Remembering Prof Harbans Singh

Harbans SinghProf Harbans Singh with his daughter Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh.

There surely is a close bond between a reader and author, and reading, as we all know, is much more than just a cerebral process. But when the writer happens to be one’s own father, the text becomes a more powerful medium, and the author-reader relationship acquires a greater intimacy.

Even though it is a bitter reality but, still, on my father’s 10th death anniversary I find it hard to believe that he is no more around me. If I was in Punjab, I would have been able to share my loss with family and friends. I would have visited gurdwara sahib for solace and heard kirtan to uplift my spirits. But living in remote Waterville on the east coast of America, I find myself in an entirely different situation.

And so I pick up a book authored by my father, and create the illusion of his presence. Memory after all is not a cognitive recollection but a re-living of the past — an awakening of the consciousness to prior events, a re-creation of the moments that are no more.

I can see my father clearly — ever seized by the urge to write. Even when he had enormous administrative duties he would stay up late in the night to keep up with his work in Sikh history and literature by writing books, contributing articles to leading journals and newspapers, translating Punjabi authors’ work into English and editing collections of poetry, short stories, essays and conference papers.

He devoted the last decades of his life meticulously researching Sikh history and editing the Encyclopedia of Sikhism. While writing or editing he checked on every single fact; he mulled over every word; and shaped each sentence to perfection.

Sound and sense were vitally important to him, and a keen aesthetic sensibility pervades his works of history, fiction, and poetry.

Eerily, just the day before his death anniversary, I received a copy of Dad’s Heritage of the Sikhs from Paul Courtright, an eminent Professor of Religious Studies at Emory University. The book had been signed by my father and presented to Paul when he visited our home in Patiala as an undergraduate student — more than 40 years ago.

Paul wanted me to have the precious memento. As I hold this text in my hands, I feel my father’s presence in a profound way. To quote T.S. Eliot from Four Quartets, "What might have been and what has been /Point to one end, which is always present."

My mind was filled up with questions in order to recollect a more vivid picture of my father in his role as a writer. When did Dad write the Heritage of the Sikhs? Where? As he was writing paragraph 2 on page 6, was he in his study or out on the verandah? Where were the rest of us? What pen was he using? Dad did have an obsession for pens, and oddly enough, after collecting Parkers and Mont Blancs for years, he developed a craze for cheap American flair pens.

Dad also loved to have his family and close friends around him while he himself was immersed in his writing. I have often wondered how he could focus so intently and produce so voluminously with so much of hustle bustle around him — even occasionally joining in on conversations and cracking a joke here and there. A cup of tea would invariably sit beside him, which nobody was allowed to remove, as it was his whiskey. He’d keep sipping that cold insipid tea as he merrily wrote on and on.

As I touched my father’s book, I had the illusion of his presence in my world, with my mother, brother, chachaji, and grandmother cozily gathered around.

In the printed words I hear his voice and breath. In the visual, perceptual, syntactic, and semantic process of reading, I embrace my father.

Dad’s various works resonate differently and they evoke different emotions in me. l feel extremely proud to read his brilliant insights on different aspects of Sikhism. He was devoted to his faith, and yet he approached the tradition with a historian’s critical and objective eye. I deeply admire the balanced way in which he brings out, for example, the significance of Janamsakhi accounts. I also enjoy his vivid visual, aural, and tactile descriptions in which historical figures emerge as three-dimensional characters. The sumptuous marriage of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s grandson Naunihal, for instance, is recorded in such extraordinary detail that a reader physically gasps — at times in joy and at times in horror — at the sheer flamboyance of the royal ceremonies.

In addition to his scholarly output, Dad left behind a vital literary legacy. I derive a wonderful artistic delight from his translations of sacred and secular poetry, and continue to marvel at the accuracy and beauty of his English renderings of the original Punjabi verse. Born in Kothaguru village, educated in Punjabi schools, he had a real sensitivity for Punjabi literature and communicated it in impeccable English.

I may not be on my coveted evening walk with him. But the moment I begin to read his works I am magically transported to my childhood routine — I am tightly holding his hand and Dad is telling me interesting events from our Sikh past. The illusion is quite real. I palpably feel the warmth of the hand that wrote the page. Dad did not depart 10 years ago. Across the chasms of time and space, he is very much here; he is in between the lines on the page inspiring me with his love and knowledge.

T.S. Eliot may have been correct in remarking, "human beings cannot bear very much reality," but as the Boddhisattva Vimalakirti reassuringly explains, "reality is illusion; illusion is reality."

Editors Note: Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh is Crawford Family Professor of Religious Studies Colby College, Waterville, ME, USA, she has written several books and many research papers. 

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