Dawn to dusk

Master of words: Khushwant Singh. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma  

For a man who consistently declares himself an agnostic, Khushwant Singh dwells a lot on prayers. Meet him and the conversation often turns to life after life — or whether there is such a thing. And then, not long back, he came out with “The Freethinker’s Prayer Book” (Aleph Book Company - 2012), and a few years earlier he had translated “Japji - The Immortal Prayer-Chant” (Abhinav Publications). But then, if a declared aspirant of God is a searcher, so too is one who turns away from the beaten path. The best searcher is often one who won’t swallow ‘received wisdom’ wholesale. And with Singh, it is always a pleasure to hear or read his lucid explanations that refer — without pomposity — to his vast reading and researches that have taken him through cultures and religious scriptures from near and far. His latest offering to the thinking world is another book of translated prayers, “The Japji and The Rehras: The Morning and Evening Prayers of the Sikhs”, published by Rupa.

These are translations into lyrical English of the Japji, the prayer (never sung but recited) composed by Guru Nanak and found at the beginning of the Guru Granth Sahib — the holy book of Sikhism — and of the Rehras, which is a compilation of verses by five of the ten Gurus of Sikhism.

In his introduction, Singh explains his position in a nutshell — “I am not a religious man, but I call myself a Sikh and am proud to be one.” — and puts Sikhism in its historical and philosophical context, as influenced by Hinduism and Islam, the two major religions of Punjab. But if it was the bigotry that over time polluted all organised religions and pushed Singh into his own search, it is easy to see how the essence of Sikhism appeals to him, as teaching “all that I value: tolerance, simplicity, equality, service to the community and to all humanity.” He also points out that if it has, like other creeds, “been misinterpreted by bigoted and cynical people” that is the fault of such people, not of the faith.

Singh quotes a verse that praises Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, as “the King of Fakirs” who is a guru to the Hindu and a pir to the Muslim. It was not just Guru Nanak who had this quality. The Granth Sahib, or Adi Granth, rather than being a series of injunctions or strictures, offers hymns composed by the Gurus as well as other saint poets such as Baba Farid, Meera and Kabir, and this eclectic quality is attractive.

Eclectic too is Khushwant Singh’s oeuvre. From significant works of history like “A History of the Sikhs” to thinly veiled memoirs and his own obituary, from path breaking novels like “Train to Pakistan”, to, well, the less literary stuff, the nonagenarian author and columnist continues to put his views across cogently and with blissful indifference to what anyone may think of him.

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 3:49:33 PM |

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