In her new film, Meera Dewan celebrates the langar, one of the finest traditions of selfless community giving.

The Indian middle classes and people of privilege today have grown profoundly uncaring about suffering and injustice that surround them. They have forgotten the old ways of giving, and not yet learnt the new. In her new film Gur Prasad: The Grace of Food, Meera Dewan records a vibrant living tradition of community giving in rural Punjab with lyrical beauty and a richly textured narrative. Never strident, this gentle film still challenges each of us to search within for our own lost capacities for giving and caring.

Dewan’s film reminds us that the langar is not merely a generous tradition of community feeding of the hungry. Central to it is the spirit in which people in need are offered food: not ordinary charity, but with egalitarian compassion and solidarity. Central is the requirement that rich and poor, high caste or low, women or men, all are seated side by side, and offered the same simple wholesome food. This was a radical idea in the intensely unequal society in which Guru Nanak was born in the 15th century. It sadly continues to be so today. People of disadvantaged castes were culturally barred from sitting shoulder to shoulder with people of higher castes, and even more from eating together. By challenging these rules, the langar demonstrates how the practice of love can be the most revolutionary of weapons.

Essential to the idea of the langar is also the cheerfulness of service. You welcome and serve the hungry people like honoured guests to your home, urging them to eat their full. Where else would you find people lining the national highway each day, stopping cars, buses and trucks to urge strangers to eat the food they offer? There is no place in this tradition for long-suffering piety and sacrifice: you serve in the langar because it gives you joy. The cheerfulness of your service preserves best the dignity of the receiver, who is not a beneficiary of your charity but a comrade.

Underlying the langar is also the conviction about the dignity of labour. In a society in which people of some castes were ritually barred from reading and writing, let alone reading the scriptures, Nanak declared that there was equal spiritual merit in reading the sacred books or donating in cash or kind, as in manual labour: sweeping the floors, cooking the langar, or cleaning dishes. The country’s labouring castes — and women — discover a new dignity when high-caste men compete for chores to which the lowest castes and women are conventionally condemned.

Dewan’s film also evokes the wonderful communitarian solidarity that underlies this living tradition of rural Punjab. We watch as even very poor people trek long miles to contribute whatever they can to the langar, maybe just a small pouch of flour or a pot of milk. In many villages, in each household the homemaker sets aside some rotis and vegetable from the food she prepares each day, and young teenagers collect this on bicycles to pool in the langar. In one of the many carefully chosen lyrical hymns in the film, the fifth Guru asks: “Who feeds the new-born birds left behind (by migratory birds) as they fly across the oceans? Who fends for them? One who joins a supportive community swims across the ocean of life…”

We encounter many volunteers or sewadars of the langar. We meet, for instance, 11-year-old Navneet, a whole-time volunteer with the gurdwara since he was six. He loved the brotherhood he encountered there and decided one day to run away from home, making the langar community his new family. “I enjoy most forms of service,” the boy says, “keeping the fire going, rolling bread, serving food and tea.” He adds — with heart-breaking wisdom well beyond his years — “The heart shows you the way forward. Choose between family and a life of service. I have made my choice.” He is silent about the reasons he left home, but I recognise in his unspoken words stories I have heard from hundreds of street boys: of alcoholic fathers, of helplessly watching mothers beaten, of young bodies and souls scarred by violent parents. These other boys have only the street to escape to, but Navneet found in the langar a place of safety, of kindness and giving, and he chose it as his home.

The langar is also an alternative sisterhood for many village women. We encounter women who leave their homes at 2.00 a.m., trudging two hours to reach the langar kitchen before dawn. They serve at the gurdwara all day, and return home only at 7.00 p.m., where they labour to complete their domestic chores, and catch a few hours of sleep before they set out again. “Overnight,” they say, “God releases our exhaustion.” They add: “Rain or storm, the langar is unending. Through the year, heat or cold, you’ll find the food being cooked.”

What Dewan erases from her narrative is how this living tradition of rustic working people, of community giving, is threatened in contemporary times. Our work with homeless people reveals that in big cities like Delhi, unwashed and obviously destitute people are less and less welcome in the langar. An even graver assault on the egalitarian traditions which the langar symbolises is the spreading epidemic across rural Punjab — and spilling into the diaspora — of separate gurdwaras for “low-caste” Sikhs, and strict barriers on dalit Sikhs from entering “high-caste” gurudwaras for shared worship, let alone for sharing the langar. In the Food Bill introduced in Parliament, again what is eliminated is community kitchens designed after the langar.

Dewan’s loving ode to the langar reminds us about our finest traditions in India of a form of giving that respects the equal dignity of the receiver, founded on egalitarian compassion, the dignity of labour, and community solidarities. It is a tradition which every Indian should reclaim, to rediscover within ourselves that purest joy, of selfless giving.

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