December 6, 2020


(c) J. Singh, 2016

In the early, predawn hours of the morning, Priya sat alone on the edge of the bridge. The cold metal of the thick beam upon which she was seated numbed her thighs. Below, in the darkness, she could hear the rush of the icy river water. Above her the black skies were showing the first wisps of light. The bridge had been devoid of traffic for the past several hours, but now the earliest morning commuters were beginning to drive past.

Nobody noticed her sitting on the lowest metal beam on the side of the bridge. She had wandered onto the bridge after hours of meandering aimlessly through the downtown streets. She had been thinking, a lot. Her mind was torn apart by conflict and wracked with pain and despair. It had been so overwhelming, and she didn’t feel like she could cope any more. When she had reached the bridge, it seemed like she had finally arrived at her destination and had found a solution to end her pain.

But it had been almost two hours now, and she still sat motionless, her legs dangling over the edge. The sound of the icy cold water rushing below was strangely comforting. It didn’t care about the world, thought Priya, it would just keep doing what it was doing, regardless of what happened or didn’t happen. It was free.

Another car drove past. Traffic was starting to pick up. Soon there would be crowds, even pedestrians crossing the bridge. Priya sighed. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to get up and return to her life, and all the pain in it. But she couldn’t quite get herself to make the leap and push off the edge. Right now, where she was, in between, seemed to give her respite. A break from everything. Some breathing room. So she stayed where she was. But she knew she couldn’t stay here forever, and soon she would have to choose. Just thinking about it started to build up the anxiety in her. Again, she seemed to be getting into the same situation as the rest of her life. She blocked the thoughts and turned her attention back to the water below. It was impervious to her pain, dispassionate. It seemed like her only friend.

She began to wonder how long it took a person to drown. Would she suffer a lot? Perhaps the fall itself would kill her, since it was quite a long way down to the water. She didn’t particularly relish the idea of swallowing so much ice cold water that she couldn’t breathe anymore. She preferred a quick death. Quick and painless. But she really had no idea what to expect when drowning.

Her phone began to ring with a sudden urgency. She pulled it out of her jacket pocket and stared at the screen. For a moment, she felt so irritated that she tried to push herself off the beam. But something held her back. Instead, she tossed the phone away, and watched the glow of the small screen as the phone fell in a long arc down into the water. A small splash, and then it was swallowed up by the darkness. Silence returned, and with it the calm of her own thoughts.

And then, suddenly and completely unexpectedly, a voice called out to her. Someone had noticed her. She turned to look over her shoulder and saw a man leaning over the railing a few feet above.

“Hey,” he was waving, “what are you doing down there?”

She sighed. Then shook her head. She waved him away.

But he didn’t go. Instead, he threw one leg over the railing and carefully climbed down, all the way to where she was sitting. And then he positioned himself carefully next to her.

“Wow, this is cold!” he said cheerfully, holding on to the metal beam they were sitting on.

She stared at him incredulously.

“Why did you just come down from all the way up there?” she asked, unable to help herself.

“Why did you?” he shrugged.

She took a good look at him. He must have been at least ten years younger than her. He looked like he was in his twenties. He was wearing jeans and a sweater over his collared shirt, and had a light blue turban on. His beard was neatly groomed, not a single hair out of place. He was handsome, she thought, and looked like he belonged in a catalog or magazine.

“Are you a Sikh?” she asked.

“Yes I am,” he beamed a big smile at her, white teeth and all.

“You like it when people recognize you,” she observed.

“Of course I do! It’s so difficult as it is, having to explain and teach every person I meet, that it’s such a welcome relief when someone knows who I am. But you’re desi, I expect that you’d know.”

Priya smirked. “I was born and raised in the US,” she said.

“Still desi,” he chided playfully.

She laughed. He was funny.

“What’s your name?” he asked, “I’m Jasmeet. If you like, you can call me Jaz like my American friends do.”

“I’m Priya,” she held out her hand and he shook it. The absurdity of the situation struck her. Two strangers sitting on a bridge in the dark, and still observing polite social norms.

“Are you in school?” she asked, curious.

“Oh, yea,” he answered, nodding, “Engineering school. Studying computer and electronic engineering. I’ll be graduating in a few months. Pretty excited about it. You in school too?”

“Come on,” Priya smiled, feeling flattered. “You really think I’m still in school?”

