I first met Patwant Singh a few years ago during a luncheon at a Toronto movie star hangout, Joso’s. At the time, I’d never heard of him, and had to be dragooned into going by writer Nazneen Sheikh. She said he’d be worth my while—and then admitted that she wanted me there to add balance to what she claimed would otherwise be a bunch of extremely bright and talented women writers drooling over an elderly Sikh intellectual.
That was intriguing, because it sounded like I was being invited to serve as ballast, not to add balance. Neither is a role I play often, but I agreed to go anyway—I owed her a favour. Much of my reserve about it derived from the dim view I had of Sikhs. I’d spent years living in Vancouver, where the city’s sizable Sikh population has tended to be overly aggressive—economically and sometimes physically—and interested, as far as I could see, in little else than other Sikhs and in the ongoing wrangle over how to achieve an independent political state—Khalistan—within India’s Punjab region. The only Sikh individual I’d had extensive contact with was while I was teaching university courses in B.C.’s federal prison system. One of the students was a Sikh in his late 20s who’d been convicted of a grisly double murder, one committed with a bread-knife and the other, reputedly, by squeezing the victim’s head in a vice. The student was pleasant enough in class, but the details of his trial defense were off-putting: among other things, he’d claimed that the bread-knife murder weapon was part of his religious paraphernalia, the kirpan, which is a short sword worn for ceremonial purposes. I never heard the religious rationale for the vice, but it smacked of sadism or worse, torture. I didn’t ask him to elaborate on any of it.
So I showed up for the luncheon late, and then mostly because Nazneen’s track record for these sorts of events has been extremely reliable. Whatever I might think of Patwant Singh, I decided, I wasn’t likely to be bored. What I found at Joso’s was an older but not elderly man of medium height, elegantly dressed, and coiffed in a navy blue turban. He was surrounded, as advertised, by a collection of Canada’s most high-powered women writers. They were hanging on his every word, and otherwise behaving like valley girls who’d just cornered a rock star. My arrival barely elicited a glance, and then only from Nazneen, who graciously gave up her seat next to the star to allow me to catch the show at ringside.
I listened. Patwant is a spellbinding conversationalist, but this wasn’t small talk he was offering, or mere charm. He was delivering the world—large and cosmopolitan. I listened for three hours, as raptly as the others if not quite for the same reasons. And then I did something I’ve never done in my life, before or since: I asked a stranger for the meaning of life.
Patwant didn’t flinch, nor did he seem particularly surprised that I’d asked. He considered my question for a moment, then answered it: “Live without fear or rancour,” he said. After another brief pause, he added, “And come from a good family.”
I understood the first part of his answer. I’d already gathered—since richly confirmed—that this is how he lives. It can mean jumping off the end of a dock in Finland, turban and all, with a group of Scandinavian diplomats a few days before the late October ice-flows lock in place, or it can mean speaking his mind about politics and religious culture inside a country—India—where to do so as clearly as he does involves risking one’s life. You live this way, he explained, because if you don’t, you have no life worth living. If your actions and your words are free of rancour and envy, you assure yourself of the good will of all decent men and women. That is as much as you should ask of others.
The second part of his answer was slightly disappointing. Patwant is a well-educated and independently wealthy Indian. Was he merely referring to an Indian version of noblesse oblige, the obligation of wealth and privilege that some—increasingly few—well-off people accept and practice? For me, that wasn’t helpful, and in a way, not even understandable: I’m a middle class North American from working class immigrant origins. My family has little sense of history and tradition; its notions of human solidarity are rudimentary, reach back barely a generation and carry no sense of social obligation that isn’t self-promotional or expedient. I have no strong sense of whether my family is a good one or not, and no preconceived—or received—notion of what a “good” family ought to be and do for its offspring. For sure, my family provided me with some strengths—it raised me as a mammal with a conscience—but it was and remains, as families go, far more focused on increasing its private wealth than on liberal education, public well-being or community responsibility. Could Patwant have meant that a large part of living a worthwhile life simply involved how you manipulate the silver spoon someone else put there? If so, that was troubling, because my silver spoon just isn’t very big and it contains so little precious metal I’d be hard-pressed to fill a dental cavity.
