donors offered $100,000 in small grants to individuals and/or groups to create and deliver educational and innovative programs to raise awareness within the Sikh community about the events of 1984.  Over the last 6 months, the Sikh Coalition has awarded grants for projects such as children’s books, plays, open mic events, workshops, conferences, and archive projects.

As I’ve written about before on this blog, 30 years marks a new generation of Sikhs who will grow up learning about 1984 with little direct connection. And we must decide how that story will be told…a tale of “loss and destruction” or of “courage and inspiration.” The small grants pool has enabled and empowered so many to find their voice and create innovative ways to craft the narrative of 1984 for generations to come.

Even with all these initiatives, many will criticize that we haven’t done enough.

And they will be right.

No one at the Sikh Coalition would disagree.

But I take comfort in knowing that I work with a team where each and every individual has been moved and inspired by the events and personalities of 1984…and knowing the work does not stop here – collectively, we will not let this moment in history pass quietly.

If this work means something to you…please consider making a donation to the Sikh Coalition. I’ve made a personal commitment to raise $10,000 so that that this type of programming and similar work can continue in n 2015. I hope I can count on your support.

The Guru Nanak I Know

As a child growing up, I heard sakhi after sakhi of Guru Nanak Sahib’s life – from his childhood, to his travels, to the odd conversations with various holy men – but for whatever reason, I connected with none of it.  However, at the same time I was developing an interest in social justice and became fascinated with the life and works of activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela.  I wasn’t interested in Sikh history…I was interested in revolutionaries.  But when I was finally able to connect the two and learned about “Guru Nanak The Revolutionary”, it all made sense…and I was hooked!  To this day, there is not a shabad I hear from Guru Sahib’s baani that doesn’t challenge me to rebel.

Rebel against caste discrimination
Rebel against gender inequality
Rebel against the oppressors of minorities
Rebel against empty ritual
Rebel against the inner enemies that keep us disconnected from Him (kaam, krodh, lobh, mob, ahankar)

Every way in which society was designed to suppress an individual, to limit their potential, to leave them powerless, Guru Sahib found a way to take the common man or woman –  uplift them, empower them, and enable them with  a connection to the Supreme, so they could ultimately challenge that very establishment that suppressed them.

This is Guru Nanak the revolutionary…and it’s the Guru Nanak I know.

But this time of year, the anniversary of his birth, is always unsettling for me.

When I look around, I see a celebration – not of Guru Nanak the revolutionary, but a caricature of him…a portly pacifist who’s become the symbol of “inclusivity.”  An old wise man who’s teachings have been replaced with our own anecdotes and opinions.  The image below making its way around the internet is symbolic of this.


Where did this quotation come from?

Is this the same Guru that said Hukam Rajaee Chalna, Nanak Likhia Naal (O Nanak, it is written that you shall obey the Hukam of His command, and walk the way of His will)

Is this the same Guru that said Bin Satgur Kinai Na Paeeo Bin Satgur Kinai Na Paeea (Without the true guru, no one has obtained Him; without the true Guru, no one has obtained him)

Is this the same Guru that said Jo Tau Prem Khelan Ka Chao, Sir Dhar Thali Gali Meri Aou (If you desire to play this game of love with Me, then step on to my path with your head in hand)

Humble The Poet said it best this week,

This #gurpurb let’s practice some independent thought, and not digest a quote simply because it’s cute & someone put it beside an artist rendition of what Baba Nanak might have looked like. I don’t know who put those words together, but they weren’t Baba Nanak.

Refuting this quotation doesn’t take away from Sikhi’s universal message or seeing the “one-ness” in all of humanity.  But if there is one clear message I get from Guru Sahib’s baani, it is to follow your Guru and live his teachings…and we don’t need to hide from that.

So for this year’s gurpurab, let us not water down Guru Sahib’s message to the lowest common denominator, just so we can be festive and feel good about ourselves, let’s instead take an opportunity to awaken the Guru Nanak inside ourselves….to learn and reflect, to question and challenge, and to fearlessly stand with those who are marginalized, the same way Guru Sahib did and with the same humility and divinity in which he did it.  Perhaps this is the best birthday gift we can offer…

This post was inspired by Jaswant Zafar’s beautiful poem titled “Nanak.”  Never has something that sounded so beautiful felt like such a hard slap to the face.  Take a listen and spend the 4 minutes…you’ll be glad you did.