A Story of “Chardi Kala”

A Story of “Chardi Kala”

Hope is a feeling that waxes and wanes: No matter how hopeless we feel, we can find a way to show up to the labor anyway.

We just need two words – Chardi Kala.

A great elder in the Sikh community has died. His funeral and cremation are happening today.

I want to tell you his story, because I believe he shows us how to be brave in this dark and uncertain time.

His name was Baba Punjab Singh. He was a renowned Sikh teacher who traveled the world to speak and teach in gurdwaras, Sikh houses of worship. His sons and grandchildren loved him as much as the thousands who flocked to listen to him. He looked like my own grandfather – tall turban, long white beard, kind eyes. We called him “Papa Ji.”

One Sunday morning, August 5, 2012, Papa Ji was tying his turban, getting ready for the day, when a white supremacist entered the gurdwara and opened fire. The gunman shot him in the face. The bullet entered his jaw and permanently damaged his spinal cord.

The mass shooting in the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin was the largest hate crime on Sikhs in U.S. history. At the time, it was also the largest act of violence on a faith community since the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. Six people were killed, but Papa Ji survived.

Papa Ji was rushed to the hospital. He could not move or speak – only blink his eyes. His wife, sons, and grandchildren, took turns tending to him. They massaged his legs, combed his hair, and whispered prayers in his ear.

Day in and day out – for seven and a half years.

I made a pilgrimage to return to Oak Creek and visit Papa Ji almost every year. Each visit was the same. I entered the room to the sound of prayers to find Papa Ji lying immobile, mouth agape, eyes open and vibrant. I held his hand and told him that he was not forgotten. I braided his hair. I can still feel the weight of his hair in my hands, and the feeling of his hand in mine.

We as community advocates called on America to make fighting white supremacy a national priority. But America forgot Papa Ji and Oak Creek. To this day, people nod when I mention the horrors of Charleston or Pittsburgh or Poway, but they draw a blank when I say “Oak Creek.” What if America had heeded our call? Might we have prevented the many mass shootings on faith communities that followed? And what can we do now to prevent future Oak Creeks?

Whenever I grew despondent, I would call Papa Ji’s son Raghuvinder Singh, a teacher like his father. He cared for his father around the clock, yet he was ever radiant. He always said, “Valarie, we live in Chardi Kala. Tell the world that our message is Chardi Kala.”

I used to translate this Sikh concept Chardi Kala as “relentless optimism.” But what I saw in this family was not about the future at all. This was about a state of being in the present moment as if now is all there is. Now and now and now. This is a state of joyfulness inside the struggle—an energy that keeps us in motion, a breathing that keeps us laboring, even inside pain. Chardi Kala is how we labor in love.

On my last visit to Papa Ji, his condition was the same. He still could not move or speak.

I asked him, “Papa Ji, are you in Chardi Kala?”

He could only blink his eyes — once for no, twice for yes.

Papa Ji blinked his eyes twice – “Yes.”

If Papa Ji could be in Chardi Kala until his dying breath, so can I. So can all of us.

Today, as we cremate Papa Ji and express gratitude for his life, I ask you to hold onto his lesson in Chardi Kala in this dangerous and uncertain time, even in a violent election year, and during this public health crisis — what does it look like for you to show up to your life with bravery?

Hope is a feeling that waxes and wanes: No matter how hopeless we feel, we can find a way to show up to the labor anyway.

Pass it on.

    1. Tell Baba Punjab Singh’s family that we will not forget him. Send a message to his eldest son Raghuvinder Singh on Facebook.
    2. Post his story on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Use the hashtag #ChardiKala

I share Papa Ji’s story in full in my forthcoming book SEE NO STRANGER: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love.

In Chardi Kala,
Valarie

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