Over the last few years I’ve seen Patwant several more times, because he visits Canada more or less annually. I’m not quite on the A-list for his visits, but I’m grateful for what I get. At one dinner party a year or so after the Joso’s event, I got to spend an entire evening watching Margaret Atwood placing intellectual volleyballs above the net for Patwant to spike. He nailed every one, but I left unsure whether Patwant’s performance or the sight of Canada’s most famous writer cheerfully playing his straight man was the more remarkable. Since I’d seen Patwant’s intellectual daring and elegance before, I decided that Atwood’s admirably ego-free performance was the greater one. I realize I may be making Patwant sound like Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, but the reason he’s not just one more visiting fakir is he’s not here to sell anyone anything. Canada is part of the world he inhabits.
I’ve also now read four or five of Patwant’s books, at least two of which, Of Dreams and Demons, and The Sikhs, are available in North America and deserve a much wider audience than they’ve achieved. Of Demons and Dreams is an intellectual memoir in which Patwant proves to be far more interested in the swirl of India’s history and politics than in himself. It is also the best primer available on the dangers India faces from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu chauvinist political party that has been ascendant since the collapse of the Congress Party and which is currently threatening to turn India into a theocracy. The Sikhs is a polemical history of India’s 20 million Sikhs that, among other things, exposed most of what I thought I knew about Sikhism as an ill-informed misreading.
Patwant’s writing has qualities I’ve come to think of as characteristically South Asian—he doesn’t write sentences like Hemingway, in other words. Rather, his prose often borders on the prolix and the symphonic, as if the English language were an instrument best played flamboyantly. Salman Rushdie’s best work has this quality, as does some of Amitav Ghosh’s. Among journeyman South Asian writers this can result in an irritating wordiness and in novels that can double as doorstops. But in Patwant’s hands, startling things happen, as in this passage from his introduction to The Sikhs:
It is argued in favour [of the caste system] that despite the multiplicity of cultures and communities, and the many ideological challenges it has faced, India has ‘produced a high degree of ideological tolerance and flexibility.’ Not really. Because institutionally ‘Indian society has been traditionally very rigid, working out a precise and clearly identifiable hierarchy, formalized rules, and conventions, conformity with which was mandatory and defined by birth, and a system of substantive and symbolic distances which articulated the hierarchy in a definitive and predictable manner.’ In the end, India was landed with ‘a kind of tolerance’ which is ‘only another name for intolerance, namely tolerance of injustice and disparities and of humiliation and deprivation by superior individuals and groups.’ This is what the caste system has been about over the centuries.
The understated incisiveness of that “Not really” lodged between the opposing quotes is a marker typical of his scholarly surety as well as his intellectual style. It comes, I suspect, from not being fearful of rocks and hard places, and of making swift judgments without rancour. He is a living reminder that the social purpose of an intellectual is not to keep order but to point to what is true and to uncover half-truths and outright lies. Which brings me back to what Patwant really meant by “come from a good family.”
Patwant Singh is a cosmopolitan, and he is a Sikh. No, these are not contradictory. Sikhdom—or Sikhism—is neither purely a religion nor a territorially based political movement but a civil philosophy. That it has evolved into a religion and a periodically-insurgent political movement in response to the conditions it has met is, in an important respect, a diminution. It arose in the late 15th century in reaction to the failure of the two world religions of the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism and Islam, to be politically and morally just. The life of Sikhism’s first guru, Nanak (1469-1539) is almost exactly coincident with that of Martin Luther (1483-1546), who nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg because the Roman Catholic apparatus of Christianity had similarly failed to be politically and morally just.
In a way, therefore, the Sikhs are best understood by Westerners as the Protestants of the Indian subcontinent. The physical conditions that created them are local—the Punjab region lies along the border between Hindu India and Islamic Pakistan, and it, along with the Sikhs, has been a provocation and a prize to both religions for 400 years. Yet its spiritual and political dissidence resemble that which existed in 15th century Europe, and the subsequent internal breaches between philosophical intent and political practice that have occurred among Christian protestants and Sikhs are largely accountable to local physical conditions and the threats each movement faced within the larger histories of Europe and Northwestern India.
Sikhism begins as a rejection of the Hindu caste system, seeking to combine the inherent compassion at the root of Hinduism with Islam’s concept of equality in the sight of god. The 974 hymns attributed to guru Nanak reject the doctrine of predestination that is at the root of the Hindu caste system, along with the strains of sectarian absolutism that runs through Islam. Many of the early Sikh hymns are startlingly declarative and clear: “There is no Hindu, there is no Mussalman” or “If you believe in pollution at birth, there is pollution everywhere.” Whatever excesses Sikhism’s radical edge has led its adherents to in the distant and more recent past—and these are all our media systems make visible, as with any other culture or religion—it is a philosophy and a culture aimed at balance between the temporal and the spiritual (meeri and peeri); and between Islam and Hinduism.
