TEXT AND PHOTOS BY PRABHDEEP SINGH MATHARU
New Delhi, India
My grandfather, Mohan Singh Matharu knew Urdu, Arabic, Punjabi, Hindi and English. He was the only one in our locality for whom the local newspaper vendor brought the Urdu newspaper for several years. His routine included reading every single word in that newspaper, which made no sense to us apart from those black and white pictures in it. He loved reading the news in Urdu, but one day the newspaper vendor arrived at our home to inform him that the Urdu newspaper had closed down. From that day onwards, the vendor started delivering a Punjabi newspaper.
Apart from his daily exercise of reading the news, my grandfather would read his prayers from an Urdu Gurbani Gutka. A Gutka is a small sized book containing chosen hymns or shabads (sacred verses) from Sri Guru Granth Sahib and other Sikh scriptures. When the sun would set, he would wash his hands and feet and bring out the Urdu Gutka which was kept in a wooden cupboard in his room.
He would touch it to his forehead, carefully take the Gutka out of a protective cloth designed especially for it, and then finally uncover the handkerchief wrapping it. Sitting on his bed he would then recite the ‘Rehraas Sahib’ (evening Sikh prayers). The Gutka you see in the photographs was bought by me in 2012 from a shop near the Golden Temple in Amritsar to replace the one my grandfather owned before that. His copy had become too old for him to use.
I loved observing and listening to him as he would sit in a straight posture and recite the prayers in a melodious tone. He never missed the Rehraas Sahib. When he would be unwell, he would call upon me to recite Rehraas Sahib aloud so he could listen to it. Very politely he would request: “Koi aan milaave mera preetam pyaara, hau’n tis peh aap vechaai”– If only someone would come and lead me to meet my darling beloved Lord; I would sell myself to him.
I never grew tired of listening to his childhood stories, which were narrated several times over. Born in 1928, my grandfather grew up in his village Sidhwan Dona in Punjab’s Kapurthala district. He would tell us that he was a bright student but could only study till the sixth standard. He learnt Urdu from a Muslim teacher who was paid in annas (currency unit formerly used in India and Pakistan, equal to 1/16 rupee) and given jaggery (traditional non-centrifugal cane sugar) as monthly fees. He very fondly told us how he worked as a fitter in a cotton mill in Lahore and then when the unfortunate Partition befell, he moved to Delhi to work as a mason. Later on, he moved to Dubai to earn a living as a construction contractor, where he picked up Arabic, while working there for almost eleven years before finally deciding to retire
I remember it was me who broke the news of my grandfather’s demise to the newspaper vendor. On March 1, 2014 – he delivered the last copy of the Punjabi newspaper that was never read. The next day, the newspaper vendor also stood amongst the crowd of my grandfather’s loved ones at his funeral. Since then, only English newspapers have been delivered at our home.
I wish I could have learned the Urdu language from him. I only remember a few of the alphabets which he wrote for me to memorize during my school summer vacations. Now, at times, I regret not taking up the interest further, distracted by other things in life which seemed more important during those days.
My grandfather is gone now but the Gutka continues to sit in the same place, wrapped exactly the same way it used to be. Its presence is a testimony that there existed a Sikh man who read his prayers in Urdu. I sometimes open it, to touch it, to feel the presence of my separated best friend whom I will never see again.