December 4, 2020

Pachhtawa

(c) J. Singh, 2016

The old man slowly walked through the large double-doors leading into the Gurudwara. He was slightly hunched over and shuffled his feet with some effort. Once inside, he covered his head with a one of the saffron colored rumaals provided for visitors, and then headed straight for the small room to the side which housed the shoes of the sangat who were visiting. It was a very busy evening, and there was a constant stream of people arriving.

Without a word to anyone, he sat down in the middle of the floor, surrounded by shoes of various types and sizes, and quietly picked up the ones closest to him. He pulled a cloth out of his pocket, and began carefully cleaning and shining the shoes. When they were shining spotlessly, he touched them to his forehead in a gesture of respect and humility, and then placed them neatly in the cubby hole by the wall, adjusting the shoelaces neatly. Then he went to pick up the next pair.

Over the loudspeakers, keertan by the ragi jatha could be heard. He listened in silence as he cleaned and polished the shoes.

This had been his regular practice for several months now. It was the only place that he had found any peace of mind. He had heard about it from a distant friend, who had casually mentioned it during one of his brief visits. At the time, he had been distraught, his mind burdened with misery and pain. He had tried medications, psychoanalysis, all the various new-age remedies and mantras, and even consulted a psychic. Nothing had worked. Nothing could alleviate his pain or ease his suffering. He was in a constant state of despair. He could not sleep at night. He was losing the ability to concentrate. His mind was filled with remorse, pain and anguish. And nothing seemed to be able to alleviate it. So, in a final, desperate attempt, he had come to the Gurudwara.

Not knowing anything about the customs of the Sikhs, he had initially felt odd and out of place. He wanted to be anonymous, and hide away in the shadows. He was so full of regret. He was penitent, and he needed some absolution. But he didn't know what to do. That first day, as he had stood awkwardly just inside the main doors, confused and bewildered, a friendly member of the sangat asked him if he needed any help. Saying only that he wanted to serve, he asked what he could do. It turned out that there were many options available -- serving in the main hall, in the kitchens, outdoors by the gardens and parking lots, and cleaning and organizing the shoes. He chose the one where he would be the least noticed.

He wore shades, even indoors. He felt like he wanted to be invisible. He was an odd sight, to be sure, but in reality the visitors to the Gurudwara were more interested in making their way to the main hall to pay their respects to their Guru, and to sit and listen to the keertan. And so, the old man was hardly noticed. Which was just fine by him.

During moments like these, cleaning the shoes of young and old alike, and listening to the keertan emanating from the main hall, his mind was stilled, and he could find himself breathing easier again. He felt the solace and peace that he so desperately sought. The incessant cloud of agonizing pain was lifted, and he felt calm and serene. It was a soothing balm to his burning wounds. Sometimes he wept silently. Other times, he just sat, cleaning, polishing, cleaning, polishing. It became a meditative act for him, and it was therapeutic. These were his only serene moments.

The reminders of the past misdeeds which haunted him were ever-present in his life. He had to face them every day, to see the faces of the men he had been responsible for killing, in their widows and orphans who haunted his nightmares. Entire families ripped apart because of his actions, his choices, his decisions. Atrocities committed in his name. Unspeakable acts of violence. Thousands of lives destroyed, most of them innocent. He was responsible for all of it. And even though it had been decades since those reprehensible acts, the guilt of what he had done had not left him. There wasn't a court in the land that could convict him, but that only served to make his suffering worse. And as time wore on, it grew more and more painful. Until every day had become a wretched hell. Sometimes he would get so overwhelmed that he would gasp for breath, struggling to breathe. At times he prayed for death. But death wouldn't come at his bidding. It wouldn't come so easily.

The time he spent in the Gurudwara was the most peace he had ever known in his entire life. Yet, he felt like a fraud. He dared not enter the main hall, the Guru's Darbar, for he felt like a sinner in the eyes of God. He couldn't show his face there, so he sat hidden in the shoe room, cleaning the sangats shoes and secretly begging for forgiveness for his misdeeds.

Two hours had passed. Evening was setting in. He sighed, and slowly, painfully, stood up. Leaned on the wall for support while he caught his breath and gained his composure. Then, he shuffled towards the main door, removed the saffron rumaal, folded it tenderly and returned it with both hands, and slowly exited the double doors. His moment of peace and solitude was over, and now it was time to return to the world with all its cares and concerns, its fears and anguish.

He sighed when he stepped out into the street. Removing his shades, he walked one block. Two men in black suits followed him close behind. He reached his vehicle. The driver sprang to attention and held the door open for him. The men in suits stood inches away, scanning the area for any threats.

"Welcome back, Your Majesty," the driver said, with a slight bow. "There is a call from the Prince, the phone is on hold. There is also a message from the Foreign Ministry."

The King nodded in acknowledgment, and stepped inside his car.

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