There are some curious parallels between the situation today of the Sikhs and Canada’s position between the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the Cold War. The difference is that the kinds of threats Sikhs have faced over the last 400 years have been vastly more material and constant than anything Canada has faced in its attempts to forge a political and cultural path that is neither American nor European. Among the more damaging threats Canada has had to face was the 30 year psychic threat of a sky filled with crossing nuclear missiles a few moments before Armageddon and nuclear winter. The Sikhs now face something similar if India and Pakistan end up in a nuclear duel, because the Punjab will be among the primary battlegrounds and its population will be among the first casualties. The difference between Sikh culture and Canada is that the Sikhs have been physically embattled almost from the beginning, and this has made the best Sikhs into reluctant warriors. Canada’s experience, particularly in this century, has turned its best into demoralized peacemakers who don’t quite believe that peace is possible. There are things Canadians could learn from the Sikhs, just as there are things that could be learned by returning to Martin Luther and rediscovering what it was that so angered him. We would find, in both cases, people facing cultural and political monoliths willing to commit any real politik excess necessary to freeze the status quo and serve the interests of the elite. The exercise might be salutatory.
Which brings me again to what it was Patwant meant by “coming from a good family”. When the tenth guru of Sikhism, Gobind Singh, baptized five men into the brotherhood of the Khalsa in March 1699—on the anniversary of Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment—the men were not related biologically, nor were they aristocrats. They were five men of different caste and geographical origins, united by their courage and character within what was intended to be a “casteless community of inspired people”. After Gobind baptized the five, he was in turn baptized by them as an equal. The virtues the baptism counseled were the virtues that P. himself possesses and practices–namely, fearless, rancourless belief in the essential equality of human beings and the moral imperative to do something about making that belief a reality. That makes his “good family” possible—if very difficult—to join.
This may sound like I’m about to join the Sikh religion. I’m not. Patwant Singh is an interesting and intelligent man, and he comes, as he says, from a good family. But it isn’t his turban that makes this so. That’s of no more fundamental importance than Che Guevara’s red star, or Osama bin Laden’s scimitar and brandished Koran. Do all religions turn parochial? Almost invariably. Only because of pressures from outside? Not necessarily. Fundamentalist Jews thought up their wackiness all on their own, without help from Nazis or Palestinians. And the same can be said for other religions that began as civil philosophies—most glaringly, Marxism.
The litmus tests are the propensity to turn doctrinaire and puritanical, and the ability to retain a sense of humour. The latter of those is, in my mind, the defining plurality that every civil philosophy seems to lose when it turns into religion or partisan politics. Sikhism began as a civil philosophy, as a response to the failure of religion to translate into civilities people can live meaningful lives with. Then it got twisted by 400 years of violence at the hands of Islam, Hinduism and (arguably least but not inconsequentially,) British imperialism. Are those metamorphoses inevitable? I don’t know. But if they are, the human species is probably doomed.
The point I want to make is not that Patwant Singh or Sikhism is the answer, but that Patwant’s cosmopolitan stance is the beginning of an answer. Throughout this book (and for most of my adult life) I’ve argued that the other parts of the answer to the human condition are critical education, laughter and attention to specificity and particularity—local matters—because these are the grounds that keep cosmopolitan civil philosophies from the religious idiocies and political violence that are always pushing against their boundaries. The commies, during their heyday, were perceptive enough to recognize that this sort of radical cosmopolitanism was serious threat. That’s why they accused their intellectual dissidents of being “rootless cosmopolitans”.
To be accurately cosmopolitan is to be virtually the opposite of rootless. Patwant Singh’s cosmopolitanism is rooted not merely in his Sikh heritage, but in the things Sikhism tried to claim as the basis for civil harmony: temporal accuracy and the individual dignity that comes from its practice, the need for social and political justice, and the desire to live without fear and without rancour.
I can’t think of anything more worthwhile to do with a life, be it individual or collective. Or, anything more difficult to achieve. But at least the attempt won’t land me, homeless and alienated, at globalism’s world mall, which is where we’ll all be living if we don’t learn new ways to exercise our faculties.
July 18, 2003 2760 words