“I dunno, you could be. I’m not gonna assume anything.”

He seemed charming, earnest. He was so open, so unfettered by anything. She also knew that he cared. He somehow knew why she was sitting here at this strange hour. He had come to help.

“Listen, Jasmee— Jaz, look, you must be getting late for your classes. Why don’t you go?”

“Sure, are you coming up?”

Priya shook her head. “No, I’m going to sit here. You go on.”

Jaz looked up at the sky. It was starting to change color as the dawn approached. There was more light across the entire horizon now. Soon, day would break and the night would be over.

“It’s time,” he said quietly, almost absent-mindedly.

“Time for what?” asked Priya.

“Oh, um, it’s just that I say my prayers at this time. It’s Amrit Vela, the early morning hours just before dawn. You don’t mind if I say them here do you?”

“No, sure, go ahead.” Priya had never heard the Sikh prayers, and she was curious to see how they were performed. Despite what she had told him, she actually felt grateful to have some company. She was tired of being alone with just her thoughts.

Jaz folded his hands together and bowed his head slightly. He closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened them again. He seemed to have a faraway look in his eyes, as if he was reliving some distant memory. He began his prayer in a low monotone. It was a constant stream of words, some of which Priya could recognize and even understand. She listened carefully as he intoned the words with seemingly perfect precision, rhythm and rhyme. She watching his focused, serious countenance. He seemed so much more mature when she looked at him now,
almost like a wise old sage.

As he recited his prayers, slowly the day dawned around them. It was getting brighter and brighter. Priya could now see the waves under the bridge, the deep, dark menacing water. It seemed more powerful and threatening in the light of day than it did when concealed in darkness. A chilly gust of wind blew against them and made her shiver. She began to feel a little unsettled and vulnerable in her precarious position.

Jaz was finishing his prayers. His face seemed serene, peaceful. When he completed them, he turned to her, smiled warmly and said, “Okay! All done.”

“Do you pray every day?” she asked.

He nodded. “Yes, every day. Morning, evening and night.”

“Really? That’s a lot!” she said.

“Yea, it’s like taking a vitamin, you know. We get run down by everything that goes on in life every day, so we need something to sustain us and hold us up. For me, the prayer does that. To be honest with you, some days it feels like that’s the only thing keeping me going.”

Priya thought about her own life. She hadn’t paid much attention to spiritual matters. When she was a girl, growing up in Chicago, her mother would take her to the temple every week, but after she started college, all that was forgotten and lost. She didn’t know any prayers, or even where the temple was in this city.

“Can you tell me something?” Priya asked, hesitating a bit.

“Sure, ask away.”

“There was something, a part of the prayers you were reciting, can you tell me more about it?”

“As much as I understand, yes. Which part?”

“It was that phrase, jor na jeevan, maran na jor,” she said, recalling the words. They had stuck in her memory. “What does it mean?”

“Guru Sahib is advising us that we have no power to live, and no power to die. Not by ourselves. In fact, when we consider it, we don’t really have any power to speak, or even keep silent either. We don’t have any power to beg, or power to give. We don’t have any power to rule, or any power to acquire wealth or occult mental powers. No power to gain intuitive understanding, spiritual wisdom or meditation. No power to find a way to escape from this world. All the power is in fact in the hands of the Creator, Vaheguroo. He is the one who watches over all.”

Priya fell silent, absorbing the words. Deep inside her, something long dormant began to stir. She looked at Jaz with a newfound respect.

“Can you tell me more about your Guru?” she asked suddenly, surprised at her own request, “the one who wrote that prayer?”

Jaz nodded. “Yes, I surely can.”

“Yes, please tell me. I want to know.”

That day dawned, and with it a newfound spiritual awakening, born out of crisis but ending with awareness and a reverence for life. Hours later, when the sun had reached it’s zenith in the sky, Priya and Jaz sat in a coffee shop, talking and sipping hot chocolate and a chai latte.

There would be no dramatic suicide story on the evening news that day. The public would never know of Priya’s experience and how close she came to leaping off that cold metal beam.

Priya saw not only the sunrise that day, but also the beautiful sunset, and many many more sunrises and sunsets that followed. She lived a new life from that day onward, one in which she had shed the pain that had plagued her in the past so much. She felt like a lotus flower, floating on top of the pond but untouched by any of the dirt. She had finally found the peace she had so desperately sought.