December 6, 2020

Sangat

(c) J. Singh, 2017

Her name was Seo. She was a singer. Her voice was captivating, smooth as silk and laden with emotion. Everyone who heard her sing was enchanted. She seemed to have an amazing natural talent and skill. Whatever she chose to sing, she was able to perform with remarkable depth and feeling. Her audience was always mesmerized by her performances. There didn't seem to be any piece of work that was too difficult for her, she easily delivered world-class renditions of even the most intricate and elaborate compositions. She was one of those musicians that would be remembered in history as truly gifted.

And yet, even having accomplished a lifetime of achievements by her teenage years, and having broken a multitude of world records and shattering preconceived notions of what was possible musically, she was miserable. She was plagued by a constant anxiety — not of her musical talent, but rather of the way her personal life was unfolding. Having been orphaned at an early age, she had spent years shuttling back and forth in various foster homes, suffering abuse and negligence. Finally being placed with a foster family, she thought she might be able to gain a measure of stability. At that time, one of the teachers in her school had heard her sing, and had encouraged her to enroll in additional music classes. Her foster parents hired tutors and coaches to continue her training in music and singing, and every single one of them taught her everything they knew and referred her to advanced classes. The days were long and difficult. She would complain about not being able to play with her friends, but practice always seemed to be more important. She missed out on birthday parties, play dates, summer camping, and all sorts of childhood activities. Now, almost in her thirties, she looked back on that lost childhood with bitter regret. Her foster parents had been so blinded by the constant barrage of advice from music teachers and agents and producers that they completely abdicated their responsibility to look out for her best interests. And when she was nine years old, that was to just be allowed to be a kid and play.

Her meteoric rise to fame brought much fortune to her and her foster family. She bought them their dream house and then maintained as little contact as possible with them. She had a ready excuse that her work schedule was too hectic. And thus, she barely visited — once a year, and that too, only for two days — and the rest of the time, she would just send text messages or communicate via voice mail. She abhorred talking to her foster parents on the phone. Every time she heard their voices, she was reminded of everything she gave up, the costly price she paid, just so that her "talent could be honed", as her foster mother would always say.

She wasn't fulfilled in her personal relationships either. She had a long string of breakups behind her, almost all of them initiated by her. Men always fawned over her. They fell over themselves trying to impress her. They capitulated, did whatever they thought would please her, and always deferred to her wishes. She felt that nobody really understood her. They were always just in awe of her greatness. It seemed that her spectacular talent overshadowed everything else in her life, ruining any chance of happiness. Some days she wished that she never had this great ability to sing, as it only seemed to bring her misery.

And then, something changed. It was during one of her performances in the summer on her thirtieth birthday that it happened. After the show was over, she was backstage signing autographs and taking pictures with adoring fans. It was the standard routine, she had done it countless times before and knew the drill well. Sign some photos, posters, and books with her picture on the front, say some encouraging words to the younger fans, and give her best pearly white smile while posing for photos. The media loved it, and it drove the fans wild with delight. Her career was ever on the upswing. She was affectionately known as "the nicest celebrity" because of her warm demeanor and gentle manners.

Today was going to be different, though. From the throng of fans, she was approached by a lady wearing an Indian Punjabi suit. She had never seen one before and at first wasn't sure which part of the world the lady was from. Her head was covered with a chunni which she had casually draped over her shoulders. The lady introduced herself as Preetam Kaur.

"I'm on the board for the St. Mary's Hospital," she said,  "I think you sang at an event there a few months ago, a fundraiser for the new wing of the children's hospital."

"Yes, I remember," Seo nodded, smiling genuinely, "That was a wonderful experience."

"Yes, we raised more than enough to cover the costs for the construction, thanks to you. I don't think most of the people there would have even shown up if not for you."

"I'm glad I could help."

"And your performance was amazing. Well, it's always amazing."

"Thank you."

It must have been something in the way that Seo had spoken, or the look in her eyes. Preetam noticed it, and her brow furrowed. She leaned forward and touched her arm.

"Are you alright?" she asked with concern.

Embarrassed, Seo tried to feign ignorance.

"What do you mean?" she asked, trying to sound as casual and nonchalant as possible. But this only made her apparent distress more evident to Preetam.

"If there's anything bothering you, I am here to talk," Preetam said warmly. "I'm a doctor."

