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If you have come looking for Sardarji jokes, let me tell you this is the wrong place. This blog is about Sardarjis all right… but it is about some among the brave troops of my husband’s battalion (Sikh Regiment) who came into our family’s life as sahayaks (helpers/orderlies) and enriched our lives in their own little ways.

When I alighted from the Punjab Mail at Ferozepur railway station (that was in 1983), there were a few of them to receive their Saahib. After smartly saluting him, they turned to me and said,

Sat Sri Akal Memsahib

As a south Indian setting foot in Punjab for the first time, I was clueless what that was and also what should be said in reply. The newly appointed Lord and Master, who I was accompanying for the first time, had conveniently (grrrr…..) forgotten to instruct me on the intricacies. So, very diplomatically, I inclined my head in reciprocal greeting. I am sure their first impression was therefore that I was a typical nose-in-the-air uppity Memsahib. Umm….no, not really. I am just joking. Who would really think that about the five foot nothing little thing, trying (really hard) to tip the scales at 40 kilograms and smiling …ahem… so disarmingly in spite of the nervousness about new surroundings? Anyway, that early morn in Ferozepur Cantonment railway station was my first introduction to the troops of my husband’s unit and in the following days I learnt of their greeting and what my response ought to be.

Soon, the L & M and I were settled in our living quarters which was a single room bachelor’s accommodation. Ravinder Singh, the sahayak, was, hold your breath, a Malayalam-speaking sardar. This was a boon to me, who was not yet ready to converse in Hindi. With Ravinder Singh, who could not only speak but also read and write Malayalam, I did not have to. I got the exact things I wanted from the market without attempting to speak a single word in Hindi. But the others in my husband’s unit didn’t think this was a good idea at all.

“How is Ma’am going to learn Hindi this way?” asked fellow officers of the Lord and Master. A valid point, hunh?

Besides growing up on a staple diet of Hindi films that trickled down south, not to mention the songs I was crazy about, I also had Hindi as my second language in college. So, I understood the language pretty well and understood what was being spoken. But, being the cautious person I am, I was unwilling to try it out without first testing the waters as it were. In the meantime, I stuck religiously to English when I spoke to the officers and their families. Ravinder’s help was sought when it came to dealing with the maid etc. But worse luck! Ravinder Singh’s annual leave came up. So Baldev Singh, who knew not a word of Malayalam, came to take his place. Now I had to brush up on that Hindi of mine, and real fast too.

When I returned to the Regiment after the birth of my putar (son), Baldev Singh was there to receive us. The tall and hefty Baldev Singh and my first born bonded pretty well. In the evenings Baldev Singh would take him out for a jaunt. An amusing sight to behold was the little first born holding on to bunches of hair from his flowing beard with his tiny fists as if hanging on for dear life. People remarked on it. In fact it was a constant source of amazement to Mrs. S that my little feller was not afraid of the huge sardar in his beard-and hair-left-open avatar in comparison to her own children who were scared of their father in a similar avatar.

Baldev Singh’s constant refrain to my putar was,  “Hum isko Sardar banayenge!” (We will make him a Sardar!) The funny thing was that my first-born did not like the monas as the sardarjis called the men with their hair cut. The other non-sardar orderlies tried to win the little one over. But he bawled his heart out if someone other than a sardar took him in their arms.

Captain J, a young officer of our Unit, tried to entice the first-born with, “See I am a Malayali. You come to me!” That did not work either. He was a big fan of sardars and only sardars. I remember him sitting in his pram one day and bouncing up and down, making gurgling sounds, to attract the attention of the messenger (who was a sardar, naturally) from the office, who, was waiting for my husband to finish reading the file he’d brought. The man stood straight and serious just outside the front door, a true soldier. But, after a while of gurgling on the baby’s part, the poor man gave up and unwound from his stiff stand to bend down and talk to the baby and take him in his arms.

Major G was our neighbor from the same unit as the L & M. He stayed in the apartment above ours. One day I saw Harpal Singh, his orderly, arrive on his cycle. As I wanted to send something over to M, Major G’s wife, I called out to him and asked,

Upar jaa rahe ho kya Harpal??” (Are you going upstairs)

I wanted to make sure he was going upstairs and not to his own room behind the block on the ground floor. Harpal Singh was a sardar with a permanently careworn face. He looked at me with his sad face, shook his head and replied,

Nahi Memsahib, nahi!” (No Ma’am)

Having said that and looking sadder than ever, he calmly walked up the stairs to the apartment above. I was flummoxed, to say the least. What did he mean saying nahi (no) and then promptly doing just the opposite?! I decided to investigate the matter further. I went to the lawn, looked up at the balcony and yelled,

“M!!!!!”

M came out. I outlined to her what had happened. She was puzzled too. She called Harpal Singh and asked him,

Tum ne Memsaab se kya kaha??” (What did you tell Ma’am?)

Memsaab ne poocha to maine kaha mai upar nahi jaa raha hoon.” (Ma’am asked if I was going up and I said no, I am not”

Tum upar hi to aaye ho!!” (You have come upstairs)

Nahi, Memsaab to upar jaane ki baat kar rahi thi” (No, Ma’am was talking about going ‘up’), he said.

What was that again?! And then it struck us both at the same time, making us double over with laughter. In army parlance, upar means exercise or forward area where the troops are stationed. When the unit is in the exercise area, the families generally send letters, and goodies like, cakes, sweets etc to the men. We are constantly on the look out for any officer or jawan making the trip. Harpal Singh all along had thought I had wanted to know if he was going upar (forward area), so that I could send something or other across to my husband.  Seeing us laughing helplessly, the truth (gradually) dawned on him and he grinned sheepishly saying,

Maine socha…” ( I thought..)

This story was told and retold a number of times among those in our unit and was a source of amusement to all.

All sardars are known to have green thumbs. Agriculture is a passion with them. We had an excellent vegetable garden behind our house in Ferozepur. Each successive helper worked hard in maintaining it. This was something the sahayaks loved doing without any prompting from anyone. They just approached me for the cash when it was time to buy seeds or manure. There were cabbages, cauliflowers, chickpeas, carrots, beetroots, lettuce, garlic, spinach, spring onions….in the winters, and lady’s fingers, brinjals, cucumber et al in the summers, all fruits, …..errrr  rather vegetables, of their voluntary labor.

The neighbors’ sahayaks always checked what the sardarjis were doing and always took the cue from them in sowing seeds at the right time. Once Jaswinder Singh who came as replacement for Baldev Singh, decided it was time to plant lassun (garlic). The neighborhood followed suit. Some of them were doubtful if the time was right; but yet others brushed it aside saying, if the sardar thought it was the right time, then, right time it was. Needless to say, following Jaswinder’s example resulted in garlic-crop-failure in the neighborhood that year.

(To be continued…… here)

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