TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY YUVRAJ KHANNA
New Delhi, India
The terrain of our childhood is made up of stories. But I truly believe that it is those same stories that mould us into the people we eventually become. One such story that I remember is of a book, a book running through the six previous generations of my family. It is the Janamsakhi based on travels of Guru Nanak. This Janamsakhi, older than the independent India we live in, was passed down to my maternal grandmother, my nani, by her elders in circa 1945.
Clad in an ornamental Urdu script on its pages, it’s not a book any one of us in the family can just pick up for a leisurely read. This privilege rests only with my grandmother. The rest of us only have the pleasure of hearing it read aloud in a her distinguished voice, reciting soulfully the old words and accents, both of which have been largely forgotten now.
My grandmother, a gifted artist is also an unparalleled storyteller and I, unfailingly, till date, continue to play the part of a curious grandchild wanting to listen to her stories of old. Tales from her childhood in Bannu, the sweet shops in Lahore, stories of my Brigadier grandfather. But no such story-filled day was ever complete without a story of one of the Gurus of Sikhism. Even as recently as last winter, when she sat wearing a Kashmiri firen embroidered with delicate florals, her head covered with a dupatta and the Janamsakhi open on her lap, I thought of something I had pondered on repeatedly in the past. That this was not how I opened books, and therein lay the beautiful peculiarity of the Urdu script. This Janamsakhi, like all Urdu literature, was written from right to left, unlike any book in English or Hindi. And for that very reason, her hands too traversed from right to left as she read each line and turned each page. The pages of the hardbound codex were dull beige in colour, still in pristine condition despite the book’s years. The text was printed in simple black, some images printed in more colourful reds and blues with ornate borders around the page.
The Janamsakhi tells many a riveting tales of Guru Nanak’s weary travels on foot with Mardana and Baala to distant lands including Mecca and Medina as well as his astral travels across countless “jojans” (a form of measurement) away such as the Dhruv Tara. It also records and muses on simple earthly matters as to how a piece of roti when pressed by holy hands, could either churn milk or blood, depending on the honesty and character of the person who’s household the roti belonged to; to how valiant the Gurus were in face of travesties and challenges, to how we have brave blood flowing through our veins. She even loved to tell stories of my great-great-great uncle, Sant Arjan Dass of Sugga, Amritsar, in whose name a Gurudwara stands today in Taran Taaran, Amritsar. These “sakhis” are fascinating and lend themselves to vivid imagination.
Evenings with her always resounded with the Gurbaani of the Harmindar Sahib. She believes in the veracity of these tales as for her, the realm of divinity is far greater than a mortal mind can aspire to discover on its own. In the midst of these stories of wisdom, honesty and character- all entombed with Sikhism- she’d teach us the importance of simplicity, the non-ritualistic nature of following the religion. And without fail, she’d always say, “Wahe Guru ka aasra hai” as we step out into the world feeling invincible, that we have the blessings of the waheguru ji sheathing the days of our lives.
She’s the only person I know who has the power to transport us into a time that is not our own, who can still give us a glimpse into a world, a culture, that we yearn to understand but may never really know the way she does. She’s the lone reservoir of stories that deserve to be written in stone. The last time I was leaving her house, my nani said to me, “Neki karna, humari toh neki ki ahsis hai, do only good deeds, for all our blessings have emanated from only from them.”
I should really listen to her more often.