Eight years ago, I stepped off a plane in Delhi and took a taxi to the home of my dad's friend TP Singh. When I got there, TP came out to greet me—and promptly renegotiated my fare with the cabbie so that I wasn't getting a raw deal.
It was the beginning of a wonderful (and wonderfully generous) two-week-long stay, during which time I became good friends with TP, with his partner Baby, and with their brilliant daughter Anantjeet.
When I arrived in India, Anantjeet had recently graduated from design school and now was working at a design studio. This studio, as a side project, was making the most marvelous maps of historical sites around Delhi: the Qutb Minar, Hauz Khas Madrasa, Jantar Mantar.
(Here are some low-res scans I found on the internet.)
Anantjeet loaned me early copies of the maps, and every morning Baby packed a tiffin with various foods, wrapped some fresh roti in a paper towel—and I would set out for these ruins. Is there a better way to visit a city than to stay with a local cartographer?
This story is going somewhere! But first, more relevant back-story: Anantjeet and her family are Sikh (as you might guess from their last names: Singh and Kaur). But Sikhism is a big religion, I learned. Their smaller spiritual community especially emphasized music.
Almost every night we'd go to a different gurdwara and listen to / participate in kirtan—ecstatic songs of praise often sung to the tunes of ragas and accompanied always by a harmonium, often by drums, and sometimes by other instruments. A few people led, but everyone sang.
Here's some singing posted on Youtube that's like this singing, but it's too focused on the great singer up front. : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXfB_1CQbCU This, though, was more collective, organic, embodied. Eventually I got brave enough to sing along, too. Joining all these voices in song felt *good*.
At the end of my time in India, I'd linked up with my partner at the time, and we came back and stayed with the Singhs again. Our last night, we sang kirtan in their living room. Here's a picture of that night: me and Virginia with Anantjeet, her parents, and lots of relatives.
When I left, TP and Baby and Anantjeet gave me several books about the history of Sikhism and the content of its spiritual teachings. I brought them back to the US, read them, and they've ever since had a proud place on my bookshelf.
Partly, I love these books because they remind me of my friends. But also, before I met these kind people, I knew so little about this fascinating and beautiful religion. And I feel like few Americans know much at all about Sikhism.
For instance, I had no idea that after ten human gurus, the eleventh and final guru is the written collection of the previous gurus' teachings. Named Guru Granth Sahib, this book has pride of place in all gurdwaras, often on a beautiful, cushioned, roofed palanquin.
I share this detail because as a lover of books, it's profoundly moving. But of course Sikhism is a whole religion, and I'm neither expert nor believer. I don't want to attempt to summarize what makes it great.
And really, it was TP and Baby and Anantjeet who shared its greatness with me. They helped me understand it, and they embodied its virtues. Maybe this is obvious: it's the faithful who define a religion and not vice versa.
Which is ~maybe~ the whole point of Anantjeet's new book, One Amazing Sikh at a Time, which I got in the mail today! It's a collection of 51 one-page biographies of historical and contemporary Sikh people—each accompanied by a beautiful illustration.
The little biographies are written by Seerat Kaur Gill; Anantjeet did the illustrations. These paintings are beautiful and varied—each capturing something essential about the subject. Here's one I love: of Mata Khivi, the 16th-c. inventor of langar, the Sikh food-serving practice.
But then here's Harnaam Kaur, a contemporary primary school teacher with a syndrome that causes her to grow lots of body hair—a onetime cause of shame that is now "a source of inspiration for men and women to accept and love themselves." Look at this amazing woman!
It's a beautiful book. I'm so proud of my friend Anantjeet for making it—and how great it is that I get to have another book about Sikhism in my collection. Please consider adding it to yours! (I think it could be especially interesting for kids.) I think it's available only on Amazon for now: https://www.amazon.com/One-Amazing-Sikh-at-Time/dp/8194954258/