There was something in her demeanor that made Seo feel calm and relaxed in her presence. And, she had felt so alone for so long that she really needed to talk with someone, she just couldn't hold it all in anymore. So, she gave the slightest of nods. Preetam squeezed her arm to reassure her.

"When you're done with the photo shoot and you can talk privately. I'll wait," Preetam stepped into the background while Seo faced the latest deluge of adoring fans brandishing posters and books waiting to be autographed.

Seo and Preetam went for a walk in the large rose garden. Seo explained her life experiences, and how miserable she really was in spite of all the material success she was enjoying. Preetam listened thoughtfully. And then, she asked a question.

"How do you feel when you're singing?"

"I feel great, euphoric. Like I'm in a different world, I forget all my problems."

"If everything else in your life changed, would you still want to sing?"

"Oh, absolutely, yes."

Preetam stopped and looked at Seo.

"I have a suggestion," she said,  "It's a bit unorthodox, but if you trust me, you can give it a shot, at least."

"Sure, I could try," Seo was curious.

"Would you come and sing at the Gurudwara? I know you are very talented, and the language will not be an issue for you. And we have other musicians who can help."

"Sure, I can do that. But, I don't understand how that will help me," Seo was confused.

Preetam gave her a knowing smile. "Trust me," she said.

And so on the following Sunday, Seo found herself in the Gurudwara, seated on the stage with the other musicians. Preetam was sitting in the front row, smiling as Seo prepared to sing.

"Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa," Seo said in her melodious voice, "Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!"

She closed her eyes and took a breath. There was silence all around her. She had practiced with the musicians before and knew the words, even though she didn't quite understand what they meant. She had read the English translation, but what mattered more to her was the energetic resonance of the words. As a musician, she could feel what she was singing.

She opened her mouth and the words flowed out. Accompanying her, the sounds from the harmonium and tabla began in musical harmony. The sounds enveloped them and flowed outward in waves, washing over the assembled sangat. Seo felt an energy she had never experienced before. It was welling up from inside her. She surrendered to it, and allowed herself to open and let it flow. She had felt this way before when singing, but this was entirely different, completely overwhelming. It was like the floodgates had been opened, and an infinite flow of energy was now flowing through her. She was completely helpless, she felt like it was lifting her up, elevating her consciousness. She could feel the compelling energetic vibrations in the higher frequencies. It was electrifying. She kept her eyes closed as she delivered her performance, through the tears streaming silently down her face, through all the painful emotions of her past that came up and were smashed to smithereens by this unstoppable force that was now flowing through her, through all the guilt, shame, fear, depression, misery, hopelessness, and despair. Through it all, she sang these words which seemed to be producing this effect in her. She was not aware of her surroundings, she was lost in the shabad, it's energetic resonance having captivated her and transported her to another realm.

She didn't realize that she had reached the end of the shabad. As if from a distant dream, she heard a chorus of "Bole So Nihaal, Sat Sri Akal!" from the assembled sangat. She opened her eyes and remembered where she was. For a brief moment, she almost panicked. She hadn't paid attention to her performance. She hoped that she hadn't made mistakes. Immediately, she looked to Preetam, whose eyes met hers with a look of deep appreciation and joy. Preetam was smiling and crying. Seo breathed a sigh of relief. She looked around and the musicians surrounding her were all smiles.

Later, almost every single member of the sangat came to speak with her individually. And not because of her celebrity status — a lot of them didn't even know who she was. But they all congratulated her on singing the shabad with such love and emotion. They welcomed her and invited her to visit again, each one stressing that she was most welcome here. She felt overwhelmed by their kind words.

"I think my life changed that day," Seo was explaining to the reporter who was chronicling her life story and her career in music, "I found something that I didn't even know I was searching for. It was fulfillment, acceptance, and such a deep, profound love. I can honestly say that it was the most meaningful work I have ever performed."

"Yes," the reporter nodded, "It was indeed very brave of you to talk publicly about your personal struggles and shoe your vulnerability, especially in your personal relationships."

"I think, perhaps, it was important to be honest, so that everyone, and especially my fans who are teenage girls, understand that real life can be difficult, and you can still live a fulfilled, happy life. It doesn't have to end up in drugs or anorexia or cutting, or any of those kinds of damaging, negative things."

"It's a very powerful message, and you have been a very positive influence for a lot of high school girls. And many others."

"I'm glad for that."

"How has your life been since that day? What has changed?  How are you now?"

Seo smiled warmly at the reporter as she answered, "I'm happy."

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